Transcript of briefing by Official Spokesperson and JS (BSM) on State Visit of President of Myanmar

October 13, 2011

Official Spokesperson (Shri Vishnu Prakash): A very good afternoon to all of you. Welcome. Nice to see a number of old friends today! President of Myanmar H.E. Thein Sein arrived yesterday, the 12th of October, on a State visit to India, and would be in the country till the 15th of October. My colleague Mr. Harsh Shringla, Joint Secretary (BSM) and I would be happy to brief you about this very important ongoing visit.

The President assumed office on the 30th of March this year after general elections and this is the first high-level visit from Myanmar to India, of the new civilian government. The President is accompanied by his spouse and is leading a high-level delegation that includes a number of his Cabinet colleagues such as the Minister for Border Affairs and Myanmar’s Industrial Development, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation, the Minister for Religious Affairs, the Minister of Industry, the Minister of Electric Power, the Minister of National Planning and Economic Development as well as the Minister for Livestock and Fisheries, the Union Minister for Transport, the Union Minister for Energy, the Minister of Science and Technology, the Union Minister of Commerce, the Chief of General Staff in the Ministry of Defence, the Deputy Minister of Health, a number of senior officials, and other members of the delegation.

He arrived yesterday at Gaya and is presently undertaking a pilgrimage of the holy Buddhist sites at Gaya, Khushinagar and Sarnath. He will be arriving later in the evening at New Delhi. Tomorrow there will be a ceremonial reception and welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan. There will be a call on him by the External Affairs Minister followed by delegation-level talks at noon with the Prime Minister of India, signing of some agreements. He would be paying a visit to Akshardham Temple. In the evening he meets the President who also hosts a banquet in the honour of the visiting dignitary.

Given that agriculture is an important area of cooperation between our countries, he is also visiting the Indian Agricultural Research Institute on Saturday the 15th before emplaning for Myanmar. That is the brief programme of the President.

This is his third visit to India. He first visited India in 2004 during the state visit of Sr. General Than Shwe as Secretary-1 as he was called then. He next visited in November 2008 as the Prime Minister of Myanmar to participate in the BIMSTEC Summit in New Delhi.

Given our geographical proximity, India and Myanmar have enjoyed a longstanding relationship underpinned by ethnic, cultural and linguistic proximities, affinities. A large section of the Myanmar population is Buddhist and naturally sees India as their spiritual home. By various counts, something like a million people in Myanmar is of Indian origin.

Four of India’s Northeastern States – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram – share a land border with Myanmar which is more than 1600 kilometres. In fact, Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian State with which we have a land boundary, and as such it is a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia, and also a gateway to the ASEAN region. Naturally connectivity through Myanmar can play a valuable role in spurring economic development in our northeastern region.

Myanmar is also an integral part in our Look East Policy. India and Myanmar are members of a number of regional fora including BIMSTEC, the East Asia Summit, ASEAN plus Six, as well as other international fora. In 2008, Myanmar became an Observer at the SAARC.

Recent years have not only witnessed robust bilateral cooperation but also a number of high-level visits which include that of our Vice-President in February, 2009. Senior General Than Shwe paid the second state visit to India in July 2010 and, as I mentioned, before that he had visited India in October 2004. After the elections this year, the External Affairs Minister visited Myanmar in June, and now we are in the process of welcoming President Thein Sein. Our relations with Myanmar encompass a number of important areas like security, trade and investments, energy, capacity-building, health and education, science and technology, as well as infrastructure development.

With respect to security we have ongoing cooperation with Myanmar. We have also received assurances that Myanmar territory will not be allowed to be used for insurgent activities against India. Both sides remained in close and regular contact in this regard.

Enhanced connectivity between the two countries is of mutual interest. I would like to note that work is under way in establishing the Kaladan Multi Modal Transport Corridor which would connect our eastern ports to Mizoram through the Sittwe Port in Myanmar and from Sittwe Port the corridor moves North via the revirine and the road segments. A number of other initiatives are also in the pipeline.

