Burma was ruled as part of Britain’s Indian Empire until 1935. Relations between Burma and India were strong after Burma became independent in 1947. The Indian business community thrived in Myanmar and India’s nationalist leader Jawaharial Nehru was friend of Burmese nationalis hero Aung San. Aung San Suu Kyi studied in Delhi and her mother was ambassador to India in the 1960s. Democratic activists in Myanmar have traditionally been offered sanctuary in India.

Indians own many shops in Myanmar. These days, Indian companies want a piece of the action in Myanmar. The giant Indian conglomerate, Birlas, for example, opened a textile factory that makes Rayon from Burmese wood pulp. India has provided Myanmar with $120 million in aid for the Kaladan project: an upgrading of highways and waterways along the Kaladan River and development of the Sittway port in Rakhine state.

Though China’s involvement in dwarfs India’s, Myanmar-India bilateral trade reached almost $1.1 billion in 2010-2011, and India is now Myanmar’s fourth-largest trading partner, after Thailand, Singapore, and China, accounting for 70 percent of the country’s agricultural exports.

In October 2004, Myanmar military regime leader Than Shwe visited India. He visited again in July 2010 and returned with millions of dollars in grants for infrastructure projects that included road and rail links between India and Myanmar . India was one of the few countries that Than Shwe visited. He was warmly welcomed there. In June 2008, Myanmar and India signed an investment accord. In June 2012, Indian Prime Minister Mammohan Singh visited Myanmar. A number of trade and energy deals were signed. In November 2012. Aung San Suu Kyi visited India.

Brennan O'Connor wrote in Al-Jaazera, “In the early 1990s, India started its "Look East" policy; a strategy to improve bilateral relationships with Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries (ASEAN), including Myanmar and Singapore. The policy contrasted with India's previous dealings with Myanmar's former military regime, a time when Indian military intelligence reportedly covertly assisted many political dissidents - during and after the 1988 student uprising - and openly supported Aung San Suu Kyi's struggle for democracy. But when it became apparent the generals weren't about to pack their bags, India began building ties with the country's administration to counter the growing dominance of its strategic rival, China.[Source: Brennan O'Connor, Al-Jaazera, March 31 2013]

India Chooses Trade Over Democratic Ideals in Myanmar

Democratic India has turned its back on political ideals and instead pursues goals of economic self interest in Myanmar in part because of Beijing's close ties with Myanmar. Shashi Tharoor wrote in Project Syndicate, “For many years, India was unambiguously on the side of democracy, freedom, and human rights in Burma – not only rhetorically, like the regime’s Western critics, but also in more tangible ways. It offered asylum to fleeing students, allowed them to operate their resistance movement within India (with some financial help), and supported a pro-democratic newspaper and a radio station. [Source: Shashi Tharoor, Project Syndicate, December 8, 2011. Shashi Tharoor is India’s Minister of State for Human Resource Development. His most recent book is Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century :/]

“Then reality intruded. India’s strategic rivals, China and Pakistan, began to cultivate the Burmese generals. Major economic and geopolitical concessions were offered to both suitors. The Chinese even began developing a port on the Burmese coast, far closer to Calcutta than to Canton. And the junta’s generals began providing safe havens and arms to a motley assortment of anti-India rebels that would wreak havoc in the country’s Northeastern states and retreat to sanctuaries in newly renamed Myanmar. :/

“Four of India’s politically sensitive Northeastern states have international borders with Myanmar. But the key development was the discovery of large natural-gas deposits in Burma, which would not be available to an India deemed hostile to the regime. India realized that its rivals were gaining ground in its backyard, while it was losing out on new economic opportunities. The price of pursuing a moral foreign policy became too high. :/

“So India turned 180 degrees. The increasingly forlorn resistance operations based on Indian territory were shut down. And India sweetened the generals’ tea by providing both military assistance and intelligence support in their never-ending battles against their own rebels. India had gone from standing up for democracy to aiding and enabling the military regime. As I wrote at the time, “India’s policy may be governed by the head rather than the heart, but in the process we are losing a little bit of our soul.” :/

