Making a Difference in Myanmar
India stood behind Myanmar since its resumption of ties in 1991 in an era of sanctions discarding global concerns. However, it has failed to generate enough interest in the hermit state to bolster its geo strategic needs, trade and transit. Despite 20 years of bilateral relations in an era where China, Thailand and Singapore were the only major trading partners with a closeted Myanmar, India’s trade with Myanmar stands at a measly $1.3 Billion with a promise to raise it to $3 Billion by 2015. The border trade turnover between India and Myanmar has ranged from US$ 10 to US$ 22 million, which would be higher if informal trade is taken into account.
India’s cultural ties with Burma (now Myanmar) go back a long way. However India and Myanmar failed to put these cultural ties in the right orbit ceding space to China. India’s “soft power” must now be deployed to win over the people of Myanmar who are hopeful now that change is coming. Majority of the population of Myanmar are Buddhists with deep linkages to Indian Buddhist centres. India can bolster its image in Myanmar through cultural exchange programmes between the two countries and promoting tourism. Innovative diplomacy will go a long way in winning the respect of the people of Myanmar.
Now that European Union and Australia have lifted sanctions and the US has eased investment ban the investment and political climate in Myanmar is bound to improve. It is in this backdrop that forthcoming visit of Dr Man Mohan Singh to Myanmar needs to take the right proactive initiatives to bolster the ties to mutual advantage.
India’s laundry list of a failing delivery model in Myanmar is long. There are huge challenges that the two need to surmount. Prominent among these are inability to trade in major international currencies, lack of Indian banks in Myanmar to promote trade, volatility of Myanmar currency Kyat by official exchange rates rather than being governed by market forces, lack of overland trade flow in absence of suitable infrastructure (Moreh is a shame), weak port and shipping links between the two countries and the tardy progress on government projects such as the Kaladan multi modal project to connect Sittwe to North East. Border trade, despite sharing a 1600 KM border, is known more for the illegal trade than the mechanism put in place. Trans border trade has failed to provide any benefit to local people and there are procedural hiccups for obtaining licenses as well. This optimistic government report highlights the extent of cooperation thus far. As per an Asia Times commentary of 2011, “India it seems is its worst enemy in Myanmar. Conditions for an expansion in its role there are ripe. But it will have to pull up its socks if it wants to play a larger role in that country.”
However, considering the slow pace of government projects it is strongly recommended that Dr Man Mohan Singh present a case for enhanced private sector entry in Myanmar in a big way. Dawei SEZ, though under a cloud, is another critical area where India needs to partner with Thailand, Italy and Myanmar to make a significant difference to the strategic and trade concerns of India. China is already eyeing this project to connect it to Kunming apart from the Kyauk Phyu – Kunming route to overcome the Malacca dilemma.
Myanmar has reportedly world’s tenth biggest gas reserves estimated to be more than 90 trillion cubic feet. Myanmar’s oil and gas sector has attracted the largest foreign investment with over 21 companies from 13 countries involved in the sector. The leaders of India and Myanmar agreed in 2011, during President Thein Sein’s India visit, to expand cooperation in oil and gas exploration, open up border trade and speed up the construction of natural gas pipelines. India however remained a mute witness to the construction of $2.5 billion pipeline by China, which will transport Myanmar’s offshore gas and Middle Eastern oil from Kyauk Phyu port in Rakhine state to Kunming in China’s Yunnan province, due for completion in 2013. This report tells the story of India Bangladesh Myanmar gas pipe line. Clearly Myanmar-Chinese relations which have resulted in a Myanmar-China pipeline project have reduced the amount of gas reserves available for export to Bangladesh and India. This should top the charts for talks with Myanmar.
Dr Arvind Gupta of IDSA laments that Indo–Myanmar cooperation in the past has been marred by delays and uncertainty. These delays have cost India productive cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector, where China has been the gainer.
Strategically and economically, Myanmar is the gateway to South East Asia. A six lane highway from Moreh to Singapore would be an ideal arrangement. Development of ports such as Sittwe remains a key component of India’s quest for better trade with Myanmar as it would connect India’s North East. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which provides for a road and inland waterway link from Myanmar’s Sittwe port to India’s Mizoram state, remains tardy on Indian side. India has been slow in reopening the famous Stilwell Road, previously known as the Ledo Road, to connect India’s Assam state with China’s Yunnan province through Myanmar’s Kachin state.
India should invest in capacity building, strengthening of democratic institutions and engagement with civil society. The potential of cooperation in health, education and tourism also need to be utilised. Our limited air connectivity to Myanmar and visa restrictions reflect our disdain in these areas.
Military to military contact and the pursuance of military diplomacy is another area for mutual cooperation. This cooperation is key to stabilising situation along the insurgency infested borders, ensure military hardware transfers and maritime security. The key to developing these relations remains active participation by India in training and equipping the Myanmar military, especially in the field of counter insurgency and maritime cooperation. Despite India’s worst China fears in Myanmar strategically, Myanmar has not allowed itself to be another Pakistan on our East. This needs to be factored in the security scenario.
A new security dynamic is developing in the Bay of Bengal with increased role of China in the security, hydro carbon and trade sectors in its quest to overcome the Malacca dilemma. Ms Clinton’s Dhaka visit has drawn Bangladesh into this great game. India thus needs to see Bangladesh and Myanmar together while playing this game.
India supported Myanmar’s military Junta since 1991, much against the wishes of Suu Kyi, to meet its strategic interests. It would thus be imperative for the Prime Minister to explain these compulsions and willingness of India to leverage the relations to the next level in talks with the NLD leader. India offers the best example of a democratic federal structure duly overseen by the judiciary to Myanmar which is also torn due to a series of insurgencies. The Indian entourage therefore must include chief ministers of the North Eastern States, where insurgencies have been managed by India – a step which would also help combat insurgencies in North East. Myanmar’s rulers could also turn to India for experience in building democratic institutions and processes.
India will be more acceptable to provide technical assistance to Myanmar’s institutions of democracy including the judiciary than any Western country or the United Nations.
The Prime Ministers visit needs to focus on building democracy in Myanmar. Other routes will automatically open up.
- Looking East: The Gateway to South East Asia (southasianidea.com)
- Is Myanmar on track for an economic boom? (photoblog.msnbc.msn.com)
- Myanmar Elections 2012 – Reasons to Cheer but… (southasianidea.com)
- Myanmar welcomes easing of US economic sanctions (sfgate.com)
- White House names first ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- US eases economic sanctions to reward Myanmar (sacbee.com)