India and Myanmar in 2010-11 had a bilateral trade of 1.28 billion dollars which is much below the potential. There was a Joint Trade Committee meeting recently in Delhi on the 27th of September, which was chaired by the Commerce Ministers on both sides. They have established a target of three billion dollars in trade by 2015. We are the biggest importer of pulses from Myanmar. Indian pharmaceutical companies play a lead role, they have a sizeable presence in Myanmar, providing quality pharmaceutical products at very competitive prices. To boost trade and commercial ties it has been decided to have an Enterprise India show at Yangon between the 10th and the 13th of November this year which we hope would become a regular feature in the years ahead.

Myanmar is also emerging as an important partner in India’s quest for energy security. Indian companies like ONGC Videsh Limited, GAIL, the Essar Group already have a presence in the country.

India has been pleased, we believe it is a privilege of ours, to be Myanmar’s developmental partner including in the agriculture sector which is important to both our countries. At the request of Myanmar, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan visited the country recently to ascertain the requirements for setting up an Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education at a place called Yezin. A Detailed Project Report is currently under preparation. We will also be supplying tractors and other agricultural implements to Myanmar.

Myanmar has been quite pleased by the success of an Industrial Training Centre to develop skilled manpower that was established and handed over by India recently at a place called Pakokku. Myanmar has requested India’s assistance for another India-Myanmar Industrial Training Centre at Mying Yan. A MoU for establishment of the same was concluded during the visit of our External Affairs Minister to Myanmar in June this year. We are similarly working closely with Myanmar in fields like IT education, culture, health, disaster relief as well as other areas.

We are pleased at the manner in which our mutually beneficial ties with Myanmar are acquiring momentum. We do attach the highest importance to the state visit of the President of Myanmar and are confident that this would place our relationship on an even stronger footing.

Thank you. We will be happy to take your questions.

Question: You said that the Minister for Border Development is accompanying the Myanmar President. What is exactly happening so far as the border concerned? We have been discussing this insurgency for a long time and you said that they have assured us that their territory would not be used for insurgency. What exactly is happening on the border? Secondly, what kind of trade opening is there at the border?

Joint Secretary (BSM) (Shri Harsh Vardhan Shringla): Cooperation along the border is a very important part of our bilateral engagement with Myanmar. To that effect we have focused a lot of our efforts in joint projects which are designed to improve connectivity such as Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Project, construction of roads along the border, construction of border points, land customs stations, integrated check-posts and so on and so forth. I think that the emphasis on border trade is also increasing. The recent meeting of the Joint Trade Committee, which Joint Secretary (XP) spoke about, did take into account the need to expand border trade and to bring it under some better organisation and to also see if Indian imports and exports from and to Myanmar can be facilitated through some exchange rate mechanisms that our banks can work on. This is something that we are working on extensively. I think there will be some major developments in that regard in the months to come. One example I will just give you is the Kaladan project in which recently a delegation, of which I was a part, visited the Port of Sittwe where we hope goods from the eastern seaboard of India will come in and will be unloaded at Sittwe on to barges and then would go up the Kaladan river upstream until a point called Paletwa where it will be loaded directly into trucks. We are creating a road through Myanmar territory to join up with the link road in Mizoram. These two roads will join in Mizoram and will link up directly to National Highway 54. As a result we are creating another access road right from our eastern seaboard into northeastern Myanmar thereby using Myanmar to increase connectivity within India. That is just an example. There is also the trilateral highway which links India to Southeast Asia through Myanmar and into Thailand. That is also a road that we are working on. I think that also is something that could facilitate the implementation of our Look East Policy.

Question: Do you have anything to say on insurgency? Is there going to be any discussion during this visit on the aspect of insurgency as well as on the security aspect?

Joint Secretary (BSM): On security cooperation we already have some fairly extensive existing mechanisms. We have a national level mechanism which is headed by the Home Secretary. We have a border level mechanism that is between the two militaries. We have a sector level mechanism at the Joint Secretary level of the Ministry of Home Affairs. We have Foreign Office consultations which also goes into security cooperation. Obviously this is an important element of our bilateral cooperation and this element I expect will be discussed during the visit.

Question: What are the deadlines for these projects?