“Yet, paradoxically, Myanmar’s gradual opening following the 2011 elections and the installation of Thien Sein as president may offer India some measure of vindication. As the new regime released political prisoners, permitted freedom of movement to the detained Suu Kyi, and even questioned the environmental and economic impact of a big Chinese dam project in the country’s north, Western critics began to acknowledge that genuine change might be on the way. Countries like India that had maintained links with the junta and gently prized open its clenched fist may well have achieved more than those whose threats, bluster, and sanctions had merely hardened the general’s stance.” :/

Myanmar Relations with Bangladesh

There has been trouble along Myanmar's border with Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese Muslims fled the country to escape persecution. Bangladeshi officials estimate 300,000 Rohingya Muslims live in the country, with about a tenth of them in two official refugee camps in the southern district of Cox's Bazaar.

See Rohingya

Violence and Refugees in Bangladesh Linked to Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis

In June 2012, Farid Ahmed of CNN reported: “Hundreds of Muslims fleeing sectarian violence in Myanmar tried to enter Bangladesh but many were turned away by the authorities. Bangladesh has reinforced its border with Myanmar, amassing border guards and coast guards who were keeping watch on the River Naf, where rickety fishing boats were filled with Rohingyas, ethnic Muslims from Myanmar's Rakhine State. Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said her country was not willing to give shelter to Rohingya refugees, despite international calls for opening the border to people fleeing the clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in western Myanmar. "We're already burdened with thousands of Rohingya refugees staying in Bangladesh and we don't want anymore," she said. [Source: Farid Ahmed, CNN, June 14, 2012 ///]

“The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and human rights groups have urged Dhaka to open the border. The police and witnesses said dozens of fishing boats carrying mostly women and children were crossing the Naf. They said many people were severely injured and many had not eaten for days while drifting on the river waiting for opportunities to try to get into Bangladesh. The unrest began after the police in Rakhine detained three Muslim men in relation to the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman. The Bangladesh border guards said they had sent back more than 1,000 Rohingya Muslims in the past several days. Bangladesh has put troops on high alert along the 200-kilometer border with Myanmar, said Shamsul Haque, Bangladesh's state minister for home affairs.” ///

In October 2012, Associated Press reported: “More than 100 monks in Myanmar demonstrated at Bangladesh's embassy to protest recent attacks against Buddhist temples and homes in Myanmar's South Asian neighbor. The Buddhist monks staged the protest in reaction to Sept. 30 riots in Bangladesh's coastal district of Cox's Bazar. Thousands of Muslims there set fire to at least 10 temples and 40 homes due to anger over a photo of a burned Quran posted on Facebook, allegedly by a Buddhist. The attacks came as sectarian relations remain tense in Myanmar's western Rakhine state, where clashes in June between members of the Buddhist community and Rohingya Muslims of Bengali origin left about 90 people dead. About 300 Buddhist monks in Thailand's capital, Bangkok, staged a similar protest Wednesday outside the regional office of the United Nations. [Source: AP, October 5, 2012]

Trade Between Myanmar and Bangladesh Declines Over the Rohingya Crisis

In April 2013, Mizzima reported: “Traders and merchants in Rakhine State told Mizzima recently that Myanmar-Bangladesh cross-border trade is in decline. They said that bilateral trade decreased by almost half in the main trade centers of Sittwe and Maungdaw over the last year due to a drop in fishery products and the general instability caused by the Rakhine-Rohingya conflict. [Source: Thein Hlaing, Mizzima, April 28, 2013 }{]

“Sittwe-Bangladesh border trade was US$15.336 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year, but it decreased to $7.250 million in 2012-13,” a spokesperson for the Sittwe border trade center said. “This was due to a scarcity of fishery products and regional instability.“I cannot see much hope that bilateral trade will be restored to its old levels,” he said, adding that import and exports through Maungdaw had also fallen. “Exports [from Maungdaw] were valued at $7.831 million in 2011-12. This year it’s $5.385 million,” he said. “Imports were $0.692, but have decreased to $0.531.” }{

“Five companies trade across the Bangladeshi border via Maungdaw border trade center, he said. The main exports from Myanmar are fish products, prawns, slippers and cosmetics, while most frequent imports include cement, water pots and water distillation machines. “The ethnic conflict in the Rakhine region is not the only reason for the decline,” said Nyi Chay, a representative of one of the five trading companies in Sittwe. “It is also because we do not have enough goods to export. Plums and tangerines are becoming scarce, and these are some of Sittwe’s main produce.” Nyi Chay said he expected better cross-border business after tariffs were lifted on 152 different products on March 1, but such trade has not come to fruition. }{

