Strengthening Myanmar Serves India’s Interests
by Ramtanu Maitra on 26 Aug 2010 1 Comment

Last month’s five-day (July25-29) visit to India by Myanmar head of state General Than Shwe - and the attention paid to the visit by the Manmohan Singh government - was watched with a bit of heartburn by the jaundice-eyed Western powers. The refrain of the Myanmar-hating “democracy-preachers” was, how could India, a fellow flag-waiver for democracy, befriend a military dictator who is at odds with the Western democratic nations and has denied democratic rights to his own citizens?


On July 24, the US State Department said it hoped India would press Myanmar over democratic reform, engaging the opposition and other ethnic groups in the country. “We would encourage India and other countries to send a clear message to Burma that it needs to change its course,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington. Please note that the present set-up in the United States, led by its across-the-Atlantic cohort, Britain, steadfastly continues to identify Myanmar by its old name, Burma. Maybe it is silliness, but it sure sounds pathetic.


Now, get this. Crowley and his ilk, over the years, have pressed New Delhi on innumerable occasions to ease its animus toward Pakistan, no matter which military leader was at the helm in Islamabad. While such efforts should be appreciated, nonetheless, some in New Delhi who are close to the democracy preachers continue to fall into the anti-Myanmar trap. The fact remains that neither Washington, nor London, nor New Delhi have any business refusing to deal with another nation simply because that country has a different form of government.  


The reason why Britain and the United States prefer a government of their liking in Myanmar is an entirely geopolitical matter. London and Washington would like in Yangon a regime that would provide Western powers easy access to Myanmar’s political decision-making process. That could also be designed to pose a serious concern for the increasingly powerful Beijing in particular, and for New Delhi. That is the primary reason why the former colonial rulers of “Burma” seek a democratic government in Yangon.


Opportunities vis-a-vis Myanmar


India, however, has its own reasons for close and developing relations with Myanmar. India has a long border with Myanmar that extends almost 1500 km. In addition, Myanmar’s east coast, which is another 1900-plus km, butts against the Bay of Bengal where India’s maritime and strategic interests run supreme. Myanmar has almost 200 km of border with Bangladesh, a nation now in the process of becoming integrated via trade and infrastructural inter-linking with India.


An immediate security concern of India vis-a-vis Myanmar is the decades-old instability in India’s northeastern states. To ensure an uninterrupted high level of growth for at least the next three decades, India must strengthen its eastern borders and use the oceans to bring in resources that such a developmental program requires and, at the same time, send out various agro-industrial and technological products to markets abroad. To achieve that, New Delhi faces the challenge of ensuring security.  


India’s northeast has been in turmoil for decades - not only because New Delhi, imbued with British colonial ideology, had formed states based on ethnic identities, preventing integrated co-habitation among all who are Indians and not colonial subjects of one variety or the other - but also because of the uncertainties imposed from outside by a once-rapidly-degenerating Bangladesh. As a result of such shortsighted policies, a number of northeast India’s insurgent groups - such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Manipur rebels, among others - have continued to operate out of bases in the weakly controlled areas across the borders of the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram; and Myanmar rebels, primarily the Chins and Arakanese, have often taken shelter on the Indian side. This is also the area through which a large amount of drugs and lethal weapons enter India, keeping the insurgent groups in business. The process has criminalized many in India who operate in the northeastern part of the country as well as in the major interior city of Kolkata.


To improve connectivity with Myanmar, India has taken up a number of road and port construction projects. India has constructed the 160-km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road in Myanmar from the Manipur border. New Delhi is also assisting in the proposed trilateral highway project to connect Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Bagan in Myanmar. India’s Kaladan multimodal transit transport facility is aimed at improving linkage between Indian ports on the eastern seaboard and Sittwe port in Myanmar. This would enable transportation by river and road to Mizoram, providing an alternate route for transport of goods to northeast India. A proposal to build a rail link from Jiribaum in Assam to Hanoi in Vietnam through Myanmar is also on the cards.


