SIDE by side, the two leaders offered a picture of demure enthusiasm. “Should I go first?” whispered the Indian prime minister leaning towards the slender woman, striking in her mauve longyi, to his right. Given a nod, he told a small gathering of journalists, crammed into a hotel room in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, on May 29th, of his admiration and respect for her “life and struggle, her determination…which have inspired millions of people all over the world”. Getting Manmohan Singh ever to speak with passion is near impossible, but he offered something close to real warmth, lauding family and historic ties, praising her “noble endeavour” and urging the lady to visit Delhi to give a prestigious speech.
If any foreign leader could be a close ally of India, it is Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of Myanmar’s opposition movement and now an MP, whose political role appears to be growing by the month. With flowers in her hair (and speaking into microphones propped up on copies of the Yangon phone book), she referred to close geographic, cultural and religious ties. And she added personal ones, notably her family’s respect for India’s independence leaders, especially Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister—“Panditji, as I was taught to call him”. She said she hopes for a return to India soon.
She lived in Delhi when her mother was a diplomat there, in a house that now serves as the headquarters of the ruling Congress Party. India’s support for her freedom, and for the restoration of democracy, in Myanmar over the years has been feeble. The bigger country looks most concerned, even now, about stability in its north-east, where insurgents used to make use of sanctuaries over the border in Myanmar. But Ms Suu Kyi recognises the big democracy’s potential, benign influence (though she is making her first foreign trip since release from house arrest—also on May 29th—to Thailand, next door).
Mr Singh trod a relatively well-worn path, coming months later than leaders from Bangladesh, Britain, America or South Korea for example (“India has been a bit passive”, grumbles a senior Indian businessman in Yangon). He paid the obligatory visit to the immense pagoda that dominates Yangon’s skyline, and had previously called on the military rulers in their new capital, up country, in Naypidaw. In visiting at all—the last Indian prime minister came 25 years ago, when the country was still officially Burma—he acknowledged the significant reforms guided by the military men.
He offered, too, inducements for more economic and political reform. And by reaching out beyond the government, to the opposition leader, to the local Indian diaspora and journalists, India also shows it is trying to develop a more sophisticated foreign policy in its region.
Myanmar is a relative minnow: its 60m population is barely 5% of India’s, its small economy still grows more slowly than India’s much heftier one, and even the prime minister’s stated goal—to get bilateral trade to $3 billion, by 2015, beginning with a few markets on the border—looks rather modest. Yet relations could warm fast. India has offered $500m as a soft loan, mostly to build roads and railways near the countries’ shared border, plus help in training more civil servants and students in Indian colleges.
A dozen such initiatives were announced during the trip. India’s main economic interest almost certainly lies in its neighbour’s energy and mineral deposits: iron ore near the border with India, oil and gas (both onshore and off), as well as hydropower. Buddhism, too, could help to weave closer economic ties, with new direct flights between the countries, plus plans for a direct bus-link over the border, in part to allow more pilgrims from Myanmar to visit India.
Beyond the economy, however, India’s strategic concerns are well served by developing closer relations. Myanmar’s role in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is getting stronger—it will lead the body in 2014—and India wants much closer economic, diplomatic and military links with the region, which it calls its “look east” policy. Mr Singh spoke later on May 29th of Indians as “intrepid traders” and Myanmar as being an “economic bridge” between South Asia and South-East Asia. A new highway, linking India, Myanmar and Thailand is supposed to be finished by 2016.
The context for all that is obvious enough. Indeed, India’s leader even alluded to the dragon in the room, the role of China, in influencing India’s wish to reach out to Myanmar. China’s close ties with Myanmar’s leaders will not disappear, even if a more robust democracy is established. China sees Myanmar as a useful trade route to the “Western Sea”—the Indian Ocean—and is equally tempted by Myanmar’s energy resources. Together that promises long-term competition by Asia’s two largest powers for influence on the small one in between. Myanmar’s fortunes, as reforms roll on, are likely to rest on how skilfully its leaders, whether military or civilian, can make use of their geography.