Joint Secretary (BSM): On the Kaladan project the work has already begun. The company concerned, that is Inland Waterways Authority of India and Essar, have mobilized fully. They have got equipment, they have got specialists from India, and they have hired people from there. We expect that the entire riverine project which means construction of a port in Sittwe, construction of an inland port in Paletwa as well as dredging of the river, will be completed by June 2013. The road section of the project is something that some companies have done a DPR on. That is something that we are working on. We expect that that could also be completed in time to link up with the highway on the Mizoram side which is being constructed by the Government of Mizoram.

Question: When will the Sittwe start operating?

Joint Secretary (BSM): I think the port will be functional by June 2013 and we have every expectation that the deadline will be met. It means that goods from India can already come into a part of Myanmar which is today somewhat inaccessible. Those goods can also go to different interior parts of Myanmar from these ports. The highway itself we expect will be completed sometime around 2014. I think this particular project should be on stream by 2014. Of course there are many elements that have to be tied in. One is that you have to create a completely new road through what is today jungle and hilly terrain. Secondly, you have to ensure that work on both ends coincides. Thirdly, we have to create border facilities on both sides which means land customs stations, immigration check points, etc. So, there are a number of variable factors which are not always within control. But the expectation is that at the earliest this will be set up.

Question: Going on for so long!

Joint Secretary (BSM): Yes, but you will be happy to know it is actually happening now. That is the difference.

Question: Sittwe is a deepwater port, right?

Joint Secretary (BSM): The port will allow a draft of about eight to nine metres.

Question: The quiet diplomacy that India has been engaging in with Myanmar seems to have worked with the elections, and also the kind of steps that he has been taking which has been hailed by many countries. We have been against sanctions. Since Myanmar is often discussed with our western interlocutors, the US and UK, are we also going to ask them now to, it is about time, to lift the sanctions on Myanmar to ensure that they keep on this track?

Official Spokesperson: Our views on the sanctions are very well known. You have very rightly said that we have distaste for sanctions because we always believe that sanctions do not serve the desired purpose and they affect those sections of the society which are as it is vulnerable. So, that is a very consistent position of the Government of India on the issue of sanctions.

Question: Where are we in terms of matching up with China in the engagement with Myanmar, especially when it comes to energy? On a related note, how are the talks for the India-Myanmar energy pipeline going? I think that is the biggest obstacle for India to invest more in energy in the Bay of Bengal sector. I think even though we have investments in A1 and A3, we have not been able to get them back to India and we are forced to sell them to China.

Official Spokesperson: Let me take the first part of your question and happily turn to him for the second part.

As far as China is concerned let me say it categorically that there is no competition going on there. Relations amongst nations are not a zero sum game. The Prime Minister of India has said it in a different context, but it applies everywhere including here that there is enough room for everybody. We have our relations with Myanmar. I have already tried to elaborate on this important relationship that we have with Myanmar. We similarly have a very important relationship with China. That is how it is. Myanmar has similarly a flourishing relationship with ASEAN region. So, there is no disconnect or there is no competition out there.

Joint Secretary (BSM): Energy cooperation with Myanmar is quite extensive and is expected to increase. You have correctly pointed out that we already have ONGC and Essar that are there in the A1 block and they are doing quite well. The Myanmar Government has also put out tenders for additional onshore blocks in which Indian companies have also expressed interest. Obviously, the companies themselves, these are commercial ventures, look at ways to evacuate energy from wherever they are. This does not have to come necessarily to India, it can also go elsewhere. There can be other arrangements that are worked out which can result in some sort of exchange in terms of resources that are available. There are various things being talked about, but I think it is premature to comment on those. I can only say that the fact that energy cooperation was increasing significantly and that Indian companies are showing greater interest in the energy sector in Myanmar, to which Myanmar is very receptive, indicates that there are good prospects in that area.

Question: As Pranay pointed out, India has been engaging with Myanmar for a long time unlike many western governments which have been very prickly about any great contact. I would like to ask you whether you detect from the Myanmar side a change in the kind of the nature of the engagement that they are seeking, the nature of the kind of relationship they want to have post election, since March. I do not know whether they have ever come with such a huge delegation before for example. Do you sense that their interest in the engagement is kind of diversifying and deepening and that they are looking for different kinds of support and assistance from India?

