Aung San Suu Kyi made a triumphant return to India, the land of a chunk of her childhood and at one point an intellectual source for the Burmese nationalist movement that her father spearheaded. But her visit was also a subtle reminder of how far India’s influence in Myanmar has dwindled and how much work New Delhi will have to do to restore it to even a fraction of what it once was.
When Burma became independent, India’s influence was overwhelming. The British had opened the door to hundreds of thousands of Indian settlers in Burma. The Indian nationalist movement inspired young Burmese like Aung San Suu Kyi’s father. A branch of my own family settled there, exporting teak to Calcutta. As a youngster I can remember a grand-uncle who still spoke Burmese.
But they were also resented because of their association with British rule and their control of large sections of the economy.
The derogatory phrase for a Burmese foreigner is “Indian” – thus Aung San Suu Kyi, who married a white Briton, was denounced by some military officers as “that woman with her Indian husband.” So it was not a complete surprise that a xenophobic military regime drove out most of the Indian population, leaving behind a largely impoverished Indian diaspora of several hundred thousand.
This in effect marked the end of the colonial period of Indian influence in Myanmar. The Indian population was expunged. The economic relationship broken off. Both countries retired into a form of isolationism until the 1980s.
India aroused itself from its reverie when the military junta overturned Aung San Suu Kyi’s first election victory. Rajiv Gandhi was a fervent supporter of her democracy movement, reportedly even to the point of providing arms to some of the students who fled to India.
Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao reversed the policy for hard-nosed reasons: the Kashmir insurgency was peaking, forcing him to denude the Northeast of paramilitary units and to save Nagaland from being overrun India had to come to terms with the Myanmar military. The policy worked well, but Aung San Suu Kyi and her expectations regarding India had to be sacrificed.
I would argue that, for all the talk of the closeness of relations between the two countries that one hears in Delhi, India has the following problems with its present standing in Myanmar.
One, among the pro-democracy activists, there is a sense of betrayal when it comes to India. They can hardly be expected to be impressed with the realpolitik explanation – and it is not as if the Indian government has done much to explain this to the wider public.
Two, India declined to support Western sanctions but nonetheless trade and investment declined dramatically during the past few decades. A policy of de facto sanctions that one can now see in India’s economic ties with Iran. Forget about vying with China, India has about as much economic influence in Myanmar today as Singapore and Malaysia. It trails not only China but also Thailand. And watch the US and Japan ratchet up their presence in the coming years.
Three, India has a good relationship with the military. But it is not as close the one that the generals have with China. China provided weapons and much more investment. It is probably fair to say the military see New Delhi as more benign than Beijing and more trustworthy than Washington. However, that will count for only so much in the new Myanmar.
Fourth, India has little or no standing with the ethnic groups. India joined forces with Myanmar to beat the Nagas into submission. And many Chins and a few students have taken up residence in India. Otherwise, however, India did little to cultivate these exile groups. Like the Burmese pro-democracy activists, these groups look to the West as their international benefactors and guardians.
Finally, India has not burned its bridges with any group but it does not have any really Indophilic group in Yangon today. India is seen as benign, neighbourly and somewhat ineffectual. The last has been fed not merely by India’s past flip flops but also the terrible record India has when it comes to finishing the various dams, roads and ports it has promised to build in Myanmar. None, in fact, are completed and none is on schedule. “We have a credibility problem in Myanmar,” admit Indian diplomats who served there.
None of this is irreversible. However, there should be no euphoria about India’s standing in Myanmar based on the colonial or even ancient Buddhist past. More importantly, India needs to recognize that with China, the West and the Southeast Asian nations all jockeying for influence as Myanmar opens up, it should not expect to get a footprint by working on its own. If the purpose of this engagement is to limit Chinese influence, the India should look to signing up with other like-minded nations in such efforts. New Delhi has much to catch up with in Myanmar and it should accept whichever helping hand it can find.