India Myanmar: Together the Way Ahead

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India Foundation, an independent think tank from New Delhi, in association with Institute for Transnational Studies (ITS), Germany, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute for Asian Studies(MAKAIS), Kolkata and the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS) organised a two day conference: India Myanmar Together the Way Ahead, in Yangon, Myanmar on Nov 21 and 22, 2014.

The conference was inaugurated by Shri. Sushil Modi, Leader of Opposition, Bihar Legislative Council and Former Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar, India, Shri. U Nyunt Maung Shein, Chairman of MISIS and Shri. Gautam Mukhopadhyay, Ambassador of India to Myanmar.

Shri. U Nyunt Maung Shein, in his opening remarks at the inauguration said that the conference was a welcome step taken by the think tanks from both countries as this follows the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Myanmar.

“According to PM Modi, Look-East has now become Act-East, and India is actively involved in many cross-border projects. India and Myanmar are close neighbors, and this is the first conference for MISIS with India in 2 years since its reorganization”, he said

Shri. Sushil Modi in his address recalled the historical and cultural connections India shared with Myanmar and called for deeper engagement between both the nations.

“India is the land of Lord Buddha, and thus is an important place of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar. Similarly Bal Gangadhar Tilak when lodged in Mandalay wrote his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.”, he said. Shri. Modi added that in Myanmar one can come across various South Indian temples as well.

Shri. Modi also cited the vital connection that Subhash Chandra Bose shared with the people of Myanmar. “Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose raised his army comprising of 40,000 soldiers from both India and Myanmar. Aung San, Burmese independence hero, was a friend of Netaji in Myanmar.” he said

Shri. Modi also advocated the idea of sourcing consumer goods from Myanmar than from far off places. “Looking North-East and towards the region around it, including Myanmar and Bangladesh will help eradicate poverty. It makes more sense to source consumer goods from Myanmar than from other far off places in India, as this region could be a “natural economic zone”. , he said

Towards closer engagement between both the countries, Shri. Modi called for setting up a large multi modal Special Economic Zone near Sittwe, a 10 year programme to share benefits of Science and Technology, modus operandi through which experiences of democratic institutions can be shared and a Memorandum of Understanding between both countries in the field of Defence Co-operation.

Ambassador Shri.Gautam Mukhopadhyay said that the new government in India has a vision that leads India to the South- East which can in turn lead towards a significant relationship between India and Myanmar in the future.

“Myanmar and India relations face a deficit in terms of trade, investment and connectivity. In the coming years, we must attempt to balance and bridge this gap. Fortunately the ASEAN master-plan and the East-West Corridor give us an opportunity to further strengthen ties.” he said

The conference then progressed to discuss issues of common interest like Overview of Political, Social and Economic Developments, Enhancing Trade and Investment, including opportunities and challenges, followed by Regional Connectivity and Linkages, and Terrorism and National Security Concerns.

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Overview of Political, Social and Economic Developments

The session focussed on speakers elucidating the current political, social and economic developments in both the countries. Shri. U Denzel Abel from MISIS in his presentation explained that Myanmar is under a reform process and the President of Myanmar is keen for a successful and a peaceful reform process.

“Over time there has been a significant change in Myanmar, this has given rise to a better understanding of internal dynamics which can pave way for her reform process”, he said.

Abel also acknowledged that Myanmar is not a unitary actor and that there are many forces at play, one among them is the armed forces.  He explained that many in Myanmar see USA and China as important bilateral partners.

“Today, Myanmar operates under three notes, USA, China and the role of the international community.” he said. Abel added that because of the triangle there is meant to be instability and thus there is an urgent need to maintain the right balance. Abel also mentioned that to contribute to the country’s peace process many countries have come forward such as Norway, Switzerland, Australia and Japan.

Shri.U Than Lwin, Deputy Chairman, KBZ Bank, Myanmar put forth perspectives on the economic reforms front which Myanmar has undergone over years. “Nationalization of banks and private businesses led to Myanmar becoming one of the poorest in Southeast Asia.”, he said. Lwin said the main challenges which Myanmar faces today is Capacity Building and Acquisition of Financial Technology. He said this can be dealt with, by enabling entry of foreign banks and significantly return of Myanmar nationals from abroad who can help with capacity building.  Lwin also hoped to see more Indian banks in Myanmar in the near future.

Shri. G Parthasarathy, Former Ambassador of India previously to countries like Myanmar, Australia and Pakistan said, India has maintained steady and good relations with everyone including the European Union and the USA, he however termed the relations with China as challenging.

Parthasarathy also reiterated that days when India kept shy of active military engagement are over. “We want to keep a balance of power, and believe in domination by no one.” he said. Parthasarathy put forth that for India’s interests, Myanmar’s unity is crucial and thus Myanmar’s co-operation was valued in the borders. He added that India is not here to make money but to support Myanmar ably.

Shri. Dattesh Parulekar, Assistant Professor, International Relations, Goa University, in his address said there are four important dimensions to India’s foreign policy, Rediscover significance in neighbourhood, Focus on extended neighbourhood, South-South cooperation and Focus on gateway to the East. He maintained that India is looking at Myanmar with a qualitative foreign policy. “Early in the 90s, we looked at Myanmar only with a security perspective, but today, building relations in the region is not a counterbalance effort, the idea is to diversify foreign policy”

Enhancing Trade and Investment: Opportunities and Challenges

The session focussed on the investment and trade opportunities prevalent in both the nations.

Shri. V.S. Seshadri, Former Ambassador of India to Myanmar in his talk called for close and cordial economic relations. “Both the Governments in India and Myanmar are focussed on Infrastructure. There is a need for investment in the field of Services, Education and Health Care in both the countries.” he said

Shri. V.S. Seshadri pointed out that Myanmar today enjoys a trade surplus of over $1 billion dollars with India and that there are moderate levels of growth in terms of bilateral trade. He also called for improving and diversifying border trade between both the countries.

Seshadri noted that think tanks have an important role to play in formalising and strengthening trade mechanisms. He also said that Indian investors need to invest in Myanmar just like how they have become significant investors in other countries.

Shri.Khin Maung Nyo, Economist and Adviser, MISIS, who spoke next, called for early action in terms of India’s Act East Policy. Khin noted that people from Myanmar prefer goods from China than India because they are cheaper compared to India and because of Myanmar’s social construct.

“The Indian Prime Minister is keen to build infrastructure to regulate the flow of goods in the region, which is a welcome sign.  Indian – ASEAN Free Trade Agreement can add great impetus to trade within the region. Moreh and Imphal in Manipur can play a significant role in the years to come when new train, road, air and internet connectivity arrives.” he said

Shri. Shakti Sinha, Former IAS Officer from New Delhi, in his address stressed on PM Modi’s 3 Cs : Culture, Connectivity and Commerce and in this context, called for trade to be seen in a big picture.

“Myanmar is India’s gateway to the ASEAN. We must keep in mind that it is always easier to become part of a larger supply chain, than to go with a single product. It is always a range of economic activities spread all across the economy that makes a difference – not just one or two big investments.” he said

Shri. Shakti noted that there is a huge potential in Myanmar for oil, gas etc and that India’s biggest export unit is by itself petrol. And in so far as Indian FDI into Myanmar, Shri. Shakti termed it as very low and that there was a long way to go for both countries to become economic partners.

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Regional Connectivity and Linkages

Speaking in this session, Shri.U Wynn Lwin of MISIS said that ASEAN and India should look at developing PPP (Private Public Partnership) models to facilitate connectivity which will enable greater momentum towards bilateral trade. Linn also stated that it was good to see India support the ASEAN master plan.

Shri. Jaideep Saikia, South Asian Security and Terrorism Analyst, reiterated Indian Government’s policy to ensure adequate and quality infrastructure in North East India and pointed out that there is a need for a sustainable development plan for the North Eastern region of India which can help benefit both Myanmar and India on the connectivity front.

Shri. U Ba Hla Aye, Joint Secretary 2, MISIS, who spoke next, mentioned that some of the constraints to ensure better connectivity between both countries include rugged terrain, weather, lack of resources, adequate security, illegal immigration, human trafficking, and legal instruments.

In conclusion, Shri. Anirban Ganguly, Director, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Foundation, New Delhi, called for greater participation of India’s study share in key universities of Myanmar and said it is imperative that India and Myanmar together uphold their civilizational partnership to envision the Asian Century.

Counter Terrorism

Prof. Daw Carole Ann Chit Tha, Member of MISIS, opened this session by stating that terrorism has become a vicious challenge for the global administration. She further explained that the last two decades has witnessed the rise of Islamic State and Extremism.

“ISIS is better than Al Qaeda in generating its own resources. The emergence of ISIS will lead to more violent groups to come up in the region.” she said

Ambassador U Hla Myint, Executive Director, MISIS,who spoke next said that religious extremism is not a recent phenomenon but a driver of terrorism, she further elaborated that India has the highest number of terror incidents in the world, all funded and managed by religious drivers.

Lt. General KT Parnaik, Former GoC- In Charge of the Northern Command, Indian Army, put forth his views by stating that  Islamic extremism came to India after the 1971 Pak-India war and that many Indian groups get support from across the border. Towards this he called for both Myanmar and India to collaborate and work together towards problems brewing across the border.

“Intelligence- based people friendly approaches, training establishments for counter-terrorist operations and fighting inside out rather than outside-inside approach is need of the hour.” he said

Finally, Alok Bansal, Director, Centre for Security and Strategy, India Foundation said that Islamic Radicalization was a common problem for both India and Myanmar and it is in this context that close co-operation between both nations is critical.

“Calibrated De-radicalization programmes are the need now, for instance Cyber media is very potent and plays a significant role in radicalization even before physical content. Thus there is a need to craft a deradicalization programme in addressing this specific issue as well. “, he said

Dr. Klaus Lange, CEO, ITS in his concluding remarks stated that Europe is interested in Myanmar – India relations because Europe is increasingly running the risk of losing its identity. “One of the ways to regain this identity is through interaction with new partners and the most ideal partners are in South Asia today.” he said

Shri. Sitaram Sharma, Chairman, MAKAIS, termed the two day conference as fruitful. “Deliberations over both the days have showed us that both public and private sectors have a role to play in bringing both the countries together. We hope that the deliberations will also pave way for a pragmatic foreign policy between both the countries in the days and years to come.” he said

Shri. Shaurya Doval, Director, India Foundation, called the two day conference which witnessed discussion surrounding a gamut of issues which are of common interest and concern to both the nations a success.

“We must make bilateral exchanges between think tanks of both countries an annual affair. We now look forward to MISIS visiting India next year and participating in a conference on similar lines in order to contribute to a long lasting relationship between both countries.” he said.

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