A Myanmar scholar friend once lamented that India uses the country only as a gateway and passes through it to reach other countries of Southeast Asia. The high-powered two days visit on 4-5 October of Foreign Secretary Shringla and COAS General Naravane to Naypyidaw amid Covid-19 and geo-political turmoil caused by unprecedented assertiveness and bellicosity of China, demonstrated that Prime Minister Modi’s government considers Myanmar not just a gateway but as a major junction in its destination to the Indo-Pacific Region. It was also meant to assure a younger brother and an important neighbour and that New Delhi cares for it under its policies of ‘Neighbourhood First’ and the ‘Act East’. Myanmar sits at the intersection of these two policies, being the land bridge to connect South Asia and Southeast Asia, and thus demands a special place in India’s diplomacy in the broader region of Indo-Pacific, reflected in Mr. Shringla’s reiteration of the priority New Delhi attaches to its partnership with Naypyidaw in his press briefing on October 1, after the virtual 19th round of Foreign Office Consultations between the two countries.
He stated that India remained committed to enhancing its multifaceted cooperation with Myanmar and also to explore new vistas of cooperation. Appropriate to the immediate need of the hour both sides held extensive discussions on the challenges posed by Covid-19 and ways to mitigate its impact, including through vaccine development, supply of medicines, equipment and technology and capacity building. As part of its commitment to assist Myanmar in the fight against the pandemic.
Shringla and Naravane presented 3000 vials of Remdesivir to the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during their meeting with her. Earlier also India had sent medicines and other equipment for Myanmar to fight against the disease.
The timing of the visit couldn’t have been more proper, with its national elections next month. Both Shringla and Naravane have earlier dealt with Myanmar, former as Joint Secretary BM Division and the latter as Defence Advisor in the Indian Embassy, and their extensive discussions with Suu Kyi and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing must have helped them to
get a first-hand idea about the direction of the country’s future course in its democratization process in a country where the army plays a critical role.
Myanmar’s Importance to India:
The two countries share a long 1,643 km geographical land border and maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Myanmar shares borders with 4 Indian states – Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India bringing the region into the forefront of India’s AEP [Act East Policy]. The border being porous, and located along a remote, underdeveloped, insurgency-prone region makes internal Security a major concern for India. Myanmar is also a key component of India’s strategy to bridge South and South-East Asia through BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). Its membership of ASEAN, BIMSTEC and Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) has lent a regional/sub-regional dimension to bilateral relations and imparted added significance in the context of our Act East policy.
Contours of Bilateral Relations
India’s bilateral interactions with Myanmar is generally based on six major planks or the 5Cs – Commerce; Connectivity; Capacity-building; Civilizational links; and Community – the Indian diaspora forging a strong people to people relations, which in turn will enhance India’s cultural and civilizational linkages.
India’s development assistance in setting up institutions for higher learning and research, namely Myanmar Institute of Information Technology, Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education, Myanmar-India Centre for Enhancement of IT Skills, India-Myanmar Industrial Training Centres had been a great success in building Myanmar’s capacities in those areas. Besides, India is extending training in areas of conservation and archaeology, judiciary, and English language.
India’s development assistance programme to Myanmar and other countries in Asia and Africa had always been very unique in being consultative, collaborative and based on what the recipient country wants and not like some other country using its cheque-book diplomacy to gain economic and strategic inroads by seeking assets through debt-trap.
The growth in commercial relations, is, however, not commensurate with the potential and targets set bilaterally at the Joint Trade Committee of the two countries. The bilateral trade has witnessed a 7.53% growth in 2018-19 and current trade figures stand at US 1.7 Billion. By and large, trade has remained stagnant, and India’s place as a trade partner, gone down from third place to fifth, and as an investment partner, from 9th to 11th despite being one of Myanmar’s largest official development partners and investors. With the switch from controlled bilateral border trade to MFN trade through the land borders from 2016, border trade already previously limited, has formally shrivelled to nothing even as informal trade has mushroomed, depriving the government of customs revenues. This needs to be formalized with the development of institutional mechanisms and proper infrastructures to facilitate trade through legal means.
Agreement between India and Myanmar on Land Border Crossing signed in 2018 is an enabling arrangement for movement of people across borders of both counties on basis of valid passports and visas, provide connectivity and enhance economic and social interaction of people of North Eastern States of India with the people of Myanmar.
It will also facilitate regulation and harmonization of already existing free movement rights for people ordinarily residing in border areas, giving boost to trade and people to people ties.
Setting of border haats, more trade posts, bus connectivity, hard infrastructure and soft facilitation in the borders, sound policies dealing with illegal migration at borders, special processing zones at the border, need for increasing Indian Investment in Myanmar, more in agricultural sector, increasing the productivity of people at borders with capacity building programs and investment in border economic zones are areas that need immediate intervention. Trade through border haats helps boost local trade and increase people-to-people contact. The first haat between India and Myanmar was set up at Pangsu Pass, adjacent to Sagaing Region (Myanmar) and Arunachal Pradesh (India). India and Myanmar have agreed to open nine more Border Haats in the border states of Manipur, Mizoram. Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. LCS (Land Custom Stations) in Zokhawthar, in eastern Mizoram is ready to facilitate trade with the neighbouring country.
