Myanmar’s most powerful leader Aung San Suu Kyi might have chosen China as her first port of call after her party assumed office in March, but her recent four-day visit to India has been historic in the sense that the two neighbours seem to have laid the grounds for a development partnership in the days ahead, besides giving shape to a framework for managing security along their borders. India, as expected, rolled out the red carpet for
Ms Suu Kyi, who may be Myanmar’s foreign minister and state counsellor, but is actually the country’s iconic leader, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) had swept the national elections. No wonder, before the bilaterals in New Delhi, Ms Suu Kyi sat at the high table in Goa during the Brics-Bimstec Outreach Summit along with the heads of the Brics nations.
There were a lot of symbolisms attached to her visit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling India her “second home”, referring to her college days in New Delhi in the 1960s, when her mother was Myanmar’s ambassador to India. But if one is to talk of substance, the visit stands out with India firming up its commitment to help Myanmar in its democratisation process, aiding people-centric development projects, strengthening the rule of law and in reaching Naypyidaw’s goal of peace and reconciliation. In fact, Prime Minister Modi flagged New Delhi’s priority areas in Myanmar when he said India’s $1.75 billion development assistance for the country in such areas as capacity-building, connectivity, education, infrastructure and healthcare was “centred on people”. The PM said he and Ms Suu Kyi have agreed “to enhance our engagement in several areas including agriculture, power, and renewable energy”.
Ms Suu Kyi’s expression of concern at rising terrorism during the Brics-Bimstec Outreach Summit, her call to stand united against all forms of violent extremism and her “sympathy” with the people of India over the terror attack in Uri amounts to one more leader in our neighbourhood siding with New Delhi in the battle against terror. But what cannot be missed is Ms Suu Kyi’s apparent reservations against trespassing by our armed forces into another country. She had reasons to do some thinking aloud on this in interactions with the media during her visit as a few Indian government leaders had bragged about an Indian military strike against rebels of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) inside Myanmar last year. The Indian Army assault in question was in June 2015 when the troops pressed into Myanmar to target NSCN bases after the rebels ambushed and killed 18 soldiers in Manipur. The Indian Army has, of course, been consistent in maintaining that the strike took place “along the border”. Ms Suu Kyi’s predicament at certain Indian responses on the 2015 incident can well be appreciated as Myanmar’s Constitution clearly states that “no foreign troops shall be permitted to be deployed in the territory of the Union”.
It is in this backdrop that one must look at portions of the joint statement at the end of the two-hour-long talks between Mr Modi and Ms Suu Kyi where there is mention of both sides underlining their “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Significantly, “both sides expressed their mutual respect for the already demarcated boundary between the two countries”. In fact, there are no known instances of India and Myanmar talking about things like “sovereignty” or “territorial integrity” in the past. That the two sides had to put on record its “respect” for the “already demarcated boundary” is also significant. India shares a 1,640-km-long border with Myanmar that includes stretches which are virtually unpoliced on the other side. The moral of the story is that certain things like an Army assault in hot pursuit along heavily wooded international borders may take place, but there is no need to do chest-thumping over such actions.
Another positive, aside from development commitments, has been on security along the border. The joint statement said: “Both sides expressed the view that the long-standing commitment not to allow insurgent groups to use their soil for hostile activities against the other side is essential for the prosperity of the people residing along the border.” A similar pledge to jointly fight terror and trans-border insurgency was made in August during President U Htin Kyaw’s visit to India. A coordinated security strategy along the border is necessary as insurgents from Northeast India are known to have several major bases in Myanmarese territory, making the region an insurgency hotspot.
Symbolism and reiteration of commitments are fine, but if New Delhi has to consolidate its ties with Myanmar, a nation where its interests intersect with those of the Chinese, it has to be decisive and act with speed to translate promises to action. After all, Myanmar is actually the key to the success of India’s Act East Policy, being the bridgehead to Southeast Asia. Besides, a stable Myanmar is important to peace and security in the northeastern region. As
Ms Suu Kyi said, Myanmar is lagging behind in various sectors, but expressed confidence by adding: “We will be able to make up for lost time with the support and understanding of our friends. This is why the capacity-building programmes that India is envisaging for us will be of tremendous help.” For New Delhi, it is time to act. Simply looking on will not do!...