Last month’s byelection in Myanmar with an overwhelming victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) opens up a number of opportunities and challenges for India. Since the early 1990s, India’s relationship with Myanmar had been growing. Along with a handful of other Southeast Asian nations, New Delhi had worked to present itself to the junta as another option to China. In the two decades hence, India’s engagement with the military brass grew substantially. New Delhi could even take some credit for its use of ‘quiet diplomacy’ in convincing the Tatmadaw to relax its hold, restore ‘democracy’ and reach out to the outside world. But the changing scenario in Naypyidaw threatens to throw a spanner into the calculus of Indian policy planners.
There is no doubt that at the political level, India’s engagement with the regime in Myanmar has grown stronger of late. There have been several high-level visits to India, including more than one, by Senior General Than Shwe. Even the current President, Thein Sein, a former general turned reformer, journeyed to India soon after being elected and has been a great votary for stronger ties with New Delhi. But has India really been able to take advantage of the opportunities?
Indian diplomats admit it would not be possible for India, or any other country, to replace China’s clout in Myanmar “brick-by-brick”. Having said that, though, many in South Block also acknowledge that India could have done much more than what it has, especially in converting the political goodwill to increase its economic presence in the country.
One reason for this is the languid pace of the Indian bureaucracy. Despite promises at the political level on extending support to building Myanmar’s infrastructure, India’s track record has been disappointing. Projects like the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road construction, upgradation of the Rhi-Tiddim road and the Kaladan multi-modal transport, all announced during the NDA government, are yet to be finished. This has led many in Myanmar to be sceptical about India’s intentions as also its ability to deliver on its promises.
With the democratic process gathering momentum in Myanmar and the possibility of increased foreign engagement, particularly with the west, India may have some serious course correction to do—at both the political and economic levels. Trends suggest that in the days to come, Suu Kyi and her supporters will take up a bigger role in Myanmar. In the new political scenario, India will have to engage not only with the generals—who no doubt still control the levers of power—but also with the NLD. But the bigger challenge will come for corporate India, reluctant thus far to move into Myanmar in a significant manner. As more and more western nations engage with Myanmar, it will also open the door for the international biggies to invest and strengthen their presence in the country. Indian companies may then soon realise that despite the geographical advantage, it has been reduced to become just another player in the crowded market of Myanmar.
Pranay Sharma is foreign editor, Outlook
E-mail your columnist: pranayda AT gmail.com