By Preet Malik
There is little doubt that the government and public opinion take India as an important player in Myanmar’s designs for its future. However, there are unfortunately gaps between expectation and what so far has been promised or delivered by India.
It is also fairly clear that the foreign policy establishment in India has come to recognise the importance to India of Myanmar as a strategic and security partner. However, before making an assessment of the present state of play on the India-Myanmar relationship it is worth pointing out that the Indian leadership has yet to understand the nature and direction that the relationship deserves.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has undoubtedly provided a new dynamism and sense of purpose to Indian diplomacy and has displayed a deft personal touch in establishing a high level of personal relationship with many of the world leaders. However, he failed to recognise the strategic and security importance to India of Myanmar as a neighbour that also serves as the land bridge to Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. Modi failed to recognise these aspects when he failed to invite President Thein Sein along with other neighbouring countries to his swearing-in ceremony. He again failed to attach priority to the relations with Myanmar that warranted his making a specific bilateral visit to that country on par with what he has shown in the case of Nepal and Bhutan.
During the November 2014 visit that Modi made to capital Nay Pyi Taw he had a 45-minute meeting with Thein Sein on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit. The meeting was routine in nature, restating the areas of cultural, connectivity and commercial ties. On the cultural front the reference was to enabling Myanmar scholars’ entrance to the Nalanda University, thus reiterating the importance of the Buddhist connection.
On connectivity there was a review of the progress of the Trilateral Highway and a reference to the establishment of industrial SEZs and the desire to establish a bus service between Manipur and Mandalay.
As far as India’s commercial involvement is concerned it has been perfunctory in nature despite the clear areas of advantage to Indian business entities where investment would pay off. A case in point is the paper and pulp industry, an area where Myanmar has a rich raw material resource base that would enable India to cover the deficit in meeting domestic demand. The private sector is holding back on investing in Myanmar as it is uncertain over the outcome unless it is carried out on the back of concessional financing commitments from the government of India as well as a risk related assurance policy. It feels that this is essential for it to take the investment plunge into Myanmar.
The progress on the Kaladan Multi-modal project was reviewed. This project has been inordinately delayed and still awaits a decision on establishing a longer connecting road with Mizoram. This project is of significance as it would provide connectivity to the north eastern states to both India and the outside world and would help in granting substance to the economy of the region.
The main stumbling block to the timely and cost competitive completion of Indian projects in Myanmar lies at the doors of bureaucratic red tape and the hitherto dependence on the public sector to carry out both the definition and the construction of these projects. The main culprit is the finance ministry that interferes at every stage delaying the release of funds despite the approval and budgetary clearance for the projects. These delays have resulted in India earning the reputation of one that holds promise but fails on delivery. The solution lies in the setting up of a monitoring system involving the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office that would help cut out administrative and financial delays.
Another aspect that is of immense importance for bilateral relations is for swift progression of the implementation of the Border Area Development Agreement. This requires involvement by India, on a cross border basis, in the establishment of institutions and programmes in the areas of education, healthcare, and communications while simultaneously developing the requisite industrial base covering areas like agriculture, food processing, irrigation, and a timber-based industry. The political commitment has to be translated to development on the ground.
The security issue that confronts both countries and where progress would be of mutual benefit requires that much greater attention be provided to the socio-economic projects in the border areas with financial, technological and institutional support being extended on a large scale by India. The aim has to be to ensure that development and the requisite institutional support works towards providing a secure future to the people on both sides of the border areas where they recognise that the state machinery is working to guarantee the future of the people and their welfare.
This is the only way in which the state machinery would be strengthened to bring a sense of purpose to the people and remove the need for them to indulge in insurgency. It has to be recognised that if the material needs of the people and sense of a secure future prevails then the need for the people to seek their rights outside the present associations fades away.
To conclude, the security aspect and cooperation on the issue has to lie at the forefront of relations between the two countries. The fact that the mastermind of the Assam massacre is operating out of Myanmar’s Kachin State only places stress on this issue. What needs to be kept in mind is that China utilises the Wa and the Kokang tribals to provide military equipment and training to Indian insurgents.
The strategic value of Myanmar is of great importance and significance to India and a close relationship with that country is an imperative. Hopefully Modi shall soon recognise the centrality of Myanmar to India and attach the importance that the relationship requires.
(Amb. Preet Malik was a former Ambassador of India to Myanmar. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )