The ancient Holy Puya of Meitei (Holy Book of Meetei) predicted “Nongpok Thong Hangani”, which means “The eastern gate will open”. This prediction in the Holy Puya could not have been truer when the Government of India formulated ‘Look-East Policy’ initiated by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) and rigorously pursued by the successive administrations of Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004-2014). Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the new government of India has made its relations with East Asian neighbors, a foreign policy priority by proposing a new outlook calling it the Act East Policy. India’s Look East Policy which started as an economic engagement with its eastern neighbors, turned into a tool for forging strategic partnership and security cooperation by the following governments. The so-called Act East Policy driven through North-East India and Myanmar has now become the centre of geo-economics and geo-politics.
Strategic Importance of North-East India
North-East India, comprising of eight states, has almost ninety five percent of its boundaries as international borders – surrounded by China, Nepal and Bhutan in the North, Bangladesh in the South-west and Myanmar in the East. In the past history, the mighty Himalayas in the north always kept India physically aloof from China. In the North-east, treacherous terrain, militia and ethnic tensions made it impossible to cross over and connect with China via Myanmar. On the return of democracy in Myanmar, almost after half a century of military rule and civil war, Myanmar is now set to open up to the world with democratic values and is showing an intent on improving trade and commerce relations.
Interestingly, in the past colonial times, when Burma was part of British India, British Indian government underestimated the strategic importance of Burma before the World War 2. It was when the fascist Imperial Japanese forces swept across China and rest of Asia and reached the borders of Burma, that the British forces realized that the threat is real now with the possibility of infiltration into the Jewel of the British Crown – British India. British-Indian forces retreated from Burma abandoning strategic Mandalay and defended from Imphal Valley and Kohima. In recent times, the British have declared the Battles of Imphal and Kohima as the ‘Fiercest Battles’ fought in the history of World War 2. The lesson that modern India needs to learn from the ‘mistake’ British-India committed is that North-East India should be defended militarily as well as economically with Myanmar as our first line of defense or a level playing field by upholding admirable diplomatic and trade relations.
Understanding Myanmar – New Crossroad of Asia
Myanmar (name changed in 1989 from Burma) is a country with a population of more than 60 million which neighbours North-East India inhabited by 50 million people. Myanmar is the direct land bridge for India to Thailand, Laos and China and indirect link to Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Modern India needs to recognize that Myanmar is extremely important as a land bridge to reach out to the rest of ASEAN countries and is a level playing field for India and China to exercise their influence. Fascinatingly, many Indian immigrants lived in Myanmar in the 20th century and were later cast out with the onset of civil war and military takeover on 2 March, 1962 by General Ne Win. However, in early 1980s, in spite of the military rule in Burma and the isolation it faced from the world, Chinese businessmen took first mover advantage and started investing in the Northern states of Kachin and Shan, leaving long lasting impression on Myanmar, that will be later seen as economic progress as well as political interference. In the past history, whatever has happened in China spilled over to Myanmar. The increasing Chinese influence and interference has often been met with resistance and backlash by the Burmese. With the onset of democratic reforms between 2011-15 and the win for National League for Democracy in 2015 elections, Myanmar is prepared to open up to the rest of world under the proficient leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. While Myanmar has always experienced Chinese investment and political interference, the country has always looked up to India for its historical connections like Buddhism, Indian wisdom and its democratic values.
The peace process framed by the BJP-led government in the North-East India is bearing positive results. The diplomatic relations extended to the then military Junta government has also helped in reducing the insurgency activities around the international borders. The intent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act East Policy’ can be gauged in the BJP’s election win in the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur. History will be made when the Indian Railways reach Imphal and further connection to Myanmar will make Tran-Asian Railway a reality. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway through Moreh in Manipur will further connect Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, to be known as East-West Economic Corridor. Kaladan-Multi Modal Transit Transport will connect seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport and then through Kaladan river route, from Palethwa (Myanmar) to the North-Eastern state of Mizoram.
Role of Skill Development in India’s ‘Act East Policy’
In this backdrop of history, politics, economics and connectivity in North-east India and Myanmar, Indian Government must not only focus on geo-economics but also have a clear geo-political strategy to contain neighbouring China and to boost trade and security cooperation with ASEAN countries. By design, it helps India gain a dominant influence in the Indian Ocean Rim. With the future that India is envisioning, it becomes pertinent to factor in relevant functions that support India’s ‘Act East Policy’. One function that will add great impetus to India’s ‘Act East Policy’ is Skill Development, undertaken by the Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship, Government of India.
With the Trans-Asian Railway and the India-Myanmar- Thailand Trilateral highway through Moreh in Manipur nearing completion, India foresees a colossal boost in trade and commerce making North-East India, the next big economic corridor connecting India to ASEAN countries and China. In the light of this development, NE states need to develop an ambitious yet meaningful Skill Development and Employment Plan for its youth, taking into account what development will take place at its international borders in the next 40 to 50 years.
We must recognize that unemployment is at the core of all issues in North-East India. Three levels of Skill Development and Employment plan can be formulated: – (1) Develop skills among the North-East youth, which are needed across the world specially in service industries like Tourism & Hospitality, Retail and IT & IT-enabled services. Initially, these skills can be exported outside the North-East and later, as the industries develop in the North-East, they can be absorbed into local employment. (2) Nature has gifted rich flora and fauna to the North-East region and the region could become a hub for developing agriculture, horticulture, floriculture, and food processing. There is a huge potential to create local enterprises and local employment around these sectors. (3) As the trade & commerce boom in North-East India through connectivity with ASEAN and China, youth of the region need to get skilled in relevant trades to support the cross-border trade and business. Mammoth skill training initiatives should be taken up in the fields of Logistics and Warehousing, Cold Storage, Railways, Highways, Mining, Oil and Gas, Heavy Vehicle Driving, Business Management and Banking & Finance. These three levels of Skill Development and Employment plan can only be realized by forming an efficient and effective State Skill Mission in each of the states in North-east India; primarily in the states sharing international ‘trade’ borders with Myanmar; namely, Manipur and Mizoram. In order to deliver quality training of international standards, state-of-the-art infrastructure in the form of ‘Multi-Skill Training Centers’ should be built in North East India. The Multi-Skill Training centers need to have ‘Language Labs’ to deliver training on Burmese and Mandarin, which will be of immense help in penetrating business and maintaining diplomatic relations with Myanmar. ‘Skill India’ mission can play a vital role in preparing the youth of North-East India for the drastic positive changes that ‘Act East India’ will bring to the region.
Myanmar is the land bridge for North-east India to the Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean and is also a country India needs to compete for with China. North-east India is Myanmar’s neighbour and will remain so. Therefore, North-East India is logistically best placed for India to consider any activity in Myanmar or other ASEAN countries. Since 1980s, Chinese influence is deeply entrenched in the Burmese society either through business or political interference. Often the dominant influence and Chinese spillover onto Myanmar have been met with backlash by the Burmese from time to time. Myanmar definitely enjoys business investment by China but not at the cost of political interference. On the other hand, Myanmar is keen to counter-balance China’s influence by reaching out to India. The wisdom for India is that India needs to understand the ‘fears’ and ‘desires’ of Myanmar. This may be the ‘key’ to the success for India’s “Act East Policy”.
(Lairenjam Niranjan Singh is director of JCRE Skill Solutions and working towards skilling the youth & solving unemployment in North-East India.)
(This article is carried in the July-August 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)