Myanmar and Bangladesh in Battle of the Bengal Bay Gas Blocks

In April 2-13, The Irrawaddy reported: “The Bay of Bengal is the scene of a new battle between Burma and Bangladesh as the neighbors compete to attract international oil companies to invest in their hopefully resource-rich sections of the sea. The two countries’ naval vessels confronted one another in 2008 over an oil and gas hunt in a disputed area of the bay before it was peacefully resolved by the UN’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas (ITLOS) arbitration in 2012. As a result of that U.N. settlement—ending years of disagreement—the Bangladesh Ministry of Energy offered up 12 offshore block licenses for bids at the end of last year. Some of the blocks are close to the offshore territorial boundary decided by ITLOS in Bangladesh’s favor. [Source: William Boot, The Irrawaddy, April 18, 2013 |~|]

“But the response from foreign oil firms has been disappointing, with offers only for three of the Bangladeshi blocks. Now, the announcement by Burma’s Ministry of Energy last week that it was putting up 30 offshore block licenses in an auction has galvanized the Bangladeshis. They are hurriedly redrafting the terms of their licenses to try to compete better against their neighbor, said Bangladeshi media. “[It] has forced a rethink by the Dhaka authorities,” Bangladeshi oil and gas industry magazine Energybangla reported. Petrobangla is the Bangladeshi state oil and gas company that drafted the original terms and conditions of the 12 block licenses offered last December. |~|

“More than 12 large foreign firms made inquiries about the terms of licenses for the Bangladeshi blocks, including Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Santos, Statoil, Krisenergy, Eni, Bahrain Petroleum and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC). But in meetings with Dhaka Ministry of Energy officials the firms made it clear they did not like the terms, which they argued were too restrictive, said the Dhaka Independent. |~|

“New concessions now expected to be offered as inducement to invest in the nine Bangladeshi blocks still available include tax holidays during exploration and preparation for production and the right to sell 50 percent of all gas produced to third parties without first refusal by Petrobangla. Most of the 200 billion cubic meters of proven gas reserves in two blocks of the field are being bought by China as a result of a secretive agreement reached in 2008 with the former Burmese military junta. |~|

Myanmar Relations with Japan, Australia and South Korea

Japan has long been Myanmar’s largest aid donor and creditor. Japan has employed a carrot and stick approach with Myanmar, providing it with humanitarian assistance rather than seeking sanctions. While the United States and European Union imposed sanctions Japan provided aid and threatened to cut off aid if certain actions were no taken such as freeing Aung San Suu Kyi. Japan pledged about $4 billion in loads between 1967 and 1987 much of which has not been paid back.

During the isolation years Japan was practically Burma's only outlet to the outside world. After the 1988 demonstrations Tokyo cut off official aid and restarted it again in 1996. In 2003 Japan imposed a ban on new aid to Myanmar with the exception of humanitarian assistance for natural disasters. The detention of Aung San Suu Kyi was sited as one of the reasons for the freeze. When the regime began having secret talks with the opposition, Japan quietly approved a $28 million to help Myanmar get a large dam back online. In 2003, after Aung San Suu Kyi was detained again, the aid was cut off.

In April 2012, Myanmar President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi separately visited Japan. One of Thein Sein’s primary aims was to get Japan to forgive Myanmar’s debt with Japan and fund infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges. Japan agreed to forgive $3.5 billion in debt and interest charges (about 60 percent of what Myanmar owed) and resume development funding. Japan has urged other nations to forgive Myanmar debt and resume giving it low-interest loans. In November 2012, Japan promised Myanmar a $600 million loan to help develop Myanmar’s border areas and construct Thilawa Port and other deep-sea ports and make other improvements. In February 2013, a delegation from Japan’s biggest business lobby, known as Keidanren, told Burmese President Thein Sein that it would provide money and expertise for the country’s development.

In May 2012, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak visited Myanmar and met with Myanmar President Thein Sein. It was the first visit by a South Korean president to Myanmar since a bloody 1983 attack by North Korean commandoes against visiting South Korean dignitaries (See Below). In October 2012, Thein Sein visited Seoul.

