Myanmar – The Bridge to ASEAN

India has been seen as fastest emerging economy of the world. This has been possible due to strengthening of internal economic system necessary for overall growth as well as transformation in the foreign policy especially towards economic ties with many countries. India has also been seen by the world as a believer of multilateral relations instead of unilateral favourism.  India does not agree to uni-polar or bi-polar world order. It believes in mutual growth by means of cooperation in all fields with as many countries as possible given that the understanding is mutual.

Towards this, India has always been part of multilateral forums which are growth oriented. Being the key player in the South Asian as well as the Indian Ocean Region, India has been engaging many Asian and littoral countries on regular basis. It realised importance of the East Asian countries in 1990 and started active dialogue process with Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The then Look East policy has been transformed into Act East Policy and is the foundation of India-ASEAN relationship. Putting the Indian perspective for the IOR, of mutual growth in a secured environment as a priority, India also has shared vision SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region) with all its oceanic neighbours. ASEAN is very important for India for competing in world economy especially against China. India aspires to grab 5% of global trade by 2020 and for that, friendship with ASEAN can prove to be an effective measure. China has been ahead of India in trading with SE Asian countries for more than a decade because of lack of connectivity and institutional linkages between India and these countries.

India has also been paying great attention to its neighbours under the ‘neighbourhood first’ policy. Out of the 10 ASEAN countries, Myanmar is the only one which shares its borders with 4 states of India and hence attains great importance as a bridge to ASEAN-India future relationship. Myanmar’s membership of ASEAN, BIMSTEC and Mekong Ganga Cooperation has introduced a regional/sub-regional dimension to bilateral relations and imparts an added significance to Myanmar in the context of India’s “Act East” policy.

Myanmar : An Old and Important Neighbour

India shares a long land border of over 1600 kms with Myanmar as well as a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. Four north-eastern states – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram – have a boundary with Myanmar. Both countries share a heritage of religious, linguistic and ethnic ties. India and Myanmar share close cultural ties and a sense of deep kinship, given India’s Buddhist heritage. Building on this shared heritage, India is undertaking some key initiatives in the restoration of the Ananda Temple in Bagan and the repair and conservation of a large number of damaged pagodas. Work on restoring and renovating two historic temples in Bodh Gaya built by Myanmar rulers King Mindon and King Baygyidaw have also been completed.

The origin of the Indian community in Myanmar is traced to the mid-19th century with the advent of British rule in Lower Burma in 1852. Yangon and Mandalay had a dominating presence of Indians in civil services, education, trade and commerce during British rule. There are varying estimates of 1.5-2.0 million people of Indian origin living and working in various parts of Myanmar. A large number of the Indian community (nearly 150,000) live in Bago (Zeyawaddy and Kuayktaga) and Tanintharyi Region and Mon State, primarily engaged in farming.

Present Relations with Myanmar

Trade Cooperation :  India is the fifth largest trading partner of Myanmar – its fifth largest destination for exports and sixth largest source of imports. Agriculture sector dominates the trade, particularly supply of beans and pulses to India ($809 million in 2016-17) and timber ($156 million). India’s exports to Myanmar include sugar ($424 million in 2016-17 & $67 million in 2017-18), pharmaceuticals ($178 million in 2017- 18), etc. A bilateral Trade Agreement was signed in 1970. Bilateral trade has been growing steadily and reached US $2.18 billion (2016-17) but declined to $1.6 billion in 2017-18, mainly due to imposition of quantitative restrictions by India on import of beans and pulses. India is presently the eleventh largest investor in Myanmar with an approved investment of US $743.642 million by 26 Indian enterprises. Most of India’s investments have been in the oil & gas sector.

Defence Cooperation : Defence cooperation between the two countries continues to strengthen. Exchanges of high-level visits, enhanced training cooperation, capacity building and support in provision of specific equipment and technologies have led to a more wholesome relationship and better understanding of mutual security concerns. Present Chief of Indian Army and Chief of Air Staff have visited Myanmar in 2017 and 2018 respectively and we hosted senior officers of Myanmar defence forces in reciprocation. Myanmar Army has displayed enhanced understanding of India’s security concerns and initiated measures to address them.

Disaster Relief : India has responded promptly and effectively in rendering assistance following natural calamities in Myanmar – during Cyclone Mora (2017), Komen (2015), earthquake in Shan State (2010), Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the outbreak of influenza virus in Yangon in July-August 2017. Indian defence forces have actively participated in these HADR missions.

Development Cooperation : India has extended development assistance to Myanmar on generous terms and our assistance portfolio is now over $1.75 billion. The bulk of the assistance is grant-funded. The projects include the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP); the Trilateral Highway Project, which is an East-West corridor connecting our Northeast with Myanmar and Thailand; the Rhi-Tiddim road; assistance for border area development in Chin State and the Naga Self-Administered Zone by financing bridges, roads, schools and small health centres; 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; capacity assistance in public health by supporting upgradation of Yangon Children’s Hospital and Sittwe General Hospital and the construction of a 200-bed women’s hospital at Monywa; the Rakhine State Development Programme; restoration and conservation of Ananda Temple in Bagan and the repair and conservation of 92 earthquake damaged pagodas; reconstruction of Yamethin Women Police Training Centre, etc.

Ongoing Projects

According to a statement issued by the Indian Embassy in Myanmar, “the landmark Land Border Crossing Agreement between India and Myanmar, signed on May 11, 2018, has been brought into effect with the simultaneous opening of international entry-exit checkpoints at the Tamu-Moreh and the Rihkhawdar-Zowkhawtar border between Myanmar and India.”

