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India Walks a Burmese Tightrope

India has big plans for Burma. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit there last week was the first of its kind in over 25 years. To mark the occasion, the PM came prepared with a dozen trade and transport agreements to replace the shoddy railways and stifling tariffs between the two countries.

The estranged nations are making up for more than just lost time. At the height of its xenophobia, Burma’s military junta expelled the Burmese Indian population en masse in 1962, all but severing the ties between the former cousins of British India. New Delhi’s inconsistent support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy forces throughout the 1990s did little for India’s standing among Burmese democrats who are now looking to reform their country.

India’s interest in rekindling the relationship is clear enough: As the only ASEAN country bordering India on land, Burma is the “tightrope” upon which India may walk into Southeast Asia in accordance with its invigorated “Look East” strategy. Intertwined with this broader aim is the chance to work with Burma on pacifying India’s northeast, which is plagued by insurgency.

The Hindu has an editorial on India’s hopes for fresh relations:

Prospects for stability in that region have increased with the Myanmar government’s decision seriously to pursue reconciliation with various armed ethnic rebel groups on its own side. The development of the border areas could help keep both sides stable and peaceful, give an economic leg-up to the Northeast, plus help connect India to the ASEAN countries.

Forced by sanctions to be China-centric, Myanmar is also eager to diversify its economic and political relations. It is natural for it to want to take advantage of what the Indian economy has to offer. The dozen pacts inked during Prime Minister Singh’s visit, including those to improve air and land connectivity between the two countries, and to increase trade, reflect this new urgency to improve bilateral relations, not just between the governments but also between the people of the two countries.

Meanwhile the Malaysian daily New Straits Times confirms the dual-emphasis on trade and security against insurgencies, as India joins the Burma “gold rush”:

Having been engaged, India enjoys some momentum. It hopes to join the gold rush caused by Myanmar’s transition to democracy. Flights to and from a dozen Indian cities, greater sea connectivity and much else is in the offing.

But the reason that compelled Delhi to deal with the generals persists. Myanmar has asked the militants from the Indian northeast to close shop and has, indeed, signed a pact with a Naga outfit.

With cooperative governments in Bangladesh and Myanmar, India, talking to some groups already, can hope to resolve this problem substantially, if not fully.

As Washington embarks on its pivot to Asia, American officials will promote cooperation —between India and South Asia, and between China and all its neighbors. That is what the pivot is all about: maintaining mutual security and promoting development and riches for all.


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  • J R Yankovic

    I can only hope the lack of comment on this, to my mind, extremely important post is a measure of commenters’ general agreement (or at least reluctance to mount serious dissent?), and not of their indifference.

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