Initially Australia decided to engage Myanmar and provide it with humanitarian assistance rather than seeking sanctions. But later it imposed sanctions. In June 2012, Australia lifted sanctions against Myanmar and doubled aid. Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr met President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a visit to Myanmar. [Source: Reuters, June 7, 2012]

Myanmar Relations with North Korea

North Korea and Myanmar officially resumed diplomatic relations in 2007 after a long period of estrangement. Photographs of a trip dated November 2008, provided by a Burmese dissident group, show Gen. Shwe Mann (then a leader in Myanmar's ruling military junta, and currently speaker of the lower house of parliament) meeting in North Korea with high-ranking North Korean officials, most notable of whom was Jon Pyong Ho, who until his retirement in 2011, was a leading figure in North Korean nuclear and missile proliferation.

Myanmar severed ties with Pyongyang in 1983 following a failed assassination attempt by North Korean agents on then-South Korean president Chun Doo-Hwan that left 21 people dead. On October 9, 1983, a bomb planted by a North Korean spies exploded during an official visit by South Korean president Chun Doo Hwon to Rangoon, Burma. Chun survived, but 21 other people were killed including 17 South Koreans— four cabinet members, two top Presidential advisors, an ambassador and 10 other top South Korean officials—and 40 were injured in the attack at Rangoon’s Martyr’s mausoleum. The Burmese captured two North Korean army agent who were later found guilty of murder. Pyongyang denied involvement, saying the whole thing was staged to discredit the North. Unpersuaded, South Korea broke off diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Myanmar restored relations with Myanmar in 2007 as it sought allies in the face of sanctions from Western nations, which both nation were victims of. But nations had been branded "outposts of tyranny" by the United States. Around the same time Myanmar was also trying to bolster relations with other nations such as as Cuba, Iran and Venezuela that were unpopular with the U.S. In October 2007, North Korea appointed its first ambassador to Myanmar in 24 years.

According to Human Rights Watch, Russia, China, and North Korea continued to sell arms to Burma in 2012, and there are concerns that North Korean sales breached U.N. Security Council punitive sanctions on North Korea passed in 2006 and 2009. In May 2012, Myanmar President Thein Sein told South Korean President Lee Myung Pak that if had purchased some weapons from North Korea over the years but that it would stop doing so. [Source: Human Rights Watch]

Myanmar Relations with Europe and Britain

In 1948, Burma became the first nation to successfully break free from the British Empire since the U.S. did so in 1776. The popular sentiment to part with the British was so strong at the time that Burma refused Britain's offer of membership in the Commonwealth of Nations.

Within Europe, Britain was particularly strong in its criticism of the Myanmar regime and was quick to embrace the new government after it came to power in 2011. In January 2012, British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited Myanmar. It was the first visit by a foreign minister from Britain since 1955. In April 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Myanmar and met with Aung San Suu Kyi. He was the first major western leader to visit Myanmar. The visit took place weeks after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy won historic by-elections by a landslide.

In July 2013, Myanmar President U Thein Sein visited the UK, becoming the first Myanmar leader to visit Britain in more than a quarter century. The visit came 66 years after General Aung San, the founder of independent Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, visited London in 1947 to sign an agreement guaranteeing Burma’s independence. The President met with British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Foreign, Defence, and International Development Secretaries during his two-day visit. [Source: UK government, July 15, 2013]

The European Union banned arm sales to Myanmar and non-humanitarian aid in 1996. It imposed sanctions on Myanmar in 2006 that included a travel ban to Europe for all Myanmar military officers and a ban on European-registered companies to provide financing to state-owned enterprises in Myanmar. In 2007 the EU froze overseas assets and added a ban on imports of lumber, gemstones and precious metals from Myanmar. The sanctions were renewed on a yearly basis, In August 2009, after Aung San Suu Kyi was found guilt in a widely-condemned trial, the EU expanded the sanctions to include a visa ban and asset freeze on members of the judiciary in Myanmar.

In January 2012, the European Union opened an office in Yangon to manage aid programs and play a “political role.” Around the same time the EU lifted travel bans, ceased sanctions and proposed a 150 million euro aid program.