The idea is to have better connectivity by all means. It is in the interest of both the countries as Myanmar also is not a supporter of BRI and the infrastructure cooperation between India and Myanmar can counter Chinese debt oriented run-over. The tri lateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand is likely to be completed by next year. Similarly India-funded Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP) will allow for sea-access for the landlocked North-eastern states of India via the Kaladan River in Myanmar. As far as air connectivity goes there are hardly any flights flying to Yangon directly from Indian cities. There is only one weekly Air India flight from Kolkata to Yangon and twice in a week from Delhi via Gaya. Most other flight services such as Thai Airways reach Yangon via Bangkok. On the other hand, the flight services from Myanmar to other East and Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan and Bangkok are much more frequent and larger in number.1 Airlines from ASEAN countries carry twice the size of international passengers from and to India, compared to the passengers carried by all Indian airlines together.2

Connectivity of main land to NE states of India has been improving gradually and easy trans-border commute including by means of air, will further give an impetus to overall development of EAST.

Suggestions

Air Connectivity : Unlike earlier days, the NE states are better connected with major Indian cities nowadays. However it still has scope of getting better. Other than road connectivity, the air connectivity to major cities of NE can be improved. The Indian aviation sector is growing and is bound to prosper in future. Investment in NE aviation sector will not only connect local people better but also will offer faster and convenient passage to travelers from eastern neighbours, either for tourism or meeting business partners/relatives across borders. Given the terrain characteristics and short distances involved, small scale airlines having ATR aircraft with seating capacity varying from 50 to 100 shall be encouraged for operations within the local air space including Myanmar or maybe Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh also. For example there is a flight from Bhutan to Dhaka via Guwahati already.

The airline operators from Myanmar can be given permissions to land in small airports of NE states. The IAF can regulate the prohibited air space of NE states depending on timing of inbound and outgoing flights from Myanmar and same can be tied up for Indian operators. The entry and exit points can be fixed for ease of traffic management.

Bus Services : Other than having better trade opportunities at two border opening points (mentioned earlier), we can also improve bus services to connect local villagers or commuters for deepening the cultural bond. Assisting Myanmar authorities in improving road conditions to reduce travel time to selected cities like Mandalay (region of Ananda temple), Yangon etc will also boost tourism across borders. For example with better roads and widened bridges, the present travel time of 11 hours from Moreh (Manipur) to Mandalay can be reduced to about five hours.

Port Connectivity :  Work on the Kaladan project began after the governments of India and Myanmar entered into a framework agreement in 2008. The project aims to provide an alternate outlet to the landlocked North East which is heavily dependent on the narrow ‘Chicken’s Neck’ at Siliguri. Originally, the project was scheduled to be completed by 2014, but is expected to be operational only by 2019-2020 as all components of the project, including Sittwe port and power, river dredging, Paletwa jetty, have been completed, except the under construction Zorinpui-Paletwa road. However there is a need of actively pursuing the timely construction and starting the port to port service as soon as possible as we have seen that this delay is directly causing dent in India’s ambition to boost trade and economy in East Asian countries.

Medical Tourism : More high standard hospitals should be constructed in NE region so that it not only benefits Indian citizens staying in far flung areas of the region but it can boost medical tourism from neighbouring countries. Delhi and Mumbai hospitals are generally full with patients for West Asian countries. Similarly, for East Asian countries, NE cities can be preferable destination.

Educational Tourism : Many students from Myanmar are studying in China because of the proximity and China has made few concessions in students’ visa rules for Myanmar. But if we see number of Chinese students across the globe (mainly US, UK and Australia), we can understand that it is not China’s education system but soft power policy that is drawing students from SE Asian countries. India has much affordable and well reputed educational institutes, not only in metropolitan cities but important cities of NE India as well. Imphal in Manipur has good Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS), In Assam, Guwahati has Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Dibrugarh also has reputed technical colleges, Shillong in Meghalaya has North East Hill University (NEHU) and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and then there are good National Institutes of Technology (NITs) in many states. We should boost educational tourism in order to attract students from Myanmar and other SE Asian countries in order to have a positive image of India in young minds of these countries and ensure a long lasting relationship in years to come.

Defence Interaction: In Dec 2018, delegation of military personnel from both countries exchanged visits as CBM. The Indian Air Force facilitated the travel of the Myanmar’s military officials in IL-76 aircraft, some of whom were accompanied by their spouses. It was a goodwill gesture and same if continued can further strengthen defence cooperation. Families of government officials can also enjoy touring if LTC facility is provided. Joint exercises between defence forces while paying attention on HADR drills also will have close ties established. The Myanmar air force has fleet of mix of Russian and Chinese aircraft. They should be invited for joint exercise in India as goodwill gesture to increase interoperability. These joint exercises will benefit both the counties in long run. The border areas are infected with rebel groups’ activities which are hampering timely completion of connectivity projects as well as economic growth of the region. These groups are funded and supported by other countries for thwarting the bi-lateral ties between India and Myanmar. Joint operations against such groups should be conducted as active defence cooperation.

Conclusion

Myanmar’s opening-up in recent years has made the country an arena of competition among established and new players. The democratisation, along with economic reforms, has unleashed new opportunities for India, which is determined to make up for lost time. With a creative blend of diplomacy and culture, the India-Myanmar relations can only scale new heights in days to come. We need to ACT EAST using SAGAR vision to have credible and reliable relation with this strategically important neighbour which is also a key link between India and ASEAN partnership.

(Wg Cdr Vikas Kalyani is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. The views expressed are personal.)

 

References:

1     https://www.orfonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/IndiaMyanmar.pdf – India-Myanmar connectivity : Possibilities and challenges

2     http://ris.org.in/sites/default/files/Final_Air_Connetivity_Report-web.pdf

 

(This article is carried in the print edition of July-August 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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