During the current visit, India also announced a grant of $ 2 million for the construction of the border Haat Bridge at Byanyu/Sarichauk in Chin State providing improved economic connectivity between Mizoram and Myanmar.
Energy cooperation has huge potential, particularly Indian expertize and involvement with building refinery will be a win-win situation for both, as Myanmar depends on imports for domestic needs. One major outcome of this visit is a discussion on the possibility of India building a petroleum refinery in Myanmar involving an investment of US$ 6 billion, perhaps in Thanlyin region near Yangon.
One of the flagship projects for land connectivity between ASEAN countries and India is the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway that connects the three countries from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand to Bagan in Myanmar. It was first proposed in 2002. India decided to further extend the Trilateral Highway to Cambodia and Vietnam at the Commemorative Summit between ASEAN and India in 2012. The road is expected to boost trade and commerce in the ASEAN–India Free Trade Area, as well as with the rest of Southeast Asia.
Another project is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP) that aims to develop connectivity through land and water to seek an alternative route through Myanmar. It will connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine State, Myanmar, by sea. In Myanmar, it will then link Sittwe port to Paletwa via the Kaladan riverboat route further by road to Mizoram state in Northeast India. The project includes a waterway component of 158 km on the Kaladan River and a road component of 109 km. The project includes constructing an integrated port and inland water transport (IWT) terminal at Sittwe, development of a navigational channel along the Kaladan River from Sittwe to Paletwa; and construction of a highway transhipment terminal at Paletwa. Furthermore, this project also envisages the construction of six IWT barges—each of 300 tonnes capacity—for cargo transportation between Sittwe and Paletwa.
Not with standing the enormous challenges and numerous road blocks in the completion of the projects, New Delhi must fast track them to give a boost to trade and economic cooperation, particularly in the context of China’s deep inroads into Myanmar’s economy through the China Myanmar Economic Corridor and the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port with Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in western Myanmar. The SEZ is expected to boost development in China’s landlocked Yunnan Province and provide China with direct access to the Indian Ocean, allowing its oil imports to bypass the Strait of Malacca. New Delhi should now seriously consider its earlier plan to set up a SEZ in Sittwe and make it into a reality to rival China’s, whose projects in the area has come under some review in view of Beijing’s clandestine support to ethnic rebel Arakan Army active in the country’s Chin and Rakhine states bordering Mizoram. The Arakan Army is also acting as a proxy of China by posing a threat to the completion of KMMTTP.
Defence and Security Cooperation
Security cooperation is getting stronger in recent years in the fight to end insurgency in India’s northeast.
In May this year, 22 Indian insurgents were handed over for the first time by Myanmar, a huge success for back-door diplomacy bringing Naypyidaw in sync with New Delhi on dealing with insurgents.
The presence of General Naravane in the current visit obviously brought in sharp focus the maintenance of security and stability in the border areas through the two countries’ firm mutual commitment not to allow their respective territories to be used for “activities inimical to each other”.
India-Myanmar Bilateral Army Exercise (IMBAX) builds and promotes closer relations with armies. The presence of General Naravane in Foreign Secretary’s delegation will surely give further boost to security cooperation between the two countries.
Another issue that received attention in this visit is the early stabilization of the situation in the strife-torn Rakhine state and the repatriation of Rohingya refugees.
Both India and Myanmar are now focussed on the Rakhine State Development Programme (RSDP) with four agreements signed during Myanmar President’s visit at the beginning of this year. India’s border area development programme, concentrating in the bordering district in Chin and Sagaing have been driven by priorities of local community – schools, bridges, clinics etc. Over 100 projects have already been implemented.
The agreement meant to address challenges faced in agricultural productivity by using farm machinery and equipment more effectively and efficiently, thereby improving the socio-economic status of the people in Rakhine.
Related is the issue of repatriation of Rohingya refugees that are camped in Bangladesh back to Myanmar. As an attempt to balance the interests of both Bangladesh and Myanmar, India has conveyed to the latter a concern recently expressed by the Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K.Momen that a failure to resolve the humanitarian problem of the refugees could lead to radicalism and terrorism that would hamper peace and stability of the region. In the process, India has reiterated its position that it supports safe, sustainable ad speedy repatriation of displaced persons from Bangladesh to Rakhine state based on the understanding between Bangladesh and Myanmar. “India fully understands the urgency of this situation and has committed humanitarian efforts in both Myanmar and Bangladesh to facilitate an early return of the displaced persons. India has provided 5 tranches of relief supplies to Bangladesh and is willing to do more,” to quote a report from the Times of India. It seems India was already extending socio-economic development assistance, health, education and agricultural projects in Rakhine through a grant-in-aid of US$ 5 million per year.
The current visit was meant to expediting existing cooperation and to take stock of the situation in Myanmar to identify new areas for building sustainable ties between the two countries. From that perspective, the visit of FS Shringla and General Naravane had a great success in assuring an important neighbour that New Delhi cares for it, and is ready to stand shoulder to shoulder in testing times.
(The author is Former Professor and Chair in Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University & Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies. Views expressed are his own)