EU Relaxes Sanctions in 2012

In January 2012, the European Union suspended travel bans on the Myanmar president and other top officials in the Myanmar government. In April 2012, the EU countries agreed to suspend most sanctions for a year. In April 2013, the European Union agreed to end almost all sanctions against Myanmar. See Foreign Relations

In April 2012, Reuters reported: “The European Union agreed to suspend most of its sanctions against Myanmar for a year. The suspension, which does not apply to a separate arms embargo, will allow European companies to invest in Myanmar. The EU had frozen the assets of nearly a thousand companies and institutions, and banned almost 500 people from entering the EU. It also prohibited military-related technical help and banned investment in the mining, timber and precious metals sectors. The EU is rewarding a shift that has seen many political prisoners freed and a range of repressive measures lifted.[Source: Justyna Pawlak and Sebastian Moffett, Reuters, April 23, 2012]

"President Thein Sein has taken important steps towards reform in Burma, and it is right for the world to respond to them,"British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement. "But those changes are not yet irreversible, which is why it is right to suspend rather than lift sanctions for good." In a statement released by foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg, the EU urged Myanmar to free remaining political prisoners and remove restrictions on those already released. The EU has already offered 150 million euros ($200 million) in development aid for this year and next, a sharp rise from the less than 200 million euros it has given since sanctions were launched in 1996.

E.U. Lifts Myanmar Sanctions Despite Human Rights Concerns in 2013

In April 2013, the EU agreed to lift the last of the bloc's trade, economic and individual sanctions against Myanmar in response to the military's progressive ceding of power to civilians. Reuters reported: “The European Union agreed to lift all sanctions on Myanmar, except for an arms embargo, despite a Human Rights Watch report which accused authorities of complicity in the mass killing of Muslims in the west of the country last year. Lifting the sanctions gives more certainty to European firms contemplating investments in one of the least developed markets in Asia. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has significant natural resources and borders economic giants China and India. [Source: Adrian Croft and Justyna Pawlak, Reuters April 22, 2013]

"In response to the changes that have taken place and in the expectation that they will continue, the council (EU governments) has decided to lift all sanctions with the exception of the embargo on arms," EU foreign ministers said in a statement after a meeting in Luxembourg. But Human Rights Watch accused authorities in Myanmar's western Rakhine State of crimes against humanity in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims that left scores dead and 120,000 homeless. Myanmar opposition leader and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said however the clashes should not be tied to the economic embargo. "I do not think that we should link the economic sanctions to the violence, which has a lot to do with rule of law and with other social political problems."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the progress made was sufficient to justify lifting the sanctions despite the violence."It is absolutely vital to continue work ... to try to stop this ethnic violence and the European Union countries have a role to play in that, including in the training of police forces, where we can help, (and) in promoting dialogue between faiths," Hague told reporters at the EU meeting. "The problems of Burma are not over but the progress that has been made has been substantial enough, is serious enough, and the government there are sufficiently committed to that, for us to take this decision," Hague said.

The EU had frozen the assets of nearly 1,000 companies and institutions in Myanmar and banned almost 500 people from entering the EU. It also prohibited military-related technical help and banned investment in the mining, timber and precious metals sectors.

Myanmar Readmitted to EU Trade Scheme

In June 2013, AFP reported: “The European Union readmitted Myanmar to its trade preference scheme, saying it wanted to support reform in the once pariah state through economic development. Myanmar's membership of the scheme was withdrawn in 1997 due to concerns over the use of forced labour under the then-military junta. But the EU said the International Labour Organisation had last year reported "necessary improvements" to labour practices in Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma. [Source: AFP, June 12, 2013]

The Irish presidency of the EU and the president of the European parliament signed legislation confirming Myanmar's readmission. "Given the positive developments in Myanmar/Burma in the recent past, it is important that the EU supports this by facilitating economic growth and development opportunities," said Irish jobs and enterprise minister Richard Bruton.

The EU scheme grants developing nations preferential access to the 27-nation bloc for several products in the form of lower tariffs. In London, Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, welcomed the news. "We have been calling for the EU to recognise that Burma's standards are improving and this is great news," she said. "Boosting trade and exports is vital if Burma is to develop its economy and escape years of poverty."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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