Sunday, September 28, 2014

In the minds of the New Delhi elite, India’s South Asian neighbourhood is made up of solely the seven members of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, even though we share no land borders with three of its members. In the process, we tend to forget that four of our North-East States — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram — share a 1,640-kilometre land border with Myanmar. 

Scene kya hai ??
  • Not only is Myanmar a member of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, the Bay of Bengal Grouping linking Saarc and Association of South East Asian Nations, it is also our gateway to the fast growing economies of East and Southeast Asia. 
  • While successive leaders of Myanmar, who are devout Buddhists, have looked on India predominantly in spiritual terms, as the Home of Lord Buddha, they recognise that an economically vibrant India provides a balance to a growingly assertive China. 
  • Sadly, we have not been able to take full advantage of either our shared Buddhist heritage by facilitating increased pilgrimages, or used our economic potential effectively to promote our interests.

Past ties with India !!

  • Ties between India and Myanmar have quietly blossomed over the past two decades. 
  • Mechanisms have been built between the militaries and security agencies of the two countries, which have facilitated cooperation across the border. 
  • This has led to taking effective action to deal with cross border insurgencies and narcotics smuggling. 
  • Myanmar’s Information Minister recently reiterated to India’s new Government, his Government’s readiness to crackdown on Indian insurgent groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom, PLA (Manipur) and the NSCN-K (Nagaland). India, in turn, has acted firmly against Myanmar insurgents.

Myanmar in current context !!

  • Myanmar has moved steadily in easing the rigours of military rule, since the elections that swept President Thein Sein to power in 2011. 
  • The military still has a crucial role in national life, as negotiations are in progress to achieve a comprehensive ceasefire with 16 well armed insurgent groups, drawn from ethnic non-Burmese minorities. 
  • This is no easy task, but is a prelude to negotiations on the highly sensitive issue of federalism and provincial autonomy for ethnic minority areas. 

Myanmar's growing apprehension against  China !!

  • After years of bonhomie during military rule, which accompanied its international isolation, Myanmar’s relationship with its largest neighbour China is facing strains.
  • China’s Yunnan Province borders the sensitive and insurgency-ridden Kachin and Shan States in Myanmar.
  • China has helped significantly in building Myanmar’s infrastructure and equipping its military. India’s fears of Chinese bases in Myanmar were not borne out. 
  • But, differences between China and Myanmar have grown recently, especially on large projects like the Myistone Dam, which had to be junked, and a proposed railway line, to connect Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal. 
  • There is also growing opposition to Chinese projects in copper and nickel mining and sentiments expressed that China has taken Myanmar for a ride, on an oil pipeline linking Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal Port of Kyaukphu. 
  • There are also concerns of Chinese involvement with insurgent groups like the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa Army, in Shan State.  
  • Despite this, border trade across the Yunnan-Myanmar border is booming, reaching $4.17 billion in 2013, against a mere $35 million of border trade across the India-Myanmar border, though the ‘unofficial trade’ (smuggling) across this border is estimated at around $300 million annually.

Attitude of NORTH BLOCK towards Myanmar ?
  • India’s former Ambassador to Myanmar VS Seshadri has authored a recent report spelling out how India has proceeded tardily in building up connectivity through Myanmar to Thailand and Vietnam and in securing access of our landlocked North-East to the Bay of Bengal.
  • Our border trade regulations are formulated by mandarins in North Block and Udyog Bhavan, who have no idea either of the ground situation along the India-Myanmar border or the pragmatism that China shows in treating the markets with its neighbours — not as foreign markets, but as extensions of China’s own markets. 
  • Opening up such trade will also enable our North-East to meet its growing requirements of rice, at very competitive rates.

A way forward for India !!
  • Unless we learn to look at our neighbours like China does, bearing in mind the inherent strengths of our economy, we can never match the economic influence of China on our borders in the North-East. 
  • The new Minister for North Eastern Affairs, General VK Singh, has long experience of the North-East. One hopes that as a pragmatist, he will liberalise procedures and practises and permit trade across borders with Myanmar in currencies traders mutually agree upon. 
  • Vehicles should move freely across the borders on roads now envisaged through Myanmar, to Thailand and Vietnam. 

  • Moreover, the ‘Kaladan Multimodal Corridor’ linking our North-eastern States through the Port of Sittwe in Myanmar will be useful only if Sittwe becomes the key port for India-Myanmar trade.

India's minimal success as far as Myanmar is concerned !!
  • India has done remarkably well in projects in Myanmar intended for the development of human resources. It has played the lead role in the establishment of the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology, an Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education, an Agricultural University and welcomed many Myanmar professionals for training in its medical and engineering institutions. 

How India kept on missing OPPURTUNITIES in past to harness MYANMAR !!

  • But, we would be less than honest if we did not admit that in project and investment cooperation, our record has been tardy and has not exactly enhanced our image as a modern, emerging economy. After having secured exploration rights for gas in the Bay of Bengal, we conducted our project planning and diplomacy so clumsily that we did not have a strategy ready for taking the gas to India through a pipeline across Myanmar and our North-East, or as LNG. China deftly stepped in and took away all this gas, expeditiously building a pipeline to its Yunnan Province.

  • In the mid-1990s, Myanmar offered us hydro-electric projects with a potential of over 1000 MW, across rivers near our borders. We took years to scrutinise these projects, which companies in South Korea earlier offered to construct. After nearly two decades, we backed off. Our private companies have similarly not been able to avail offers of land for plantations across Myanmar. India was offered hundreds of acres of land for agriculture, and bamboo plantations for making paper pulp, close to its borders.

  • Two private sector companies signed the Memoranda of Understanding with their Myanmar counterparts. But Myanmar officials found that our private sector was even more bureaucratic than our Government organisations. India lost access to huge bamboo resources to a Thai company, which clinched a deal in weeks- something our companies could not achieve for nearly two decades.

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