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The making of ‘Greater India’ in Southeast Asia

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    27th Aug, 2022

Context

As part of his visit to Thailand for the ninth India-Thailand joint commission meeting, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited the ‘Devasthan’ in Bangkok. The visit emphasized the long history of cultural contact between India and Thailand.

Background

India-Thailand Relations (Background)

The Early Years:

  • In the post-India independence period, Indo-Thai relations had remained lukewarm with neither the King nor the Prime Minister of Thailand during 1947-76, to pay a State visit to India.
    • The major reason for these limited high-level visits could be political, as Thailand witnessed six Prime Ministers between 1973-76.
    • The Thai government was not able to take steps to strengthen Indo-Thai relations.

Approach towards building the Relations

  • The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization(SEATO) was an international organization created by the Southeast Asia Collective Defence Treaty.
  • Pakistan being a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization(SEATO), established for the collective defence in Southeast Asia.
    • Pakistan enjoyed the support of Thailand on many international platforms, but the situation changed when Pakistan and the United States wanted to stop the Indian action in support of the independence of Bangladesh, but Thailand gave its support to India by opting for a neutral stance.
    • This action by Thailand signalled a new phase for renewing the bilateral ties.

About ‘Farther India’:

  • A French scholar named George Coedes, was the first person to do an in-depth study of the process of ‘Indianisation’ in Southeast Asian countries.
  • He published his work on the subject in the book “The Indianized states of Southeast Asia”.
  • He coined the term ‘Farther India’ to refer to those states that experienced “the civilising activity of India’.
  • Geographically, it refers to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the Malay states.

Analysis

How the Southeast Asian countries were ‘Indianized’?

  • Role of Sea Voyages and Trade: The Sanskrit, Buddhist, and Jain texts indicate that interactions between the two regions go back more than two thousand years ago, mainly through sea voyages and that trade played an important role.
    • The traders of those times had brought along with them Indian religion, culture, traditions and philosophy along with them to the shores of Southeast Asia.
  • Spread of religion and Culture Exchange: Brahmin priests, Buddhist monks, scholars and adventurers played an important role in the transmission of Indian culture to the natives of Southeast Asia.
  • Marital Alliances: Some of the merchants and Brahmin priests married the local girls and were often employed by the local rulers.

The first Indian kingdom to come up in Southeast Asia was Funan, which is the predecessor of modern Cambodia and Lin-yi in southern Vietnam, both of which came up in the second century CE.

Do we have evidences present till today?

  • Language similarities: Many local languages in the region, including Thai, Malay, and Javanese contain words of Sanskrit, Pali and Dravidian origin in significant proportions.
    • The Thai language is written in a script derived from the Southern Indian Pallava alphabet.
  • Religious Influences: Shivaism, Vaishnavism, Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and later Sinhalese Buddhism are practised in the region.
    • For example, the Thai king is considered as an incarnation of Vishnu.
  • Architectural Evidence: Monuments like Borobudur Stupa in Java, the Angkor Vat temple in Cambodia, and the My Son temple in Vietnam are some of the best examples of Indian influence in the region.

What is the Present Status of India-Thailand Relations?

  • With regular political exchanges, and growing trade and investment, India’s ties with Thailand have now evolved into a comprehensive partnership.Both countries are important regional partners linking South and Southeast Asia and they cooperate closely on many international platforms:
    • ASEAN
    • East Asia Summit (EAS)
    • Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)
    • Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC)
    • Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD)
    • Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)
    • Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS)
  • Trade relations
    • In 2021, Thailand became India’s fourth largest trading partner in ASEAN.
    • In 2021-22, Thailand was India’s 22nd top trade partner, with a total trade of US$ 6.6 billion.
    • Bilateral trade during the current year is poised to surpass US$12 billion despite the pandemic. ASEAN India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) and the Early Harvest Scheme between India and Thailand have played an important role in the growth of bilateral trade and investment.
    • Reducing import duty charges through bilateral engagements will be essential for expanding trade and investments.
  • Tourism:
    • Before the pandemic struck, and travel restrictions were imposed, Indians travelling to Thailand generated the US $24.9 million in profits.
    • India is an important tourist destination for the Thais as well. Thai Buddhists visit Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagar in India for their religious trips.
  • Defence cooperation:
    • The MoU on Defence Cooperation between India and Thailand was signed on 25 Jan 2012.
      • Since 2015, India is participating in Ex-Cobra Gold, the largest Asia Pacific Military exercise in the ‘Observer Plus’ category.
  • India-Thailand Counter-Terrorism Cooperation:
    • In the area of counter-terrorism according to the MOU, both sides resolved to significantly enhance bilateral cooperation in combating terrorism, including in restricting transnational movement and unauthorized stay of known terrorists in each other's countries.  

Conclusion

In 2022, India-Thailand celebrated 75 years of bilateral ties. The 75th anniversary of India–Thailand relations presents new opportunities to further collaborations in different spheres. India’s ‘Act East’ Policy strongly compliments Thailand’s ‘Act West’ Policy and we are significantly contributing to growing India-Thailand bilateral ties.

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