India and Burma: Working on their relationship
By The Irrawaddy
MARCH, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.3
Soe Myint examines the evolution of Indo-Burmese relations since the pro-democracy uprisings of 1988, and considers what the push for a "working relationship" may mean for activists in exile.
Indian Foreign Secretary Mr K. Raghunath’s recent visit to Burma is further evidence that India and Burma are re-entering a "working relationship". The visit was the first by an Indian Foreign Secretary since Mr J.N. Dixit visited Rangoon six years ago. The two sides reportedly agreed to enhance state-to-state cooperation and contacts in various fields including trade and security along the two country’s border.
India and Burma have traditionally had a very close relationship due to their historical, cultural and administrative ties. Buddhism came from India to Burma and established abiding cultural ties between the people of the two countries. During the freedom struggle against colonial rule, the national leaders of the two countries developed close political links which survived for years after independence. Nehru and U Nu shared a common world view and India helped in many ways when the newly independent Burma was in crisis. India extended military assistance to U Nu, in fact saving his "Rangoon Government" from falling to insurgents. Even after General Ne Win seized power in 1962, the relationship between the two countries remained positive.
However, the pro-democracy uprising in 1988 and the junta’s subsequent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators marked a turning point in Indo-Burma relations. India was the only neighboring country to clearly and openly stand on the side of democratic forces in Burma at that time. The Prime Minister at the time, Mr Rajiv Gandhi, clearly stated in 1988 that India must strengthen the aspirations of the people of Burma for democracy. When student activists fled to India for shelter after the military takeover in September 1988, India willingly accepted them. The then External Affairs Minister (later Prime Minister) Mr Narasimha Rao informed a parliamentary panel that strict orders had been given not to turn back any genuine Burmese refugees seeking shelter in India.
Naturally, India’s support of the pro-democracy movement in Burma caused strains in official ties between the two countries. In 1992, however, both countries decided to mend some fences in their relationship. Former Indian Foreign Secretary Mr J.N. Dixit and U Aye, a senior official of the Burmese Foreign Ministry, were the two pioneers in regularizing bilateral ties. U Aye’s visit to New Delhi in August 1992 was the first by a junta official since 1988. Mr J.N. Dixit paid an official visit to Burma in March 1993. The following year, Burma’s Deputy Foreign Minister U Nyunt Swe made a six-day official visit to India, during which he held a series of meetings with Indian officials and discussed wide-ranging issues to improve the bilateral relationship.
On January 21, 1994, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed to increase cooperation between the civilian border authorities of the two countries to prevent "illegal and insurgent activities". A further bilateral agreement was signed to regularize and promote border trade, which officially resumed on April 12, 1995.
Since that time, the two countries have maintained contact through formal and informal visits and exchanges of intelligence between border officials. India is currently building a highway to link its National Highway 39, which connects mainland India and its northeastern states, to the road network in Burma. The road is scheduled for completion in the year 2000. And both countries are working on plans to jointly explore nickel and coal deposits in Burma. India has reportedly become Burma’s largest export market, accounting for 23 per cent of its total export.
One may ask why India decided to normalize the relationship with Burma, a complete reversal of its long-standing commitment to democracy in that country. According to some observers of Indian foreign policy, three major factors contributed to India’s decision to pursue a "working relationship" with the Burmese junta: the presence of Indians in Burma; insurgency problems in northeastern India; and China’s growing influence in Burma.
It is estimated that there are presently about one million Indians living in Burma, out of a total population of 47 million. By 1972, some 200,000 people of Indian origin had been forced out of the country as a result of the economy’s nationalization by Ne Win’s "socialist" government. Their wholesale and retail businesses were taken away from them without compensation and they were given 175 kyat each to return to India. Many Indian businessmen still in Burma hope that better relations between the two countries will guarantee their economic security.
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