India-Myanmar Ties: Of Shared History & Contemporary Conflicts

Since Independence, bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar have stood the test of time.

Updated
India
5 min read
Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road.
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Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Myanmar's capital Nay Pyi Taw on Tuesday for his first bilateral visit to the country, he took to Facebook to say that he was looking forward to meeting Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw and Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

During his three-day visit starting 5 September, Modi said that he would discuss security and counter-terrorism, trade and investment, and infrastructure and energy. In a Facebook post, the Prime Minister added that he “will look at strengthening the existing cooperation between the two countries.”

Interestingly, Myanmar (once known as Burma) was included as an Indian province by the British. However, in 1937, Burma was recognised as a separate country.

Since Independence, bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar have stood the test of time.

What Makes the Foundation of India-Myanmar Ties?

Myanmar is located south of the north-eastern states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. The two countries share a border that stretches over 1,600 km as well as a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal.

Indo-Burmese relations are also rooted in shared cultural and religious practices.

The Burmese script is influenced by India’s Grantha script, and it is said that 90 percent of the population follow Buddhism, which was founded in India.

Around 2.5 million people of Indian origin live in Myanmar, and India is reportedly the country for pilgrimage for Burmese citizens.

When Did the Ties See Fissures?

In March 1962, the Myanmar military staged a coup and overthrew the democratic government. As India condemned the coup, it led to strained ties between India and Myanmar. India also openly supported the pro-democracy movement in the country.

Myanmar, in retaliation to India’s condemnation, passed an order to expel the Burmese Indian community, leading to further isolation from the rest of the world.

During this period, only China supported Myanmar’s military government.

While India’s then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Myanmar in 1987 is said to have improved Indo-Burmese relations, it soon worsened with the Myanmar army cracking down on the pro-democracy movement in 1988. This resulted in an influx of refugees, who came to India fleeing the atrocities.


General Hlaing, the current Commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Army. 
General Hlaing, the current Commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Army. 
(Photo: Reuters)

Since 1993, Prime Ministers like PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee began to establish warmer relations between the two nations, as part of a wider foreign policy to increase India’s influence in the South East Asia region.

Who Are the Rohingyas?

The Rohingyas are a community of ethnic Muslims in Myanmar, which characterises itself as a Buddhist majority country. There are 1 million of them in a country of 50 million.

Myanmar's 1982 Citizenship Law does not recognise the community as an official ethnic group, and thus they are denied citizenship. This leaves them stateless as they hail form Rakhie, a northwest state in the country.

Ethnic Rohingya groups protesting against violence meted out on them.
Ethnic Rohingya groups protesting against violence meted out on them.
(Photo: AP)
The outbreak of violence against Rohingyas, especially from June to October 2012, led to hundreds of cases of injury, death, destruction of property, and displacement of 1,40,000 people. Around 1,20,000 stay in internally-displaced camps in central Rakhine.

An estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims live in India as illegal immigrants. And the Home Ministry, in the Parliament, said that the government has directed officials to identify and deport Rohingya Muslims.

How Are the Economic Ties Between Two Countries?

India is reportedly Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner, preceded by Thailand, China, and Singapore. The two countries began their formal trade relations in 1970 by signing a trade agreement.

Another bilateral trade agreement signed in 1994 allowed border trade to be carried between the two countries at a designated point in Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland.

In 2001, the two countries inaugurated 250 Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road, built predominantly by the India’s Border Roads Organisation to provide a strategic transport route connecting South Asia to north-east India.

According to the Ministry of External Affairs, bilateral trade between both the countries has been steadily increasing, with exports standing at $773 million for the 2014-15 fiscal. While agriculture is the predominant sector of trade between the two countries, they have also extended cooperation in fields like telecommunications and information technology.

In 2013, India loaned $500 million to Myanmar.

What Issues Plague Indo-Burmese Relationship Now?

Myanmar recently announced that it would not be setting up a trading zone at the Indian border due to a lack of basic infrastructure as well as low volume of trade, reported the Diplomat.

Three weeks after Myanmar’s announcement, India imposed restrictions on importing dal from the country. This move directly affected Myanmar as 4 percent of its exports – around $500 million – which were to be imported was now stuck in the warehouse.

The restriction on agricultural imports, along with the Rohingya issue, are the key issues both the countries face.

Why Is Military Cooperation Between Two Countries Important?

India and Myanmar have a long history of military cooperation. Myanmar’s location makes it strategically important for India to help protect the country from northeast insurgents. For decades, India has been working towards securing Myanmar’s cooperation for the same.

In the year 1995, in an operation titled Operation Golden Bird, India staged a limited cross-border operation with the Myanmar Army. According to Indian Express, 38 insurgents were killed and 118 of them arrested. However, Myanmar later withdrew cooperation after India awarded a medal to Suu Kyi, who heralded the pro-democracy movement.


The army troops involved in the Myanmar operation. 
The army troops involved in the Myanmar operation. 
(Photo: Anjana Dutta)

India, in retaliation to insurgent group Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland’s ambush of an Indian Army convoy, launched a surgical strike against terrorist camps along the Indo-Myanmar international border, resulting in 158 causalities. The operation was launched after the Indian government informed the Myanmar government and received their assent.

Delhi-Naypyidaw have strengthened military cooperation with over 200 officers from Myanmar being trained in various fields, including medicine, air and navy forces, in India this year. Myanmar’s defence equipment is often provided by India, which includes a wide range of aircraft and naval-gun boats.

(With inputs from Diplomat, Reuters, Indian Express)

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