When relatively smaller and poorer countries lie on the periphery of two influential neighbours, they may seek to draw the maximum mileage from both. This is normal. But when the two larger nations have a prickly relationship with each another, the tendency for their smaller neighbour can be to play one off against the other. This has frequently been seen in Nepal’s dealings with India and China. We hope it won’t turn out that way in the context of Myanmar. After the formation of the government of the National League of Democracy (NLD) led by the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, the first foreign visit of Myanmarese President Htin Kyaw was to India on Monday, in the course of which he was assured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that India would be with Myanmar “at every step”.
It is evident, nevertheless, that Ms Suu Kyi, who is nominally her country’s foreign minister but in reality the key figure around whom the government revolves, chose to visit China first, days before her President’s visit to India — and Beijing laid out the red carpet for her. Evidently, the India-educated pro-democracy leader of Myanmar whose tireless struggle helped free her country from decades of military dictatorship, has still not overcome her personal hesitation about India since this country, even while offering her moral support during her years of struggle, maintained official ties with the military junta. In this respect India also disregarded the counsel of the leading democracies, including the US.
But New Delhi had compelling reasons. It didn’t wish to see Myanmar being pushed wholly into the Chinese sphere of influence in the days of the junta. Beijing already had a leading presence in Myanmar. New Delhi also needed Myanmar’s help to block Naga and Manipuri insurgents from using its territory as a launch pad against India. But even as it avoided antagonising the Myanmar generals, India consistently advised them to pay heed to the voice of the democracy proponents and to treat Ms Suu Kyi with the utmost dignity. Indeed, this counsel was heeded. The NLD leadership could conceivably harm its own cause in the long term if it didn’t take this political aspect on board in setting the trajectory for its ties with India. Much background work, however, lies ahead for New Delhi and Naypyidaw in the post-junta setting.