Official Spokesperson: Amy, I can only speak for India. It is slightly difficult for me to give you a perspective of what Myanmar may or may not be looking outside. But you and I read the same reports and we get a sense of what is happening. Certainly as we see it, there are changes that are coming about; there are reforms that are taking place which is there for everybody to see. As far as the relationship with India is concerned, the contours of the relationship, the thrust of the relationship, the direction of the relationship I think I have given you a sense. If you have any specific question on that, we will be most happy to try and attempt an answer.

Question: Do not you think that they are basically looking for a much stronger relationship with India than maybe they had in the past. I know that there were state visits previously, but do you think their interest in say technical supports, a kind of broader range of cooperation on a broader range of issues is increasing?

Official Spokesperson: Most certainly. Relationships are a process. It is a building process. That is precisely why we have looked at very briefly, given the constraints of time and the trajectory, and I consciously did note that both in terms of content and substance and the breadth and the sweep of the relationship is certainly that it is an upward trajectory there is no doubt about that.

Question: I draw your attention to two recent political developments. One, since yesterday the Myanmar Government started releasing political prisoners, thousands of them. A few days back Myanmar suspended a China-driven construction project. Against the backdrop of these two political developments, how do you look at this visit? Does it connote that Myanmar is looking for more proactive help and cooperation from India in comparison to what they had been receiving from China? Secondly, what is the current status of Hanoi to New Delhi rail project which was to pass through Myanmar and which was pending because of some construction which is yet to be done there?

Joint Secretary (BSM): I can answer the last part of the question. Essentially there were some existing railway linkages which we are looking at rebuilding as far Myanmar is concerned. That is only at an examination stage. As far as the railway link from Hanoi down is concerned, that has to be seen in the ASEAN rubric and I am not aware of any development in that regard. I think there are talks but I am not sure whether it has reached the level of implementation.

Official Spokesperson: I think I have already answered that question. We look at India-Myanmar relationship through the prism of India-Myanmar relationship. We do not look at it in terms of competition. There is no zero sum game here.

Question: Regarding the human rights issue, I do not know if in India there will be some diplomatic pressure about releasing more of these political prisoners that is going on. Will some human rights issues also be discussed or it is not the policy of yours to discuss these?

Joint Secretary (BSM): We do not normally comment on the internal affairs of states. But it is a fact that Myanmar has made certain significant steps towards political and economic reform. They have allowed the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar. After a very long period he has been given unfettered access to whoever he wanted to meet. As has been pointed out just now, they have taken steps to release prisoners including political prisoners. They have reached out to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They have started a dialogue with her. They have encouraged her to join the political process and the National League for Democracy. They have unblocked a number of websites, 30,000 websites, which were earlier proscribed. So, they have taken some significant steps towards a certain direction and we have taken note of that. But I do not think we would be in the business of telling them what they should and should not do. Generally we supportive of the transition towards democracy and we certainly do believe that that transition should be broad-based and inclusive. We also have committed that we would assist them in sharing our experiences in parliamentary democracy. We have invited a delegation of parliamentarians to come to India and we believe that that is an area in which we can be of some assistance to a nascent parliamentary democracy.

Question: I have one question related to what Pranay asked. Does India see the changes that are happening in the neighbouring country as a success for its own efforts over the years in engagement with the Government there? And, has there been any contact in this changed environment, with Aung San Suu Kyi by the Indian Ambassador in Yangon?

Joint Secretary (BSM): Again, I do not think we would be attributing these changes to anything that might be influenced by an external environment. As far as Aung San Suu Kyi is concerned, yes, our Ambassador has been in contact, our Ambassador has always been in contact over a period of time. As you are aware, the previous Foreign Secretary when she visited Myanmar in June had called on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, had a meeting with her. Recently our Ambassador invited Aung San Suu Kyi for a painting exhibition on Rabindranath Tagore in Yangon which she gracefully accepted. So, basically we have been in touch at a diplomatic level.

Question: Is there a plan for Aung San Suu Kyi to come to India? Could I get your sense that …(Unclear)… ongoing political reforms by the Myanmar Government, has it made easier for India to scale up our relationship with Myanmar?

