Engaging with Myanmar: More creative thinking needed

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Myanmar is important in India's foreign policy for at least three, if not more, important reasons. First, its strategic importance as a bridge between India and Southeast Asia.

Myanmar is the only country in Southeast Asia that has land and maritime borders with India, an important route for trade and commerce, particularly with India's northeast states.


The latest thrust in India's Look East Policy is to link India's northeast with Southeast Asia to restore old historical relations between the two regions, and also build land connectivity between India and Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam through Myanmar for promotion of trade and commerce. If infrastructure and the security situation in India's northeast can be improved, the closer interaction between the two regions will bring enormous economic benefits to both India's northeast and Myanmar as they are natural partners for sub-regional cooperation for economic development and prosperity for the people of the area.


The second important factor, and a related one for Myanmar’s importance to India, is the issue of insurgency in its northeast. India has a long border with Myanmar which runs for nearly 1,643 km alongside the states of Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. New Delhi has been fighting an ongoing insurgency in the region ever since its independence. The ethnic similarities together with a porous border have helped the insurgents to take shelter on the Myanmar side of the border that made India’s task even more difficult in the absence of close cooperation between the armies of the two countries.


Third is the unspoken China factor.


Around 1993, India began to re-evaluate its strategy of non-engagement, to engagement with the military junta that ruled Myanmar due to concerns that its policies had achieved little except to push Yangon closer to Beijing. India, therefore, initiated a dramatic policy shift aimed at improving relations with Myanmar’s generals as it was also becoming clear at the time that the pro-democracy movement would not achieve power within the foreseeable future.


To improve closer relations and connectivity with Myanmar, India in recent years, particularly after the quasi-democratic government of Thien Sien took office in 2011, has taken up a number of initiatives. These include providing a credit line of US$500 million and a further Exim credit of US$100 million for a special development zone, road and port construction projects and some capacity building support to the new regime. It has constructed the 160-km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road in Myanmar from the Manipur border. It is also assisting in the proposed Trilateral Highway project to connect Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Bagan in Myanmar.


The Indian government in January 2008 committed US$120 million to rebuild Myanmar’s western Sittwe port, and construct road and water links through the facility which will connect Myanmar’s western Arakan state to India’s northeastern state of Mizoram. As part of the project, a deep sea port is being built in Sittwe, Arakan, also known as Rakhine state, for Indian vessels. Some portions of the Trilateral Highway are still to be completed in Thailand and Myanmar. The highway is slated to become a reality by 2016.


India-Myanmar trade has grown appreciably, standing at $1.95 billion, with India's exports at only $550 million. The balance of trade is in Myanmar's favour as timber dominates Myanmar's exports to India. Both sides have two border trading points -- Moreh-Tamu and Zowkhatar-Rhi -- and another is to be opened at AvakhungPansat/Somrai.


India undoubtedly is in a disadvantaged position compared to China in improving its connectivity with Myanmar, as most of Myanmar’s mountain ranges and major river systems run north south. This makes construction of road communication and movement from India’s east to Myanmar against the grain of the country difficult. Having said that, it must also be admitted that while India is loud in announcing many infrastructure projects in Myanmar, its record in terms of its implementation is notoriously poor.  Most of the initiatives India has taken so far are too little and too late to make any major impact on India’s standing in Myanmar.


To transform Myanmar into a land bridge between its northeast and Southeast Asia it has to improve its connectivity and improve its security in the border regions to facilitate cross-border trade between the two countries. The fact that traders from Myanmar find it economical even to send pulses (dal) via Singapore than through the border is a testimony to the state of infrastructure and the security environment in the border regions. Trading links can be pursued not just through natural routes, but also small-scale cross-border commerce that helps to enrich marginalized and impoverished parts of both Burma and India. Currently, however, such trade is constrained by restrictive travel regulations, informed by security concerns rather than development perspectives.


Cultural diplomacy is another important area that should rise up the agenda. Historical bonds between the two states are extensive, formed notably by religious links, trading ties and a common experience of the British Raj. New Delhi has not made much attempt to really strengthen India’s soft power inside Myanmar. There were many connections between India and this country during the early part of the 20th century.


Almost all of those people-to-people connections have been cut. To restore the links, direct flight between Yangon, Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi, even at subsidized rates, needs to be opened. That would promote cultural, religious and commercial tourism, and in turn, people-to-people interactions, a must for a healthy and dynamic relationship. Education is also key. The shambolic state of teaching and learning in Burma means that the country is in desperate need of outside help to train future generations. While a small number of American, British and Australian schools now operate inside the country, they cannot meet the need for affordable education.


Indian schools, which have been successfully opened in many parts of the world, have a crucial role to play. Increased levels of capacity building support by New Delhi in the sphere of administrative, parliamentary and many other areas where Yangon lacks skills will not only strengthen India-Myanmar relations, but would also facilitate the process of transition to democracy in Myanmar


To build a platform for long-term engagement with its strategic neighbour, India’s foreign policy elite needs to be more creative. By taking its Myanmar policy beyond military and natural resource issues New Delhi can both enhance its security leverage and recapture a relationship that was once close. Engagement on a broad front can pay multiple dividends. Promoting this policy shift is also in the interests of the wider world that desperately wants to facilitate long-term change inside Myanmar.


South Asia Monitor