Last May 29th, Indian Prime Minister Manhoman Singh made history in Myanmar. On that morning, Mr. Singh met with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi met Mr. Singh, an unprecedented recognition of the opposition leader. The following afternoon she left the country to visit some Burmese immigrants living in Thailand marking the first time since 1998 that Suu Kyi has left her country. She had never left since returning to the old capital Rangoon 14 years ago, fearing that it would be impossible for her to come back. During his visit, Mr. Singh also met his institutional counterpart, General Thein Sein, the man who is driving Myanmar out of its international isolation. It has been 25 since an Indian prime Minister last visited Myanmar.
These historic events are a sign that the historic ties between the two countries are being rekindled. Both part of the British Empire until 1937, the relationship cooled after both countries gained independence, culminating in 1962 when the military junta of what was then known as Burma expelled the majority of Indians living there.
Since the expulsion, India has had a variable relationship with the country. It did not share in the determination of the industrialized countries (which imposed an overall embargo), nor did it take the benevolent approach like China. After many years of pragmatic neighboring, Beijing now has a strong control over the immense raw materials of Myanmar, offering protection and assistance in exchange.
Now, India is trying to reach a better position in the “Burma-mania” which has contaminated the many countries willing to give credit to the regime’s opening. Delhi can count on traditional ties, a 3-million-strong diaspora still living in Myanmar, and 1.600 km of common border. In Naypytaw, the new capital, the two leaders predicted that bilateral trade between their countries would reach 5 billion US dollars by 2015. It is an ambitious target, but it shows how marginal the commercial ties really are. More importantly, twelve agreements were signed in the fields of oil exploration, production capacity, technical training, connectivity, and infrastructure. The commitment to reopen the Trilateral Highway was very symbolic, and by 2016 it will be possible to drive safely from Kolkata to Bangkok, passing though the huge land of Myanmar. The road has historical and evocative meaning, having been used against the Japanese invasion during WWII, when India and Myanmar were on the same side. When open, it will witness the peaceful transit of goods, workers, and tourists, a necessary step to lift the connected communities up from underdevelopment.