Official Spokesperson: To your first question, as and when there is a visit of any dignitary we will keep you posted. As far as your second question is concerned, you appreciate that we deal with the Government of the day which is in power. Regardless of the complexion of the Government in our neighbourhood, it is for the people of a country to decide what kind of a government they want; we deal with the Government of the day.

Question: Sir, is there any sort of enhancing of strategic partnership with Myanmar? Would any MoUs be signed on defence and security during the visit since their Chief of General Staff and their Border Minister are here?

Joint Secretary (BSM): As Joint Secretary (XP) has pointed out, we will have as many as thirteen Ministers accompanying the President. There would be extensive discussions. We also hope that there would be discussions between the Ministers themselves and their counterparts in India during their stay here. As far as the outcome of the visit, I think there will be a joint statement that will be issued immediately following the talks tomorrow. Obviously you will see what the various outcomes are that are still under discussion at that time. But we have some plans in terms of projects that we are going to do together, the sort of cooperation that we are going to undertake.

Question: You mentioned the importance of developing transport links. I was just wondering if there are any plans to develop the StilWell road and if not, why not?

Joint Secretary (BSM): Of course we cannot do everything at the same time and we have taken on some fairly heavy commitments in terms of developing connectivity along our border with Myanmar. StilWell road is certainly one of those roads that could be taken up in future, but there is no decision on that as of now.

Question: Is it a coincidence that we are seeing consecutive state visits from the Southeast Asian nations? Also, do you have any information whether other high ranking leaders of Myanmar will be visiting China soon, like Vietnam did?

Official Spokesperson: On the second question, I would suggest you can ask either the Chinese or the Myanmarese. That is an easier question to answer. In respect to your first question, we unveiled our Look East Policy in 1992. We have historical affinities, we have great affinities – linguistic, cultural, ethnic – with the ASEAN region which we consider to be a part of our extended neighbourhood. With many of the countries we have maritime boundaries, etc. So, it is very natural for us to engage closely with our ASEAN neighbours and friends. You are aware that we have an annual summit with the ASEAN and next year for the first time the India-ASEAN Summit will be held in New Delhi. You are aware that we already have a free trade agreement in goods with ASEAN, and we are very actively negotiating a free trade agreement on services and investments. We have had comprehensive economic partnership agreements with a number of countries in the ASEAN region. More are being negotiated. All that I am trying to say is it is very natural and we welcome the kind of engagement that is taking place with the ASEAN region.

Question: As a country which has already invested and has plans of investing more in Myanmar, is there a lesson for India on the Chinese hydel project which has been stopped worth 3.6 billion? What is the lesson that we draw?

Official Spokesperson: We have been engaging and we are looking at continuing the close engagement with Myanmar. One of the areas of cooperation is also the energy sector, which I mentioned. So, both sides find the cooperation of the kind that obtains between our two countries to be mutually beneficial, and we hope to continue on that path.

Question: Have there been any talks with Myanmar regarding counterterrorist activities and stopping insurgency, etc.?

Joint Secretary (BSM): I told you there are already institutional mechanisms in which security cooperation is discussed. This has been continuing on a sort of a regular, ongoing basis. And obviously any high-level visit would also be an occasion on which to review the arrangements for security cooperation and it should be undertaken during this visit as well.

Question: What is the total Indian investment in Myanmar? Besides oil exploration as you mentioned by ONGC and Essar, are there other kinds of investments by other companies?

Joint Secretary (BSM): There are a number of investments that are in the pipeline. Buses (Unclear)… plant by the Tatas. There are investments in the agricultural sector. There are various sectors in which Indian companies have an interest. I think in the manufacturing sector a number of areas of interest have come up to our companies but much of this is in the pipeline, and I do not think we can go into that now. All I can say is that there is far greater interest by Indian industry in cooperating with Myanmar on the economic side. There will be a meeting that will be taken by FICCI also tomorrow in which some of the Economic Ministers of Myanmar will make presentations and will address business people from FICCI. I think many of our companies will be interested in that engagement.

Question: Sir, in the last two, three months there have been some statements made by Myanmar authorities saying that Myanmar does not have any plan to acquire nuclear weapons. In fact, they have gone ahead and said that they do not even have any plan to pursue any programme for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Do you share your perception on this? Can we take these claims on face value?

Official Spokesperson: I do not have any information one way or the other to react or comment on what you are asking. For you the best is to address this question to the country concerned.

Question: Would Mr. Shringla just be able to quantify the volume of Indian investment in Myanmar at the moment? What if any are the agreements that are going to be signed - MoUs, agreements, what have you - and broadly the areas that they represent?

Joint Secretary (BSM): We have extended a number of lines of credit to Myanmar in the past, and we expect also to have some lines of credit extended during the visit.

Question: Approximate size?

Joint Secretary (BSM): It is being worked out. We will know tomorrow. But clearly that is also expected to encourage Indian investments in Myanmar. It is expected to encourage bilateral trade. It is expected to encourage projects that are being undertaken jointly by the two countries. I think all of this is designed to stimulate economic activity between the two countries. As I said, there are other projects also particularly in the agricultural sector. All of this is again an effort to increase the economic cooperation between the two countries.

Question: Any agreements?

Joint Secretary (BSM): There will be some agreements signed. It is a matter of detail.

Question: Is there any service and support that our armed forces will be providing to the Myanmar military? I understand they are procuring a lot of Russian equipment. And also in terms of nuclear cooperation, are we discussing anything since energy is of course an area of interest and cooperation? Are we looking at nuclear energy cooperation?

Official Spokesperson: As far as I know, in the field of energy what we are looking at and what we are collaborating with each other, is in the hydrocarbons sector and the hydroelectric power.

Joint Secretary (BSM): Our cooperation in the military sector is mainly through capacity-building, training, assistance in terms of some non-lethal equipment that the Myanmar military has vested us including road-building equipment and that sort of thing. That has been the nature of our defence cooperation.

Question: Sir, you have mentioned about Myanmar promising New Delhi that its territory will not be used for anti-India activities. What about Myanmar’s response to the proposal from Indian side about a joint military operation against these forces operating out of Myanmar?

Official Spokesperson: We have already given you a sense of the nature of cooperation with Myanmar on this very important aspect of security and defence. We have shared with you what the position is of the Government of Myanmar. I have mentioned in my opening remarks that we are in regular and close touch in the matter. It is an ongoing dialogue, ongoing cooperation in the matter. So, that is all that I can say. You will appreciate that for me to get into specific details is not at all feasible.

Question: Sir, are we having some kind of a discussion with them on the security plan, when we talk about cross-border highway roads, even the StilWell project, because Chinese have some interest in this? Correct me if I am wrong.

Joint Secretary (BSM): We have worked with them on a number of road projects and we are continuing to do that, and we have not felt the need for any security cover or security cooperation in that regard. These efforts have been mainly to improve trade and improve people-to-people contacts and there has been no real threat assessment as far as I am aware of. Obviously if there is, then we will take it up and both sides will have to address that. But so far this has been essentially good for people living in the area. A lot of these roads that are being constructed are really in areas which have been relatively isolated and relatively away from the centres of economic activity. So, in a sense it has been welcomed by the local populations wherever these activities have been undertaken. And a lot of it is also to strengthen development of communities, etc., so that they have access to hospitals, schools, they get goods, etc. So, I do not think this involved any conflict of interest or that we have come into any areas of security concern.

Question:Do we have an extradition treaty with Myanmar? I understand we have a mutual legal assistance treaty but does it cover extradition, or whether there are plans to have an extradition treaty?

Joint Secretary (BSM): As you said, we have a mutual legal assistance treaty. As far as extradition treaty is concerned, I do not think that is on the cards right now.

Question: Some of the ULFA leaders, one or two of them, are supposed to be in Myanmar. Will it come up for talks? Will we ask them to return them, as Bangladesh has done?

Official Spokesperson: I think on this important issue, what could be said and shared, we have shared with you. You will kindly excuse us if we are not in a position to get into more specific details with you and you can understand that.

Question: Is there any development regarding extradition process for Iqbal Mirchi?

Official Spokesperson: You would have seen the statement I made yesterday to say that the Red Corner Notice that has been issued in respect of Mr. Iqbal Mirchi continues to be valid, which means that he is a person of interest to us, that he is wanted in India, and that we do seek his extradition. I had also said there that we are now initiating the process of extradition because it is, as I said, a process.

Thank you very much.