India-Myanmar Relations – From past to present scenario


With the conquest of Assam in 1821, the Burmese came close to British Indian territories. The Assamese nobilities took refuge in British territories and sought their help to expel the Burmese from Assam. But the Burmese ambition to capture more English territories led to the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824. The Burmese were defeated and the Treaty of Yandaboo was signed in 1826 by which Assam and Manipur were annexed to the British Empire together with Arakan and Tannesserim of Burma. The second Anglo-Burmese war was fought in 1852 because of strained Anglo-Burmese relations when the new Burmese king refused to comply with the Treaty of Yandaboo, which resulted in the annexation of Lower Burma by the British. But the third Anglo-Burma war in 1885 ended with the annexation of Upper Burma. Burma became a province of British India.

In 1937, Burma, a pre dominantly Buddhist nation, was separated from British India. India gained independence in 1947 and Burma in 1948. India and Burma (now known as Myanmar) share a1643 Km long international border along India’s Northeast. Both countries practiced a common British parliamentary democracy system. Nehru took over as the Prime Minister of India and U Nu became Burma’s first Prime Minister. The personal friendship between Nehru and U Nu helped to build up cordial Indo-Burma relations.

By 1949, Burma was engulfed in a civil war while putting down communist rebellion and armed ethnic insurgent groups. Rangoon was about to collapse. India came to Burma’s aid providing arms to the Burmese army and organising loans from the Commonwealth nations. Rangoon was saved. In 1951 India and Burma signed the Treaty of Friendship. India became the largest importer of Burmese rice. In 1962, Indo- Burma relations got strained when Burma came under Ne Win’s military rule after a coup. Ne Win military regime promulgated stringent nationalization policy forcing the majority of the Indian community to flee Burma.

After the 1962 Indo-China war, China started aiding India’s North-East insurgents groups on the one hand and on the other hand started supporting the Burmese communists and the ethnic insurgents groups which helped in warming up the Indo-Burma relations. In 1967, India and Burma signed the boundary agreement to solve the border issue between the two countries. Burma also co-operated with India in its fight against the Northeast insurgents groups. But then, Deng Xiaoping assumed power after Mao’s death, initiated economic reforms and changed China’s foreign policy of exporting communist revolution, replacing it by trade and investment. By 1980s, China stopped supporting Burma’s communists and ethnic insurgents and made inroads in Burma in the pretext of brokering peace talks. China-Burma relations warmed up and the Indo-Burma relations suffered. India started aiding the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) with the assurance to stop training/sheltering the Northeast insurgent groups, which they readily obliged.

The policy of the military junta under Ne Win’s dictatorship curbed human rights and democracy and was for its isolation from the international community. Burmese isolation helped to cement the China-Burma relationships. China started arming the Burmese army and mordernised its navy.  China invested heavily in Burma’s infrastructure development projects building roads, railways, hydropower projects and laying of gas and oil pipeline. Burma became more dependent on China.

Meanwhile in India’s Northeast , the insurgency scenario made a paradigm shift towards Burma. The NSCN was formed in 1980 opposing the 1975 Shillong Accord and established its headquarters in North western Burma/Sagaing region. The Burmese military Junta had no control over this region. The NSCN started governing the areas. Slowly, this region became the training ground for India’s Northeast insurgent groups and access to the KIA to reach the Chinese border. Apart from guerilla training, weapons were acquired from this region. In 1988 the NSCN got divided. The NSCK (K) faction headed by S.S.Khaplang , a Burmese Naga still remained in control of the region as the other faction NSCN(IM) headed by Isak Swu and T. Muviah shifted its headquarters to Dimapur after a ceasefire agreement in 1997 with Govt. of India. In 2001 the NSCN(K) had also signed similar ceasefire agreement .  In 2012 ULFA was split into ULFA (I) headed by Paresh Baruah with headquarters established in this region. The NDFB (S) also shifted its headquarters to Burma. The PLA, UNLF, PREPAK, KYKL & KCP had also established their headquarters in this Burmese region. Burma’s Sagaing region became the bases of the Northeast insurgent groups.

In 1988 after a popular nationwide protest, Ne Win resigned. Military officers loyal to Ne Win staged a coup and Burma was brought under the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). In 1989 the SLORC changed the name of Burma to Myanmar. Thereafter, Burma faced a popular pro-democracy movement led by Aung Sung Suu Kyi . Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) and won the 1990 election. Power was not handed to the NLD and Burma remained under the military regime. India under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi supported the pro-democracy movement and gave asylum to the Burmese refugees who fled the military crackdown. India-Burma relations worsened. Slowly, Burma started building its foreign relations with the West and other Asian neighbours. The growing Chinese influence in Burma worried New Delhi.

In 1991, the Indian Prime Minister  Narasimha Rao initiated the liberalisation of India’s economy which resulted in formulating the Look East Policy (LEP) to integrate the Indian economy with the booming Southeast Asian economy.  India’s Look East policy shaped its foreign policy towards the Southeast Asian countries. India’s Northeast was considered as the launching pad for the Look East policy because of its geographical proximity to the Southeast Asia. Burma is India’s land bridge to Southeast Asia and passage for the proposed Trans Asian highway and railway project. India started building up its relations with Burma and other Southeast Asian countries. In 1994 India and Burma signed the border trade agreement and opened border trade outpost at Moreh (Manipur) in 1995 and at Champhai (Mizoram) in 2004.However, both the countries were reluctant to open the Stilwell Road which was constructed in 1942 by the Allied forces connecting Ledo (Assam) to Myitkyina (Burma) to Kunming (China).

In 1996, India became a member of the ASEAN(Association of South East Asian Nations)  Regional forum, followed by BIMST-EC(Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand-economic co-operation)  in 1997, the Kunming initiative(India, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh) in 1999 and the Mekong Ganga Corporation (India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) in 2000. India’s engagement with Burma partially succeeded in countering Chinese dominance in Burma. India became the second largest importer of Burmese products and invested in the infrastructure development and energy sector keeping an eye on importing Burma’s gas and oil.

Even after more than two decades of formulation, the Look East Policy has failed to deliver the required economic benefits to the Northeast. The main reason is the lacklustre attitude of the Indian policy makers in developing adequate infrastructure and connectivity of the Northeastern region which hampered trading with the Southeast Asian countries. New Delhi is obsessed with cross border security concerns.

India’s military aid to Burma was mainly directed for counter insurgency operations against the Northeast insurgent groups based in Burma. Burma is yet to take any major offensive against the Northeast insurgent groups. Burma’s support is necessary in pressurising the Northeast insurgent groups for opening a dialogue with New Delhi. A peaceful Northeast has great potential to develop economically with its rich biodiversity, hydropower and precious mineral resources once it is properly integrated to the Southeast Asian economy.

A prosperous Northeast is the answer, not military operations because the rebellions are basically due to economic underdevelopment of the region. One of the important challenges to the Look East Policy is the inflow of narcotics/heroin from Burma into the alcohol prohibited states of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram with increasing number of drug addicts and HIV/AIDS infected persons amongst the drug users who share common needles.

With close India-Burma relations, India can play a crucial role in Burma’s political reforms, and, Burma, in implementing the Look East Policy and help in solving the decades old Northeast insurgency.

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India-Myanmar Relations – From past to present scenario

By: Hiranya Saikia Read time: 23 min