In the area of railways, both India and China could help Myanmar significantly. According to official statistics, over the past 21 years the length of railroads and rail tracks in Myanmar has extended up to 5,031.29 km and 6,549.26 km respectively, 59 percent and 46 percent increases. Myanmar’s rail transport authorities plan to construct new 400-kilometer-long railroads across the nation in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the local Weekly Eleven reported in April. These railroad projects, linking south with north and east with west, are located in the Bago, Ayeyawaddy, Tanintharyi, Magway, Sagaing and Yangon divisions of the Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states, and the cost is estimated at about 132 billion kyats (more than $130 million), an earlier report said.


In the area of direct cooperation with India, according to former Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, Myanmar has helped quietly over the years to eliminate some sanctuaries of Indian insurgent groups on its territory. It has encouraged India to build cross-border infrastructure and transport links across the entire land border. The multimodal transport corridor, with river navigation and road transport in the Arakan province to the south of Mizoram, will give India an alternative access to the Northeast from the port of Sittwe, bypassing Bangladesh altogether, Saran explained in an article in The Hindu recently. Two key roads linking Mizoram and Myanmar’s Chin state to the east were also mentioned. There is major potential for generating nearly 2,000 MW of hydro power on the Chindwin River for domestic use and the surplus amount for sale to India.


In the joint statement that followed Gen. Than Shwe’s visit, future developmental projects were emphasized. After years of discussions, studies and negotiations, the stage is now set for commencing implementation of the flagship Kaladan multimodal transport project. When ready, it should contribute to the development of our Northeast. Analysts point out that the trilateral highway project too, has been a subject of discussions and negotiations for long; it needs priority attention now. The range of areas covered by Indian projects is impressive - roads, railways, telecom, power, energy, hydrocarbons, remote sensing, agriculture, industry, IT and education.


Charting Our Own Path


By defying Western geo-politicians and their followers within India, the Manmohan Singh government has opened up a marvellous option. If any particular aspect of the UPA government’s foreign policy deserves applause, it is its keenness to improve relations with Bangladesh and Myanmar, located at the cusp of vast Southeast Asia and along the southern borders of economically and militarily powerful China. Successful development of India’s relations with both Bangladesh and Myanmar opens up various economic and security options to New Delhi, which none of the powerful western nations would offer if their preferred government takes control in Yangon.


India’s problem with Pakistan, and Pakistan’s proximity to its Western allies for the last 60 years, is a case in point. New Delhi must acknowledge the unsavoury truth that London and Washington will do precious little to help India expand its economic influence and enhance security measures in the region. In other words, India must do whatever is necessary to expand its economic and security relations with Southeast Asian and Far East Asian countries. India’s Myanmar policy is a firm step in that direction.


There are a number of reasons why India must improve connectivity with Bangladesh and Myanmar. One is to build a land bridge with Southeast and Far East Asia, and with China. To begin with, India’s economy has begun to grow and has to do a lot more growing in the coming decades to provide the bare necessities to its 1.3 billion people. The fundamental requirements for such growth must be moored in the development of the country’s physical infrastructure throughout its vast rural areas. This means India will have to triple its power generation capacity; will have to work out successful water harvesting, desalination of sea and brackish water, and ensure distribution of that water throughout the country. India will also have to put in place a mass transportation system, such as high-speed railroads, to which all Indians will have access, in addition to providing education and healthcare to all.


An important development came in 1991, when the Indian Ministry of External Affairs announced adoption of a “Look East” policy aimed at forging closer ties with Southeast Asia. India became a sectoral partner of ASEAN in the core sectors of trade, investment and tourism in late 1991. The concept, however, was strengthened by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in 1999.


Following a number of visits by both sides, India was eventually upgraded from sectoral partner to full dialogue partner in the fifth ASEAN summit in Bangkok in December 1995. In July 1996, India was invited to join the ASEAN Regional Forum. India’s inclusion in the ARF was hailed as a major diplomatic achievement and a welcome and logical extension of the Look East policy. As well as the ten ASEAN countries, ARF comprises Australia, China, Canada, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Russia, South Korea, the United States and India.


