Given the shared heritage, there’s tremendous potential for New Delhi to push its economic interests with Yangon
In the minds of New Delhi’s elite, India’s South Asian neighbourhood is made up solely of the seven members of Saarc, even though we share no land borders with three of them. We tend to forget that four of our north-eastern States — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram — share a 1640 km land border with Myanmar. Not only is Myanmar a member of Bimstec, the Bay of Bengal grouping linking Saarc and Asean, 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 upon India predominantly in spiritual terms, as the home of Lord Buddha, they recognise that an economically vibrant India provides a balance to an increasingly 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.
Ties between India and Myanmar have quietly blossomed over the past two decades. The respective militaries and security agencies of the two countries have facilitated cooperation across the border. This has led to effective action against cross-border insurgencies and narcotics smuggling. Myanmar’s information minister recently reiterated his government’s readiness to crack down on Indian insurgent groups such as the ULFA (Assam), PLA (Manipur) and NSCN-K (Nagaland). India, in turn, has acted firmly against Myanmar insurgents entering its territory.
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 on 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.
After years of bonhomie during military rule, Myanmar’s relationship with its largest neighbour China is under strain. China’s Yunnan province borders the sensitive and insurgency-ridden Kachin and Shan states in Myanmar.
The China factor
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 growing opposition to Chinese projects in copper and nickel mining. The sentiment is that China has taken Myanmar for a ride regarding an oil pipeline linking Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukphu.
There are concerns over Chinese involvement with insurgent groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa Army. Despite this, border trade across the Yunnan-Myanmar border is booming, reaching $4.17 billion in 2013, against a mere $35 million border trade across the India-Myanmar border, though the “unofficial trade” (smuggling) across this border is estimated at around $300 million annually.
India’s former Ambassador to Myanmar VS Seshadri has authored a report spelling out how India has been tardy in building connectivity through Myanmar to Thailand and Vietnam and securing access for our landlocked north-eastern States to the Bay of Bengal. Our border trade regulations are formulated by mandarins in North Block and Udyog Bhavan who have no idea of the ground situation. They could learn a thing or two from China’s pragmatism — the manner in which it treats the markets with its neighbours not as foreign, but as extensions of its own markets. Opening up such trade will also enable our north-eastern States to meet their growing requirements of rice at very competitive rates.
Unless we learn to look at our neighbours the way 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 VK Singh has served at length in the North-East. It is hoped he will liberalise procedures and permit trade across borders with Myanmar in currencies traders mutually agree upon. Vehicles should move freely across the borders on roads 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 has done remarkably well in human resource development projects in Myanmar. 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.
But we would be less than honest if we did not admit that in project and investment cooperation, our record has been tardy. 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 for transporting it as LNG. China deftly stepped in and took away all this gas by expeditiously building a pipeline to Yunnan province.
In the mid 1990s, Myanmar offered us hydro-electric projects with a potential of over 1,000 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 too not been able to avail offers of land for plantations across Myanmar.
India was offered hundreds of acres of land for agriculture and for bamboo plantations for making paper pulp, close to its borders. Two private sector companies signed MoUs with Myanmar counterparts. But Myanmar officials found our private sector to be more bureaucratic than our government. India lost access to huge bamboo resources which went to a Thai company that clinched a deal in weeks — something our companies could not achieve for nearly two decades.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan