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Not just a neighbourly visit

Myanmar could become a vital link between India and the ASEAN

Myanmar could become a vital link between India and the ASEAN

The stand-off between the military regime and Aung San Suu Kyi has been the defining feature of the domestic political scene in Myanmar since 1988. Her unconditional release from detention (for 15 of the past 24 years) on November 13,2010,was the first step in the Myanmar government’s efforts to ensure her active participation in the country’s politics,which it has continued to facilitate in heretofore inconceivable ways. Her hectic schedule of political activities since then has led to her being elected a member of parliament. She has finally chosen to become a participant in the pathbreaking processes of political transformation in the country,thus according them legitimacy,both in the international and the domestic contexts. A 13-point agreement has been reached between the government and the Karen National Union for a ceasefire,bringing to an end the longest running ethnic conflict within Myanmar. Countries which had shunned and excoriated Myanmar are now rushing to embrace it.

This dramatically transformed domestic and external scenario explains the context of para three of the joint statement issued by India and Myanmar — “The visit of the Prime Minister,the first after 25 years,is a historic milestone in relations between India and Myanmar.” Above all,this visit symbolises the resolution of India’s moral dilemma: reconciling proactive Indian engagement with an authoritarian military regime,dictated by overriding considerations of national interest — preempting Myanmar from being fully absorbed into China’s orbit,a concern likely to diminish even though China will remain a significant player in Myanmar — with India’s strong attachment to democracy,socio-political pluralism and unity in diversity.

The prime minister had a long meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi,whom he praised in generous terms. She has accepted an invitation to visit India to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture. President Thein Sein has accepted an invitation to attend the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in December 2012; the two leaders would have then met three times in 14 months. In the joint statement,the two leaders have said,“The range and frequency of engagement between the two countries has intensified significantly since Myanmar’s transition to a more democratic form of government in March 2011.” This fact itself and the use of this phraseology in the joint statement are worthy of note.

The MoU on India-Myanmar Border Area Development is particularly significant. India will execute a large range of specified,small developmental projects in the Naga Self-Administered Zone (in Sagaing Division bordering Manipur and Nagaland) and the Chin State (bordering Mizoram) of Myanmar,creating new development corridors in erstwhile inaccessible and backward areas of the country. This initiative will greatly enhance cross-border economic,and people to people,interaction. This represents an important psychological breakthrough since Myanmar has rarely allowed foreigners access to this region. Clearly,the bilateral relationship has now acquired a sense of closeness,ease and mutual confidence.

India has long believed that Myanmar is vital to the economic development and internal stability of four of India’s northeastern states,which share a 1,463-km border with that country. The states would benefit from strong cross-border economic links,access to India through transport corridors from Sittwe and cooperation in eliminating insurgency. Myanmar is the land bridge between India and ASEAN and thus vital to the success of the Look East policy. It could provide much-needed economic and transport connectivity between India and Southeast and East Asia. The trilateral highway linking India with Thailand and beyond through Myanmar will be completed by 2016. Substantive discussions revolved mainly around these themes. Many elements of the joint statement represent a virtual roadmap to fulfil these specific objectives while others provide a blueprint for India’s greatly enhanced involvement in Myanmar’s economy,with a specific role for the private sector in many fields. India’s involvement in energy,infrastructure and power sectors is slated to grow. Agriculture,capacity building and education have been given special focus. New Indian presence in the vital banking sector should help overcome the many hindrances to direct trade. Several new trading facilities will be set up along the border. Many of the 12 agreements deal with Indian assistance in diverse fields. The number of training slots for Myanmar in the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation has been doubled,making it the leading recipient of such assistance. In funding much of this,India has exhibited uncommon financial generosity. Such a broad spectrum of engagement has never been seen in the past. The foundations have been laid for a quantum jump in bilateral relations.

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India’s policies since 1992 stand validated as a bright new dawn grows visible over the horizon.

The writer is a former ambassador
express@expressindia.com