Why India gave Myanmar’s military chief ‘king’s treatment’

Published on July 20, 2017

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen

TODAY – July 20, 2017

Myanmar’s military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing recently concluded an eight-day trip to India, a visit aimed at strengthening defence and security cooperation between the two nations.

What is notable about the visit is how New Delhi rolled out the red carpet for the general, drawing China’s close attention.

The military chief began his trip with a three-day visit to Bodh Gaya, the site of a sacred Buddhist shrine, in the state of Bihar. For many Buddhists, especially in Myanmar, a visit to Bodh Gaya is considered a high point in their lives.

The reception accorded to Gen Hlaing was described by some Indian media as a “king’s treatment”. In order to make the visit more significant, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat flew to Bodh Gaya and hosted a dinner at the Officers Training Academy in honour of his guest.

Gen Hlaing had several top-level meetings, including with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, where discussions covered a wide range of issues, including expanding cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries.

During their meeting, Mr Modi described Myanmar as a “key pillar” of India’s Act East policy and expressed his firm commitment to strengthening the bilateral relationship in all areas. The question is, why did India give such a special treatment to the visiting military chief, who is neither a head of state nor head of government? Basically, there are three factors to explain this.

Firstly, the visit happened at a time when Indian and Chinese troops were locked in a continuing standoff near the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction.

With the red carpet reception for Gen Hlaing, India wants to send a strong message to China that it is prepared and ready to strengthen defence and security cooperation with Myanmar and other members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean).

Currently, New Delhi provides Naypyidaw with 105mm light artillery guns, rocket launchers, rifles, radars, mortars, Bailey Bridges, communication gear, night-vision devices, war-gaming software and road construction equipment as well as naval gunboats, sonars, and acoustic domes. A deal of US$37.9 million (S$51.9 million) for the supply of lightweight torpedoes was also recently finalised. Moreover, New Delhi is also making regular port calls to Myanmar as well as taking part in coordinated patrolling exercises along the bilateral maritime boundary.

Secondly, the Indian leadership understands the special power and influence the Myanmar military has under the 2008 Constitution.

For example, the military controls three important ministries – home, defence and border affairs – which are related to security matters of the country. The military also occupies 25 per cent of seats in all legislatures of the country, as well as majority membership in the National Defence and Security Council, the country’s highest authority in the government.

For India, it is important to have a good relationship with the Myanmar military leadership to help tackle its own insurgency problems in the north-east of the country. Many of the armed groups operating in this region have bases inside Myanmar and New Delhi needs the cooperation and support of the Myanmar military to deal with these groups.

The third reason is that New Delhi is exploring ways and means to reclaim its space in Asia by forging alliances with countries in the region, which it thinks has been neglected to China’s advantage.

In other words, New Delhi is recalibrating its Act East policy which primarily aims at making up for the strategic loss it suffered in the past few decades.

In an attempt to counter Beijing’s influence, New Delhi is planning to increase its military supplies to Naypyidaw. New Delhi understands the importance of strengthening relationships with members of Asean where Myanmar’s strategic location serves as a corridor to all South-east Asia.

Myanmar is adopting a policy of a balancing game between New Delhi and Beijing.

Though Myanmar does not want to disappoint China, its largest investor and major defence partner, it is increasingly wary of heavy dependence on one country.

In the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the subsequent nullification of the 1990 general election results, India was one of the staunchest critics of Myanmar for its failure to protect human rights and democratic institutions.

India was also one of the few countries in the region to provide food, shelter and other logistical support to the Myanmar pro-democracy forces until it changed its policy in the 1990s when the Look East policy was introduced.

In contrast, China pursued an engagement policy towards Myanmar when it was under sanctions by Western democracies.

Beijing’s close engagement with the military junta gave China an advantage of significant trade and investment opportunities in Myanmar.

China was the single largest investor and trading partner of Myanmar during the years of international sanctions, and this continues to be the case.

But with the lifting or easing of international sanctions and a shift in India’s strategic priorities in the region, coupled with Myanmar’s own democratic reforms, Naypyidaw is looking for more alliance partners.

The needs of Myanmar equally serve the strategic interests of India. Their mutual interests lie in the fact that Myanmar wants to receive investments as well as weaponry supplies. On the other hand, India feels that it achieves double objectives by increasing its presence and degree of influence in Myanmar and the region through enhanced economic and defence cooperation.

While the Myanmar military chief’s visit to India is a positive sign for bilateral relations between the two countries, it also sends a discouraging message to China and Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups which maintain close ties with Beijing and refuse to sign the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

Through the high-level visit and the potential enhanced defence and security cooperation, New Delhi also wants to send an unambiguous warning message to its north-east insurgent groups which are operating from Myanmar.

Gen Hlaing’s visit was primarily aimed at boosting defence and security cooperation between the two countries, but the Indian leadership seized the moment to show China and the world about its larger strategic interest in the region.


Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books on Myanmar, including ‘Democratization of Myanmar’.

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