So, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met her in capital Naypyidaw last month, he was virtually meeting the Head of State. They had a lot to discuss. China was not happy with the end of the army rule and Suu Kyi’s policy of opening up to the outside world. The Chinese did not conceal their unhappiness either. In fact, strains started developing between the two countries toward the end of the army rule in Myanmar.

The main disagreement is over a number of Chinese projects to which the people of Myanmar are totally opposed, mainly because these would have a negative environmental impact besides requiring displacement of a huge number of people at every project site. The opposition is so strong and fierce that even the military junta had to bow to public sentiments and cancel many of these projects some of which would have had significant implications for India also.

The first to be cancelled in 2011 was the $20 billion high-speed railway line running north to south through Myanmar and connecting China’s Yunnan province to the Bay of Bengal in the south of Myanmar. If the project had come off, it would have given China an opening in the Bay of Bengal just as the Gwadar port in Pakistan has given it an opening in the Arabian Sea. It would have been a development of concern to India. It was abandoned because of people’s determined opposition to destruction of forests over large areas besides creating problems of eviction and resettlement of the people concerned.

The second, kept on hold by the then Myanmar president U Thein Sein, is the Myitsone Dam project which was to have been built by the Chinese Power Investment Company for generation of 6000 MW of power, primarily for transmission to Yunnan Province of China. The Chinese company claims it has already spent over $800 million on the project. The entire project includes construction of one dam at Myisone and six more in contiguous places. Nearly 18,000 people would have had to be evicted and resettled elsewhere.

The Chinese are still not reconciled to the abandonment of the projects and are lobbying hard with the government of Suu Kyi to give the green signal. They are keen on going ahead, without caring for people’s sentiments and opposition.

A third irritant in Sino-Myanmar relationship is due to ethnic conflicts in northern Myanmar which often spill over to the adjoining Yunnan Province of China when people chased by the Myanmar army flees across the border and takes shelter in Yunnan. Once Myanmar air force planes, while chasing the rebels, had inadvertently dropped a bomb on Chinese territory drawing strong and angry protests from Beijing. This was during the army rule. Suu Kyi is keen on improving relations with China while protecting the interests of her people.

As far as India is concerned, Myanmar occupies a central place in New Delhi’s Look East policy. The 3,200 km long Asian Trilateral Highway, starting from Moreh in Manipur and ending at Mae Sot district in Thailand, when completed, will open up the ASEAN region for India. Similarly, the 900 km long Multimodal Transit Transport System connecting Calcutta Port to the Sittwe Port in Myanmar, passing through Mizoram, is another big project which is coming up. The route will be partly riverine and partly land.

Now that China is strengthening its military footprint on India’s border, Myanmar and Vietnam will be two neighbours India has started to cultivate and deepen its relations with. During the junta rule India had cooled off to Myanmar. That was first changed by former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. Now with Suu Kyi at the helm, India wants to walk the extra mile to win the trust of Myanmar as an all-weather friend. Suu Kyi still fondly remembers her student days at the Lady Sri Ram College in Delhi.

She has many problems on hand. One is the amending of the constitution drawn up by the army to make it a truly democratic one. Another is the resolution of ethnic rebellions involving the Karens, Kachins, Shans and Mons. These conflicts have bedevilled internal peace and harmony in Myanmar for decades. Even the army rule had failed to end them. Suu Kyi wants now to hold out the proverbial olive branch and persuade the tribes to lay down arms and usher in permanent peace.

Then there is the immense challenge of industrializing the country. Though Myanmar is endowed with rich mineral resources, industry accounts for only 20.3 per cent of its GDP. Agriculture accounts for 38 per cent and services for 41.7 per cent. One-third of the people has no access to electricity. India seeks to play a positive role in Myanmar’s development. (IPA Service)