Myanmar military chief Vice Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has concluded his week-long visit to India. With this he has rounded-off foreign trips to key countries in the region since appointed as commander-in-chief of the Defence Services in March 2011. General Hlaing’s visit came two months after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar during which the two countries have firmed up their multifaceted relations including security and defence cooperation.
General Hlaing’s visit to India assumes significance in the context of the internal political changes inside Myanmar and as the reformist government under President Thein Sein attempts to diversify the country’s foreign engagements. In the recent months, Myanmar military leaders have made significant statements on the military’s role in politics. During the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Myanmar defence minister Hla Min said that the military is “100 per cent in support” of the Thein Sein administration. Earlier this year, General Soe Win, the second-highest ranking officer has asserted that the constitution that guarantees 25 per cent seats in the country’s parliament “may be amended” in the parliament, admitting that there were “differences” on the issue.
Exchanges of high-level military officials between India and Myanmar have become a regular process over the past few years. In January this year the then Indian Army chief General V K Singh visited Myanmar. General Hlaing’s visit could be seen as part of that process to strengthen and expand military cooperation between the two neighbours. Even as bilateral military ties have been further strengthened, the geopolitical significance of General Hlaing’s visit to India was evident. Beijing and Washington would have closely watched Hlaing’s India visit as the former has been wary of Naypyitaw’s cosying up with the United States in the recent past and the latter has been seeking new friends as part of its ‘pivot’ to Asia and has signalled improving military relations with Myanmar.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue, US secretary of defence Leon Panetta said that the US was open to improving military ties with Myanmar although he did not elaborate on the nature of that engagement. In fact, there is growing voices in the US for Washington to engage Myanmar, including military engagement. A US scholar with the influential Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has recently argued in a paper that ‘cutting off military ties with important countries in Asia does not promote US national security interests’. The paper further suggested, with an element of urgency, that the US should engage Myanmar military ‘carefully, step by step, but the first should be taken sooner rather than later’.
Last November saw major visits and the beginning of General Hlaing’s foreign trips. Unlike his predecessors, Hlaing’s first foreign trip after taking over as military chief was Vietnam, a country that has been embroiled in territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. During the visit the two countries concluded a memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation. For many years, every time a new Burmese military chief was appointed, his first foreign destination would be Beijing. Soon after his visit to Vietnam and two days before US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar, General Hlaing visited China, a neighbour Myanmar had long depended for military training and weaponry. The visit was seen by some Chinese scholars as a sign to ‘reassure’ Beijing of Myanmar’s close ties with China before Clinton’s visit. There has been wariness about Washington’s inroads into Myanmar in China. As Clinton travelled to Myanmar, the Global Times in an editorial on US-Myanmar relations wrote: ‘China welcomes the opening-up of Myanmar, but firmly opposes it stepping on China’s interests’.
General Hlaing met with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to take over as president this year. He also met vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Xu Caihou and Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Both sides agreed to enhance their military relationship. General Chen proposed enhancing mutual trust and deepening cooperation between the two militaries. Interestingly, the Chinese media reported that General Hlaing’s November visit was his sixth China visit, as though, to be sure that the Myanmar military chief was not new to China. He also visited some military academies and toured Shanghai, Hangzhou and Chengdu apart from Beijing. Earlier this year, General Hlaing visited Thailand and discussed cooperation in several fields to strengthen bilateral ties in security, stability and economy along their shared border.
During his stay in India, Hlaing met with all the top defence officials including Indian defence minister A K Antony, Indian Navy chief Admiral Nirmal Verma, Indian Air Force chief Marshal N A K Browne, and Indian Army chief General Bikram Singh. He also called upon President of India Pranab Mukherjee. India has reassured Hlaing of its support to train Myanmar’s defence personnel, a gesture that will go a long way in cementing military-to-military ties as both neighbours seek to expand military cooperation.
India and Myanmar have been cooperating in dealing with security issues arising out of ethnic insurgency on both sides of their shared border. This issue was also discussed during his meetings with Indian officials. Hlaing also visited the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army in Kolkata, and the Eastern Naval Command base in Visakhapatnam and some facilities of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation in Bangalore.
A country that was ruled by the military for several decades, the military-to-military interactions with other countries are importance for Myanmar as the country moves toward a more ‘civilianised’ system with the current military leadership showing its willingness to evolve into a more professional force under civilian control. India’s military has had a long experience of working under a democratic government and could provide immense lessons for the Myanmar military as it gradually change role. From a regional geostrategic viewpoint, General Hlaing’s India visit is another significant step in Myanmar’s military diplomacy. Myanmar knows its interest lies in keeping a balanced military engagement with all the major powers and it would be the last that would want a strategic rivalry of the great powers be played out in its country.
K Yhome is a Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.