Myanmar: A new theatre of rivalry in South Asia
With the United States shifting the focus of its foreign policy to the Asia Pacific region, Myanmar has gained a tremendous strategic importance. This became clear when President Barack Obama had made Myanmar his first port of call after he assumed office in his second term. This is also the reason why Chinese President Xi Jinping had welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing defying all diplomatic protocols.
And, in spite of the latest snub India received from Naypyidaw, when National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was told in no uncertain terms last month that there could be no joint military operation against insurgents from the northeast, there are grounds of hope for New Delhi as relations between China and Myanmar have deteriorated to a great extent in recent times.
The immediate reason is the ongoing fight between the Myanmar army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an insurgent body of ethnic Chinese in the Kokang Special Region which borders China. Huge numbers of ethnic Chinese have fled to China’s Yunnan province, where a few civilians also died of Myanmar army attacks.
Myanmarese President Thein Sein has been showing signs of a tilt towards the US and Western Europe in spite of the fact that China was Myanmar’s principal prop during the time of his predecessor Than Shwe. He has suspended the construction of the Myitsone hydropower dam in which China has invested a huge amount. He has also temporarily shut down the Letpadaung copper mine project, a joint venture of Myanmar and China, in the wake of vociferous protests from common people.
Why has Thein Sein taken such steps? It is because the Myanmar junta is livid against China for its alleged help to various ethnic minority insurgent armies, particularly the United WA State Army, operating in the country’s northern part.
Where does India stand in this jigsaw puzzle? Well, the answer will not be any music to the ears of Indian policymakers. In spite of the present ebb in Sino-Myanmar relations, China has always acted in Myanmar while India has only deliberated and dithered.
The Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project, the showpiece of Indian initiative in Myanmar, which seeks to connect Indian ports on the country’s eastern seaboard with the Sittwe port of Myanmar along with river and road connections with Mizoram, has been running behind schedule. Similarly, final upgradation of the detailed project report of the 2,000 MW Tamanthi hydropower project took so long that the Myanmar government ultimately scrapped it.
So far as important road projects are concerned, the Rhi-Tiddim, Rhi-Falam and the Indian segment of the Moreh (India) to Mae Sot (Thailand) trilateral highway project are still being “refined”, which actually means that progress is far from satisfactory.
In the strategically important Stillwell Road, a Chinese company has bagged the contract for constructing the stretch running from Myitkyina to the Pangsau Pass in Myanmar. This portion is very close to Arunachal Pradesh. Why didn’t Indian companies make aggressive efforts to bag the contract?
New Delhi needs strategic influence in Myanmar for keeping the northeastern states in order. The insurgent groups operating in these states get arms supplies from Myanmar’s ethnic minorities like the Kachins, the Karens, the WA and the like. These groups also provide corridors for Indian insurgent bands to Yunnan in China. The two factions of the NSCN are also in this arms smuggling business.
At the moment, Suu Kyi holds many important cards. From an idealist who fought military dictatorship for decades, she has been gradually metamorphosing into a politician. She chose not to utter a word over the pathetic plight of the Rohingiyas in spite of proddings from the Dalai Lama as her NLD would have to face the Buddhist majority in the coming election. Neither she nor the military junta is perhaps prepared to give India any strategic depth lest it should displease China, which has already committed $20 billion investment in Myanmar.
One more interesting bit of information. Under intense pressure from China, the Myanmar military junta had constituted a parliamentary commission to go into the pros and cons of the Letpadaung copper mine project. Stipulating certain conditions, the Commission gave the project a go-ahead. But it paid no heed to the massive popular demand to close it down on the expressed ground that this may disturb the equation with China.
The commission was led by Suu Kyi.