Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Myanmar is significant from various angles. India not only shares a long border (almost 1,700 kilometres) with Myanmar but it is also the only member state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with which it has a common border. Hence for New Delhi to make any step towards the East to give a robust shape to its much talked-about Look East Policy, Myanmar invariably becomes the first step. [See glimpses of Narendra Modi's Myanmar visit]
Modi's visit is thus very significant.
India is yet to exploit its geographical proximity with Myanmar to the fullest (the annual trade between the two countries is just worth USD 200 crore) and especially given the fact that Myanmar is a land rich in energy and natural resources. India's biggest competitor China has already made a serious effort to get closer to Nay Pi Taw for economic and geo-strategic reasons vis-a-vis India.
Modi followed Singh, who was the first PM to visit Myanmar in 25 years
Prime Minister Modi is following the steps that his predecessor Manmohan Singh had taken but it is very urgent for him to make Myanmar an important part of India's foreign policy, which is otherwise dominated by Pakistan and China. This has proved detrimental for India's realistic interests in the neighbourhood and favourable for China.
Both Myanmar's close system and New Delhi's backing the military junta clouded the relation between the two neigbours and perhaps the Myanmarese were also apprehensive about offending the Chinese had it tilted more in India's favour. But it is high time that the two countries shed their past in a fresh ambience and strive for a better future.
Why Myanmar is significant for India?
Focus back on Myanmar's progress towards democracy
PM Modi is one of the most celebrated head of the state in international community at this moment. The focus of the media has been chasing him intensely and his visit to Myanmar certainly brought that country's progress towards democracy back into focus. Myanmar has certainly opened its system but it is yet to go a long way in completing the mission.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is not allowed to become president of the country. Modi invited Suu Kyi after terming as the "symbol of democracy". These issues have drawn attraction of the world during Modi's visit to Myanmar and the ASEAN Summit.
China-Myanmar relations have undergone change
Secondly, the character of China's relation with Myanmar has undergone change in recent times. The military junta of Myanmar had been dependent on Beijing for support for decades but after Myanmar started taking baby-steps towards democracy, the over-dependence on China began decreasing. Anti-Beijing sentiments also became visible in Myanmar where the Chinese made massive investments over the years.
It was said that the Chinese were exploiting Myanmar's own resources and President Thein Sein even suspended the Myitsone Dam project which was meant to supply electricity to China. This has certainly made Beijing nervous and it is now reaching out to Suu Kyi, which is quite ironic.
It is trying to show its accommodative face to counter the West's softening stand on the Myanmarese regime. India thus has a big opportunity to prove its point.
Modi's visit to Myanmar is a welcome continuation of New Delhi's policy stand on Myanmar. The bilateral relations began moving upward after Gen Maung Aye's visit to New Delhi in 2000 and President Sein's visit in 2011 and the return visit by former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh.
It was the first visit by an Indian prime minister to that country in 25 years. The series of visits improved Myanmar's image and Modi's visit to Nay Pi Taw within six months of Singh's exit from the office has reiterated that the Indian establishment, despite the change at its helm, has not diluted its stand on the eastern neighbour.
Security and development
But apart from the diplomatic front, Myanmar counts a lot for India in issues like security and development. Four north-eastern states of India share border with Myanmar and the issues of infiltration and cross-border terrorism in these parts have always been a worry for New Delhi. Myanmar has been used as a shelter by anti-India elements in the past and New Delhi needs to get closer to Nay Pi Taw to plug the loopholes as it has done successfully with nations like Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Question of cultural affinity:
Myanmar also forms the gateway to Southeast Asia and that demands New Delhi to have a strong Myanmar policy for the economic development of the northeast in particular and India in general, said Mohor Chakraborty, a Kolkata-based professor and an expert in international relations.
Besides, there is also the question of cultural affinity. The people of the north-east share a cultural bond with many Southeast Asian countries and especially Myanmar, which also creates an opportunity for New Delhi's stronger Myanmar policy, added Charaborty.
Narendra Modi has taken a fresh stand on improving relations with India's immediate neighbours. While he invited leaders of all SAARC nations at his swearing-in, he paid visits to the two Himalayan nations of Nepal and Bhutan subsequently.
Modi's initiative to improve relations with immediate neighbous
He did not go to Bangladesh though, but the recent unearthing of the terror modules in West Bengal definitely brought him closer to the Sheikh Hasina government in Dhaka. He also played a camera-friendly host to the Chinese president and the first wife when they visited Ahmedabad in September. His focus on Myanmar speaks of a similar strive for a realist foreign policy in South Asia and its neighbourhood.
India must take opportunity of the changing relations of China and Myanmar
Erasing the legacy of military influence in Myanmar or the China factor while dealing with Myanmar won't be easy but PM Modi can always make up with that by working closely with Myanmar on issues like bilateral and regional trade, cultural affinity, overlapping religion of Buddhism, Rohingyaa refugee problems, terrorism and insurgency, pilgrimage and tourism, infrastructure (like the India-Myanmar-Thailand-Vietnam highway project) and the interest of Indians and Myanmarese settled in each other's territories. Both sides can gain immensely from these aspects and lay a strong foundation for the future of an underestimated relationship.