Diplomats and scholars say neighboring India has much to offer Burma as it transitions away from authoritarian rule, with the world’s largest democracy also no stranger to the kind of ethnic conflicts that have for decades troubled the Southeast Asian nation.
At a ceremony marking Indian national hero Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday in Rangoon on Wednesday, Indian Ambassador to Burma Gautam Mukhopadhaya said the Indian Embassy was looking into ways that New Delhi might work together with the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), a Burmese government-affiliated organization that is helping facilitate peace negotiations between the central government and the nation’s ethnic armed groups.
He said the Indian Embassy would also work closely with the government and civil society groups as Burma undergoes further democratic reforms and works toward national reconciliation.
“We have some plans to invite more speakers, scholars from India [to share experiences],” said Mukhopadhaya. “Beyond that, we also have some other ideas. We can have programs on peace education involving schoolchildren, and have more exhibitions. We will work together with the people and see what we can do. But, we believe that everything [in terms of political change] will come from inside.”
Thant Myint-U, a US-born Burma historian of Burmese descent, said India would be an ideal nation to help Burma’s transition to democracy, given the two countries’ similarly diverse ethnic populations—and the inter-communal and political discord that this has sometimes sown.
“I think India can help a lot and share its experiences,” said Thant Myint-U, who now heads the Yangon Heritage Trust. “India is a democratic country; they have a federal system and have many ethnic groups. So, we can also learn what they do right and what they have done wrong. How it did work and didn’t work.”
Aung Naing Oo, joint director of the MPC’s peace dialogue program, said it was time for Burma to open up further after decades of isolation, adding that the process should include efforts to build better relations with all the world’s nations, including India and two countries often seen as geopolitical rivals—the United States and China.
“It is time that Burma practices a multi-alignment policy. We have to make friends with many and build better relationships. It is always better that we have more friends,” Aung Naing Oo said.
He said Burma would have to forge better relations with the United States while maintaining friendly ties with China, the northern neighbor that Burma has long relied on in the face of past economic sanctions and condemnation from Western governments.
Though the India-Burma border has reportedly led to recent tensions and competing territorial claims by troops stationed in the area, India is moving forward with assistance to Burma, helping to upgrade the country’s transportation infrastructure and set up industrial colleges.
Asked about the potential peace education program referenced by the Indian ambassador, Aung Naing Oo said there had not yet been detailed discussions between the Indian Embassy and the MPC, but added that the MPC would welcome any peace program put forward.
As Burma has transitioned from authoritarian rule to more democratic governance, allowing for a nascent culture of protest among its citizens for the first time in nearly a half century, India and China have found that their formerly opaque dealings with the ex-military regime are increasingly under scrutiny. In response, both China and India have adopted more active public relations campaigns, accepting interview requests from media and releasing public statements on their activities in efforts to cultivate a more transparent image.
In addition to a contingent of officials from the Indian diplomatic corps, Derek Mitchell, the US ambassador to Burma, also attended Wednesday’s MPC event.
Commenting on Burma’s reform efforts, Mitchell said the United States was also closely watching the process and was eager to offer its own support.
“The Burmese government appears quite serious about bringing peace for the first time in 60 years. But it also really depends on the individual ethnic groups in terms of how they want to respond. … But, peace has to be just and equal for ethnic minorities,” Mitchell said.
Asked about the Chinese governments apparent charm offense in Burma, Mitchell said, “We think Burma needs to have good relation with all neighbors. We recognize it should have all sorts of friends. They have to be friends with everyone.”
Indian independence hero Gandhi visited Burma three times—in 1902, 1915 and 1929. During his trips, he traveled extensively across the country, visiting several towns including Rangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein, the capital of Mon State.
Aung Naing Oo said India and Burma had a common interest in ending conflict in northeastern India, which shares a mountainous border with Burma’s Kachin State, Sagaing Division and Chin State.
India has employed a development-based approach to deal with several insurgencies in the country’s northeast, which is connected to the country’s main land mass by a tiny corridor between Bangladesh and Nepal. Like Burma, the rebel groups in northeast India have variously called for separate states, regional autonomy and complete independence for decades. Though low-level separatist movements still exist, the intensity of their campaigns has decreased in recent years.