In 1997, under an Indian initiative, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand formed an economic association called BIMST-EC, linking the littoral states of the Bay of Bengal. It was identified as an economic grouping whose objective was to promote economic cooperation between members in key areas such as trade, investment, tourism, fisheries, agriculture, transportation and human resources development.


The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation project was announced at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting at Bangkok in July 2000. Formally launched on Nov. 10, 2000, in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, Mekong-Ganga Cooperation was aimed at increasing cooperation in tourism, culture and education. The signatories to the project are India and five Southeast Asian Nations - Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. However, the initiative, which envisioned an integrated South and Southeast Asia, has remained frozen in time. With new opportunities on the horizon, it is of great importance to re-visit those initiatives now.


The purpose of the 2000 initiative was for the signatories to define regions in the new global economy while keeping their native identity and character intact. The six countries also undertook to develop transportation networks including the East-West Corridor project and the Trans-Asian Highway. The key ingredient for success of the Look East policy is the interlinking of India with Southeast Asia and Indochina. For India, Myanmar is an important land-bridge to Southeast Asia. New Delhi has also had to consider China’s growing trade ties and assistance to Myanmar.


Despite the 1991 adoption of the Look East policy and the various initiatives that followed, things hardly moved. That was partly due to the fact that Bangladesh, a key element for India to secure a viable access to Southeast Asia and beyond, remained unstable under a leadership that was making alliances with various anti-India elements within and outside of Bangladesh. The other factor was the clout of pro-London and pro-Washington elements within India’s power structure. These people ceaselessly criticized Myanmar’s military rule and put up roadblocks to the improvement of India-Myanmar relations. The Chinese inroads within Myanmar during this period created a bit of confusion in New Delhi when it became evident that a lack of presence in Myanmar could result in Myanmar falling under Chinese control.


Myanmar’s northern borders abutting China also constitute a tri-junction with India’s eastern border, forming a strategic bridge between South Asia and South East Asia that is a vital area of influence for India’s security. There had been a phenomenal growth in Chinese influence in Myanmar, particularly after the Western nations slapped a ban on the sale of arms to Myanmar in 1989. This was a matter of serious concern among many Indians, as it brought the “threat” from Chinese mainland nearer to the Northeast. Moreover, Myanmar’s support was considered essential for curbing drug trafficking and Myanmar-based insurgency threats to India’s Northeast.


Things Are A-Changing


Another important development that should provide impetus to India’s Look East policy is the recent change in government in Bangladesh. Now led by the Awami League under Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the government has become active in getting itself integrated with India in its east, and with Nepal and Bhutan to its north.


Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was recently in Bangladesh carrying a $1 billion Line of Credit for Bangladesh’s infrastructure projects. Soon after his departure from Dhaka, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dipu Moni said Bangladesh is strengthening its road and railway connectivity to transform itself into a regional hub to give India access to its transit facilities. “I will not give you any deadline, but the formalities (of proposed transit routes to Nepal and Bhutan through India) are expected to be completed by this year,” Moni said at a press briefing. “When we are thinking about transforming Bangladesh as a regional hub, and when the entire region will be brought under the connectivity, India will have access to its northeastern states,” she stated, adding that “unfettered movement of people and goods will be taking place.”


She pointed out that such connectivity between India and Bangladesh would benefit both nations, adding that the two nations would exchange letters instead of protocols to allow trucks from Nepal to enter Bangladesh’s Banglabandha land port and Bangladeshi trucks to enter Nepal through India. The Banglabandha land port is located on about 10 acres of acquired land at the northwestern tip of Bangladesh, in Tetulia under the Panchagarh district on the Bangladesh-India highway. The place is of international character and is used for Nepal transit traffic passing through a small corridor of India. It is about 22 meters away from the Bangladesh-Indian borderline.


Banglabandha is an important land port because of its geographical location as it links Bangladesh with India, Nepal and Bhutan. It is 5 km from Siliguri and 10 km from Jalpaiguri town in the state of West Bengal in India. West Bengal’s famed hill station, Darjeeling, is 58 km away, while the Nepalese border transit point Kankorvita is only 61 km away. The Bhutan border, too, is only 68 km away from Banglabandha land port.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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