India had long historical relationship with Myanmar since antiquity and is rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties. Cultural exchanges included Buddhism and the Burmese script, which was based on the Indian Grantha script. As the land of Lord Buddha, India is a country of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar. In particular, Theravada Buddhism has tremendously influenced Burmese society and culture for millennia, with 90% continuing to follow the religion to this day.
The geographical proximity has also helped develop and sustain cordial relations and facilitated people-to-people contact. India and Myanmar share a long land border of over 1600 km and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. A large population of Indian origin (according to some estimates about 2.5 million) lives in Myanmar.
Myanmar (formerly Burma) was made a province of British India by British rulers and again separated in 1937. India established diplomatic relations after Myanmar's independence from Great Britain in 1948.
India and Myanmar signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1951. For many years, Indo-Burmese relations were strong. India provided considerable support when Myanmar struggled with regional insurgencies. The overthrow of the democratic government by the Military of Myanmar led to strains in ties. Along with much of the world, India condemned the suppression of democracy. Myanmar ordered the expulsion of the Burmese Indian community, increasing its own isolation from the world.
A major breakthrough occurred in 1987 when the then-Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Myanmar, but relations worsened after the military junta's uncouth reaction towards pro-democracy movements in 1988, which resulted in an influx of Burmese refugees into India.
However, since 1993 the successive Indian governments changed course as part of a wider foreign policy of increasing India's participation and influence in Southeast Asia and also in light of the growing influence of the People's Republic of China.
President U Thein Sein paid a State visit to India in October 2011. The visit represented the first State visit from Myanmar to India following the swearing in of a new Government in Myanmar in March 2011.
Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Myanmar in 2012 – the first official visit by an Indian prime minister since 1987. Singh subsequently visited Myanmar in 2014, but that was in connection with the BIMSTEC Summit.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar in 2014 to attend the East Asian Summit, and a bilateral visit is also likely soon.
Importance of Myanmar for India
Myanmar is India’s gateway to SE Asia. It is the only ASEAN country with which India shares a land border.
India’s Look East Policy – recently redubbed “Act East” by the current government – will be a non-starter without greater connectivity and robust relations with Myanmar. Similarly other initiatives and agreements like BCIM and BIMSTEC need involvement of Myanmar as a critical pivot.
Myanmar is very important for stability in the North-East region of India.
It also has vast reserves of natural resources, including oil and gas, which could serve crucial needs of India’s energy sector.
• At the institutional level, an Agreement for setting up of a Joint Task Force between UMFCCI (Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry) and CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) was signed in 2004.
• India has been making steady inroads into Myanmar over the past decade. Bilateral trade, just over $1 billion in 2009, had risen to nearly $2 billion in 2013-2014. Estimates suggest that this figure may rise to $3 billion by 2015 and both sides are aiming to achieve an ambitious $10 billion by 2020.
• India’s main exports to Myanmar are primary & semi-finished steel and pharmaceuticals
• Myanmar is also a beneficiary country under India’s Duty Free Tariff preference scheme for LDCs
• Bilateral Investment Promotion Agreement (BIPA) and Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) were also signed in 2008
India and Myanmar signed a border trade agreement in 1994 and have two operational border trade points: Moreh-Tamu and Zowkhatar–Rhi on the 1643 km long border.
A third border trade point is proposed to be opened at Avakhung-Pansat/Somra.
The border trade between India and Myanmar had a quantum jump during the year 2012-13 touching US$ 36.2 million from US$ 15.4 million.
India’s presence in Myanmar
A number of Indian companies have also set up operations in Myanmar, including oil and gas players like the ONGC Videsh and GAIL. Banks such as the State Bank of India, Bank of India, and the Exim Bank of India have opened representative offices.
India has not confined its relations to trade. New Delhi is assisting Myanmar in areas such as information technology, agriculture, and infrastructure. Recently, India offered to assist Myanmar in bolstering its trade training institutes, and to train Myanmar trade officials on WTO-related issues.
Major Indian Projects in Myanmar
Government of India is actively involved in important connectivity projects like Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, building/upgrading 71 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road and construction of Kalewa-Yargyi section of the trilateral highway which envisages seamless connectivity between India, Myanmar and Thailand by 2016.
The Indian PSU Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd (TCIL) has completed a high speed data link project in 32 Myanmar cities.
Development cooperation is the key of the bilateral relationship and India has been providing both technical and financial assistance for projects in Myanmar for infrastructure and also in the areas of Human resource development and institutional capacity building. These include Centers-of-Excellence in Myanmar - the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology (MIIT) being set up at Mandalay; an Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education (ACARE), a Rice Bio Park at Yezin Agriculture University and many other training institutes.
Government of India is also closely working with Government of Myanmar to implement the MOU on Border Area Development where India has granted an assistance of USD 5 Million each year for next five years. Under this MOU 21 schools, 17 health centres and 8 bridges were constructed/built during the first year in Chin State and Naga Self-Administered Zone of Myanmar.
Current status and concerns
A number of agreements for enhancing bilateral cooperation have been signed between the two countries. Institutional mechanisms for facilitating regular dialogue on a range of issues of bilateral interest have also been established.
India provided assistance of US $1 million for humanitarian relief and rehabilitation in the areas affected by the severe earthquake in Shan State in March 2011. India also provided assistance of US$ 1.2 million to the communal riot affected people of Rakhine State.
India failed to sustain the quantum of the pro-democracy movement in past. This led to weak perception about India. Myanmar government has also been accused of ignoring in Myanmar. It has also done little to counter the insurgency rooted along the ndo-Myanmar border.
Increasing cross-border illegal flow of narcotics/heroin from Myanmar (part of Golden Triangle) into India has caused social problems in NE India.
Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) has won a landslide victory in Myanmar after general elections in November, 2015. It was the country's first national vote since a nominally civilian government was introduced in 2011, ending nearly 50 years of military rule and military backed government. India has always had a pro-democracy stance towards Myanmar.
China has been accused of exploiting Myanmar’s natural resources. This led to President Thein Sein suspending the Myitsone dam project. India’s engagement in security, infrastructure, energy and institution building could be used to replace China with India’s moderate policy. India and Japan seek ‘Soft power’ cooperation to provide development assistance to Myanmar.
Nay-pyi-daw is one of the ten fastest growing cities of the world. India’s integration with fastest growing economies of South East and East Asia will lead to an economic resurgence of India’s hitherto under-developed North East region.
The 5th India-Myanmar Joint Trade Committee (JTC) meeting was held in Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar in February, 2015.
During the meeting, the two nations committed towards strengthening mutually beneficial relationship especially in field of promoting two-ways investment, infrastructure development particularly to promote border trade, connectivity, agriculture, energy, skill and entrepreneurial development, pharmaceutical and people-to-people contacts.