India’s relation with Southeast Asian countries is an age-old phenomenon. Historically, it has its origin in culture and trade. The Mauryan Emperor, Asoka (ruling period 273- 232 BCE) sent his representatives to various countries in Southeast Asia and helped to spread Buddhism in these countries. Even today, we find countries like Myanmar and Thailand, are culturally predominantly Buddhist in nature. King Surya Varma II (1113-1150 AD), one of the great rulers of Kambuja or present day Cambodia, made one of the most celebrated Hindu temples – the Angkor Vat. Sanskrit, the language is another milieu where cultural affinities were found between India and Southeast Asia. For example, in Thai, Ravana, the emperor of Sri Lanka is known as ‘Thosakanth’ which is a derivation of his Sanskrit name ‘Dashakanth’ (“of ten necks”). This list can be made longer which only goes to show that culturally, Southeast Asia is in close proximity with India.
After independence, India had lost its connectivity with Southeast Asia to a certain extent. Although, there were some bilateral treaties between India and some Southeast Asian countries, there was no concrete and structured mechanism to further a healthy and cooperative relationship between India and Southeast Asia as a whole. In the year 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had been set up as a common platform for some Southeast Asian countries. Now, it has 10 full members which geographically exist in the Southeast Asian region. Coming back to India- in 1991 India officially launched its Look East Policy (LEP) in response to increased globalization and regionalization as well. And, of course, there were some changes in the political ideology among the Indian leaders which are not really the point of discussion. However, ever since then, India has been maintaining a close association with Southeast Asia.
The reason why I am briefing you about this background regarding the relationship between India and Southeast Asia is that it will help us to understand the dynamics of the cultural liaison between India and Myanmar, one of the Southeast Asian nations.
Some may ask that why I have chosen Myanmar as a variable of this study. The answer is simple- Myanmar is geographically the closest Southeast Asian neighbor of India, hence it is important for India to first build a stable relationship with Myanmar. Secondly, in order to normalize India’s northeastern side, India needs a politically correct relationship with Myanmar. And thirdly, India has always wanted to counter China’s strong domination over Myanmar.
The second variable of this study is Cultural Linkage. Culture here refers to dance, drama, literature, fine arts, etc. In Myanmar performances by Indian cultural troupes have been organized on a regular basis since 1997. A bilateral cultural cooperation agreement was signed in 2001 and followed up with Cultural Exchange Programmes between 2004-06. (Source: publishedforscholar.wordpress.com). Between Nov 28 and Dec 7 a 15-member cultural troupe from Myanmar visited India’s northeastern region, particularly Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. This was organized by the Union ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) in coordination with the Indian embassy at Yangon, the Myanmar embassy in New Delhi, Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), North Eastern Council (NEC) and the three northeastern state governments. The objective of this event was to advocate closer cultural and trade links between Northeast Indian states and Southeast Asian countries as part of LEP. (Source: India News.com)
I have already mentioned that Myanmar is seen as a crucial neighbour for India. Undisputedly, India has to promote a good, stable bond with Southeast Asia and Myanmar in particular. The easiest way to nurture a close relationship is to cultivate cultural linkages including cultural exchanges and people-to-people contacts. Culture is something which is not time-bound and which is specifically, beyond the border. Hence, the Government of India should focus on promoting an extensive cultural friendship between India and all Southeast Asian countries, especially Myanmar.
The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz.