Ethnicity, security and connectivity identified as the foundational pillars of the multifaceted bilateral ties between India and Myanmar — an event report.
‘Ethnicity, security and connectivity’ were identified as the foundational pillars of the multifaceted bilateral ties between India and Myanmar during the one-and-half-day conference on “India-Myanmar Bilateral Ties: Ethnicity, Security and Connectivity” at IIT- Guwahti on 26 and 27 September 2016. The conference was organized by IIT- Guwahati and Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata in association with the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.
The conference started with a panel discussion and the sessions spanned across ‘Ethnicity and Security Dimensions’, ‘Proximity to Connectivity’ and ‘Myanmar’s Changing Landscape and Scope for Cooperation with India.’
Improvement in bilateral relations
Myanmar is on the throes of transformation and relations with India in the last few years have improved significantly. Policies of economic rejuvenation and initiatives for national reconciliation of ethnic races have set the ball rolling for change.
India’s relations with Myanmar had improved under the United Progressive Alliance government under Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Connectivity projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor have come to form the important constituents of economic cooperation between the two countries.
The state visit of President Htin Kyaw to New Delhi in August 2016 and the visit of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in October this year indicate a reciprocation of New Delhi’s initiative to better ties between the two neighbours. India has the opportunity of pushing common interests though dividends may not accrue in the short term.
In India-Myanmar relationships, ethnicity is the oldest. People from the Indian States of Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Assam share kinship with ethnic races in Myanmar. The continuing 16 km Free Movement Regime India-Myanmar border explains the centrality of borderlands perspective dominating state-to-state relations.
This inalienable bond across border is like a Pandora’s Box; challenges of insurgency, diseases and drug-trafficking emanate from the Free Movement Regime on India-Myanmar border. Though concerns continue to affect India-Myanmar relations, opportunities also present itself through cooperation at different levels.
Connectivity through Northeast and beyond
As India tries to expand its sphere of influence to South East Asia, India’s Northeast emerges as the viable economic junction. The historical continuities between Northeast India and Myanmar must be leveraged for connectivity in the region.
Institutionalised bilateral economic cooperation in the areas of oil, agriculture, textiles and pharmaceuticals can connect India’s Northeast to Myanmar. Bio-development policies for villages in valleys through sustainable agriculture, textile economy, pharmaceuticals, and ecological foundation could also be pursued. Myanmar has huge textile economy. Northeast can connect with the neighbouring country in this sector too.
Students from Myanmar are studying in Mizoram. Leading institutes like the IIT-Guwahati may play a pivotal role in the furthering of bilateral ties by forging partnerships with institutes in Myanmar. Special centres in universities and institutions for the academic study of Myanmar must be encouraged.
As Buddhism remains one of the major ties in India-Myanmar relations, the potential of Buddhist sites like Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang is immense and must be tapped for closer cooperation in tourism. This is in addition to the promotion of Bodh Gaya in Bihar as part of the Buddhist circuit.
Manipur is presented with opportunity for becoming a gateway to Myanmar, after Imphal was included in the Smart Cities project and one of the major business groups in Indian hospitality industries, the ITC is building a hotel in the border town on Moreh in Manipur.
Besides, there are many other issues which are to be taken into account to strengthen bilateral ties between India and Myanmar. Exchange of currencies between India and Myanmar at Mizoram has remained a nagging issue and the Reserve Bank of India may consider to come up with special exchange policies for solving the currency crunch.
Lack of technical will and funding issues has delayed the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project and the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway. The trilateral highway between Moreh and Tamu needs construction 69 bridges which will cost around US$ 60 billion.
To strengthen bilateral ties, India should help develop internal road connectivity in Myanmar along with the Northeast region. The infrastructure projects should be improved and it has been integrated with various other projects through development corridors.
Social interactions that spill beyond borders not just allow economic activities but also present social challenges. From the perspective of India-Myanmar relations and regional context of contemporary Northeast India, the region has the scope for transnational cooperation.
There needs to be reprioritisation of policies on both sides of the border from being state centric to people centric. The policies must be distributive and dependency reducing.
For Myanmar, the asymmetrical power relations between civilian government and military can disturb the stability. On the Indian side, budgeted road infrastructure projects must be expedited. Further, India needs to have coordination between New Delhi and the northeastern states to frame her Myanmar policy under the changed domestic milieu of Myanmar.
Common to both the countries are the issues of malnutrition and hunger. Cooperation in the areas of health especially is essential in the view of high prevalence of communicable diseases like HIV-AIDS, TB and Malaria in bordering areas. There is a need for proper healthcare system in India’s bordering area with Myanmar.
The one and half day deliberations were summed up on the note that the challenges faced by India and Myanmar are partly due to inherited borders as post colonial states. People are never satisfied with borders, nevertheless borders continue to exist. Therefore, mutual understanding between both countries is required to deal with these cross-border issues.
The participants of the conference included Rajiv Bhatia, former India ambassador to Myanmar; Rakhahari Chatterji, Advisor, ORF Kolkata; Apurba Baruah, Professor (Retd.) Gauhati University; Manorama Sharma, Professor (Retd.) Gauhati University; Akhil Ranjan Dutta, Professor, Gauhati University; Dilip Baruah, former Principal, Cotton College, Guwahati; Gautam Biswas, Director IIT-Guwahati; Rakhee Bhattacharjee, North East India Studies Programme, JNU; Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, Fellow, ORF Kolkata; Binayak Dutta, Assistant Professor, NEHU, Shillong; K. Yhome, Fellow, ORF Delhi; Alana Golmei, Burma Centre, Delhi; Pahi Saikia, Assistant Professor, IIT-Guwahati; Pratnashree Basu, Junior Research Fellow, ORF Kolkata; Mihir Bhonsale, Junior Research Fellow, ORF Kolkata; Rupakjyoti Borah, Research Fellow, Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo; Pradeep Phanjoubam, Editor, Imphal Free Press and Rajeev Bhattacharya, senior journalist among others.
The report is prepared by Mihir Bhonsale, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata.