Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar that begins today marks seven decades of diplomatic relations between India and Myanmar. His last visit in 2014 took place when President Thein Sein was at the helm in Myanmar but the purpose of that visit was primarily to attend the ASEAN-India summit. Modi is, however, well-acquainted with the current president, Htin Kyaw and the country’s State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with whom he will hold discussions. The former paid a state visit to India in August 2016. Modi also received Suu Kyi in Delhi with ceremonial honours after she participated in the BIMSTEC Summit in Goa last October.
The PM will visit Bagan, where the Archeological Survey of India has done a splendid job of restoring the Ananda temple, a jewel among all Bagan pagodas. He will then proceed to Yangon where the highlight will be his meeting with the large Indian diaspora, many of whose forefathers came to Burma in the 19th or early 20th century.
A strong and decisive leader usually gets a positive response in Myanmar. That Modi will be visiting Yangon after the successful resolution of the Doklam face-off with the common northern neighbour of the two countries will lend more weight to the PM’s standing in Myanmar.
Official discussions during the visit are expected to be wide-ranging, covering security challenges along the border and various bilateral matters. Myanmar may also brief the PM on the peace process on ethnic affairs in the country to which Suu Kyi has attached great priority.
The volatile situation in the Rakhine state is also likely to be discussed. In the aftermath of the recent incidents of terrorism in the state by the Rohingya militant group, ARSA, a fresh wave of refugees have made their way to Bangladesh and other countries in the region — adding to the Rohingya refugee population in these countries. Some 40,000 Rohingyas have also found their way to India. The recently-submitted Kofi Annan Advisory Commission report offers detailed recommendations on this long-pending issue. Suu Kyi has termed the Annan report as constructive. But will the military in Myanmar and the government find a way to work together in addressing the issue? If called upon, India can certainly help in improving the socio-economic conditions in the area and also create employment opportunities.
This article will focus on the three broad sets of bilateral issues that have the potential to transform the relationship between India and Myanmar. One, strengthening the development cooperation framework. No other country has committed as much in grant-in-aid to Myanmar as India. These include four major connectivity projects running into hundreds of millions of dollars — the Kaladan multi-modal corridor, repair of 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa road and the construction of the 120-km Kalewa-Yargyi corridor, both of which are part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, and the Rhi-Tiddim road in the Chin state bordering Mizoram.
Unfortunately, the projects have not been completed in time. As a result, India has not got due credit. However, with the completion of the waterway section of the Kaladan corridor and with the bidding process of other projects at advanced stages, it should now be possible for the two sides to set definite but realistic time-frames for the accomplishment of these projects. It is essential that the two countries immediately start negotiating transit and other agreements for the smooth movement of goods and vehicles for optimal use of the infrastructure — even though such traffic may not flow before 2020.
It is generally also less known that India has been actively involved in capacity building in Myanmar. Six centres imparting training in diverse subjects, from English language to industrial skills, are running successfully in Myanmar. The Myanmar Institute of Information Technology set up in Mandalay with the collaboration of IIIT Bangalore has been a success with all its graduates finding ready employment. The Advanced Centre for Agriculture Research and Education set up in collaboration with India’s ICAR is a fine example of pooling research efforts on pulses and oilseeds.
With Myanmar’s government emphasising higher education and vocational training, more Indian-assisted institutions can come up in the country. Scholarships for undergraduates can work if a way is found to bridge the difference between the matriculation system of schooling in Myanmar and India’s 10+2 system. Myanmarese from a few generations ago still recall how they learnt English and other subjects from Indian professors who were then teaching at the Yangon University.
Two, greater cooperation between Northeast India and Western Myanmar. Four states in the Northeast share common borders with Myanmar’s Sagaing and Chin provinces. The Kaladan corridor also passes through the Rakhine state till it arrives at the Sittwe port developed by India. Businesses on both sides, especially SMEs in contiguous provinces, and the governments need to come up with action plans for transforming the evolving corridors into development corridors.
Border trade through Tamu/Moreh and Rhi/Zhokhowthar needs to become more formalised with truly single-window clearances and easier currency arrangements. The border haats can energise exchange of local produce. Cross- border bus services can promote people-to-people connectivity. Cross-border trade in services can be boosted in sectors like medicine, diagnostics, or even education and training for which there is a large market.
There is also potential for cooperation on larger initiatives, such as the sale of refined petroleum products from the Numaligarh refinery in upper Myanmar. All this will mean that the Northeast will gain from the Act East policy. Strengthening the border region cooperation project, implemented by India in Myanmar’s Chin and Naga areas, can help India in securing political — and other — support at the local-level in Myanmar. Such development initiatives could also prompt Myanmar to collaborate more in tackling the insurgency issue in Nagaland — particularly in a post-Khaplang scenario.
Three, expanding bilateral trade and investment. Bilateral trade between the two countries has, for long, remained at around $2 billion. India ranks fifth among Myanmar’s import sources and 10th among foreign investors. Barring a few outfits, large Indian business groups are conspicuous by their absence. Chinese, Singaporean, Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese businesses have actively seized business opportunities in Myanmar. Admittedly, the regulatory and economic environment has to evolve in Myanmar to enhance the comfort levels of business enterprises. But to wait for everything to fall in place could be too late. Several prized hotel properties in Yangon, for instance, have already been picked up. Indian businesses could invest in the power, steel, automobiles and even textile sectors in Myanmar. Some leveraging by the Indian delegation during PM Modi’s visit will be necessary here.
The Myanmar side would definitely raise the issue of restrictions imposed by India limiting the import of pulses — following a steep fall in domestic prices in India. Pulses form the single largest item in Myanmar’s limited export basket. This could also be the time for both sides to explore the possibility of a bilateral agreement on the issue — as mooted last year. The two sides could also discuss basing this trade on letters of credit and direct shipment than having to go through Singapore.
Modi’s visit to Myanmar can truly invigorate the ‘Act East’ agenda.