Can the South Asian giant balance against China's influence within their slowly opening neighbor?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent three-day state visit to Myanmar was the first such visit by an Indian leader in 25 years. This gap marks a remarkable period of non-engagement at the highest levels for two countries whose historical relations go back millennia. In comparison, says former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Rajiv Bhatia, the heads of government of the two countries met eight times in a two year period in 1954-55.
This reflects the deep ambiguity that New Delhi has had to the military regime in Myanmar, a group reviled by India's elite but seen as essential to India's security by its strategists.
This was also reflected in India's official policy. India initially threw its support behind the pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi after the crackdown of 1988 and 1990. A few years later it declined to support economic sanctions against Myanmar and voted against international resolutions condemning the Yangon regime.
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The reason was hard-nosed realpolitik. By the early 1990s the Kashmir insurgency was at its height and India had to pull paramilitary regiments out of its equally volatile northeastern region. The P.V. Narasimha Rao government needed a strategy to allow it to keep, in particular, the Naga insurgents of the northeast in check with just a few regiments. The answer: strike a deal with the Myanmar military to deny cross-border safe havens to Naga rebels. The price was to withdraw political support for Aung San Suu Kyi.