By P.M. Heblikar
The recent visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Myanmar (Sept 5-7, 2017) served to underline the strategic importance of Myanmar in India’s national security calculus. It was his first bilateral visit though highest level interactions have taken place between him and Myanmar’s civilian leadership. The interaction between the powerful Myanmar military and Indian defense establishment has proceeded apace with consensus on vital security and strategic issues. Both countries endorsed the Look East Policy (LEP) or Act East Policy (AEP) to be a vital platform for mutual engagement. The AEP has accorded equal importance to India’s North East Region (NER). Both NER and Myanmar are therefore important pillars of AEP from peace, stability, progress and economic development point of view.The Joint statement issued at the conclusion of the visit underlined the state of excellent bilateral relations between India and Myanmar in all sectors.
Over view of ground realities:
The visit was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to get acquainted personally with the prevailing ground realities in Myanmar especially on several areas where India has strong interests. The visits to the revered Shwedagon Pagoda, to the Mausoleum of Bahadur Shah Zafar and the meeting with the Indian Diaspora were the other noteworthy features. The briefings would, no doubt,have assisted India in setting its compass for future direction in its relations with Myanmar and the role therein for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK). There is no doubt about her contribution to multi-party democracy in Myanmar and also her central role in ending Yangon’s international isolation. It is obvious she will remain a major force in the national political arena irrespective of recent developments. The military has existed and will continue to do so as arbiter of national unity and integrity and therefore exerts its influence as felt necessary. It is a critical element in Myanmar’s power structure and its role must be understood in the current scheme of things.
Way forward in bilateral ties:
The Prime Ministerial visit has identified several new areas of cooperation as also measures to ensure that existing projects deliver results without loss of time. Agriculture, Health, Border development, Vocational training, capacity building, IT and Connectivity Infrastructure Projects form its back bone and represent India’s “constituency” in Myanmar. Progress in other critical areas is also growing at an appreciable pace.
Out of box initiatives:
Mandalay Region must occupy a central position in India’s developmental programs given its proximity to India by air and road. Senior Myanmar political leaders, including Chief Ministers from Bago, Sagaing and Karen regions respectively are looking at major investments for development projects for their respective areas. India has the capacity today for greater participation in these regions. An Out of the Box (OTB) policy is advocated that addresses the need to make India’s participation in Myanmar deeper and result-oriented as also to signal readiness to make India as one shop stop to meet their requirements. It will also contribute to building India’s image and visibility in Myanmar leading to a greater traction in bilateral relations.
Some of the OTB projects are mentioned below:
- Mandalay Special Economic Zone (MSEZ):
Agriculture is an important activity in central Myanmar and requires India’s assistance for better productivity. India already has a network of institutions such as Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education (ACARE) to facilitate access to technology to improve agriculture sector of Myanmar. India must develop a program to not only enhance agricultural production of Myanmar but can also think of a framework to purchase on buy back scheme.
The advantages are mentioned below:
- The agriculture produce/food grains can be sold to states in the NER. Cambodia and Laos could also benefit.
- This will earn precious foreign exchange for Myanmar and make it a leading importer of food grains.
- This will lead to improvement in transportation and logistics arrangements between India-Myanmar.
- Border states such as Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and even Assam can significantly reduce dependence on meeting their requirements from Punjab, Haryana.
- India can invest in supply of agricultural machinery at subsidized rates to farmers, encourage large food grain production through mechanization, supply of seeds, fertilizers and other forms of assistance
- Will have a direct bearing on insurgency situation on both sides of the India-Myanmar international border
- Will create capacity building and employment.
- India is already assisting Myanmar in this direction and therefore needs to network the existing facilities to maximum advantage
- SMSE (manufacturing)industries in Information Technology or Industrial Training Institutes
- Agricultural machinery and spare parts for Tractors and automotive parts
- Fertilizers and related packaging and storage facilities
- Manufacture of White House-hold goods
- Garment Manufacturing and exports
India may also envisage the following projects for the MSEZ with participation of local entrepreneurs:
- Food Processing – Small and medium production units in Mandalay, Bago, Yangon and Karen states/regions. Both Fruit and Vegetable. For export to markets in India, ASEAN, BIMSTEC and other markets.
- (Food Processing – in fishery products. This can be done in Sittwe SEZ)
- Low Cost Housing Products/Items
- Solar Energy Production and Rural Electrification Projects and
- Manufacture of Pharmaceutical products.
Enhancement of people to people contact:
The need for enhancement of people to people contact must capture attention of the policy planners. The first and the foremost on this front is to establish a joint parliamentary friendship group between the two countries. Its advantages are many. Indian Legislative bodies could also consider linkages with Myanmar counterparts so as to broaden the contacts between them. India’s outreach through this will enable it, at many levels, to create opportunities for development of people-to-people relations leading to collaborations in fields of mutual interest. The need for creating a platform for the 27 Hon’ble Members of Parliament from the northeast region to participate in the Look East Policy or Act East Policy is important.
The Prime Minister’s announcement of a new visa-free regime to facilitate visitors to the northeast region is an important aspect to connect India and its neighbors. Connectivity must be given top priority with a clear mandate to Air India towards creating more routes to get people on both sides to travel to Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Gujarat, Mandalay and Yangon for tourism purposes. Air India can certainly add to India’s image and visibility by this method. Nothing less than top quality is expected from the national flag carrier. Air India must offer its services to Myanmar airlines for training of cabin crew and ground handling services. The Tourism ministry needs to be more visible in pursuing specific projects in consultation with relevant counterparts. More sporting exchanges must be offered.
A large number of Myanmar nationals of Indian origin have been successful entrepreneurs in construction business.A case exists for getting them to visit India as a destination for their raw materials and also for joint ventures.
The joint statement issued at the conclusion of the Prime Minister’s visit is a play book full of opportunities. The government must encourage more private sector participation in developmental projects and in this direction support them actively even aggressively by creating opportunities and projects. Time is opportune for India to play an important role in Myanmar; Prime Minister Modi has created opportunities that have to be followed up with alacrity. This is the time.
(PM Heblikar is Managing Trustee of Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore and former Special Secretary, Government of India.)