Originally Published 2012-06-02 00:00:00 Published on Jun 02, 2012
It is important to note that while India has emphasised the need to increase its involvement in Myanmar's energy sector, it also recognises the need to take 'socio-environmental consideration' in major energy hydro-power, energy and pipeline projects.
New road to Myanmar
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar was perhaps one of those when Singh may has asked himself the question why India and Myanmar have kept themselves separated from each other for several years. Whether during his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi or his visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda and the Mazar of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Yangon, there was a history that links them to India.

Even as the two nations share rich cultural and historical linkages, they have remained distant neighbours. After witnessing a warm relationship soon after Independence, bilateral relationship stagnated as the leadership in Myanmar looked inward in its foreign policy orientation and India remained pre-occupied with its western border.

Singh’s visit was aimed at strengthening bilateral relations between the two neighbours, at a time when the world is rushing to Myanmar to take advantage of ’New Myanmar’ that has opened up itself in the recent past. In the context of Myanmar’s re-engagement with major players, including the US, Japan, the EU, Korea and ASEAN, New Delhi needed to strengthen its ties with Myanmar, which is important for its strategic interests in the East.

Taking advantage of the recent political changes in Myanmar, Singh has firmed up India’s relations with its eastern neighbour. The 12 instruments signed during his visit have the potential of redefining India-Myanmar ties and form the base for a long-lasting relationship. A wide-range of area for cooperation agreed included development of border area, enhancing connectivity, strengthening trade ties, promoting people-to-people contacts, and extending assistance for capacity-building.

One of the significant MoUs signed is on border area development. This initiative is aimed at cooperating in the socio-economic development of the border areas by focusing on projects such as education, health, and agriculture and other basic infrastructure like roads and bridges. The need to cooperate in these areas was a result of the recognition that security issues cannot be resolved through military means alone.

There was a need for an approach that encompasses the overall development of the people in bordering areas. Hence, linking development with security is a major step forward in dealing with border areas. This initiative also underscores the importance of the role of local civilians, thus, giving them a stake in the improvement of the bilateral relationship between the two neighbours.

While, the ’special focus’ on the border areas is significant, the reality is that there are a number of ethnic armed groups that are still active on both sides of the border. It is, therefore, equally important that both New Delhi and Naypyidaw continue their efforts to find lasting political settlements with the insurgent groups. Any effort to develop the border areas and to achieve the goals set by the two would need a peaceful and stable border region.

The other significant step taken was in the field of transportation and connectivity between the two countries. The trilateral highway between India-Myanmar-Thailand has been given a major boost with India and Myanmar agreeing to make it a reality by 2016. Earlier, the Joint Task Force on Trilateral Highway among India, Myanmar and Thailand was revived.

India has decided to undertake the task of repairing 71 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa friendship road. New Delhi will also undertake the up-gradation of the Kalewa-Yargyi road segment to highway standard while Myanmar will upgrade the Yargyi-Monywa stretch to highway standard. This project would finally help to establish trilateral connectivity from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand, via Myanmar.

The importance of trade and investment in the bilateral relationship between India in Myanmar was evident in the big business delegation that accompanied the prime minister, including major private sector firms such as Airtel, Tata, and Jindal Steel. The economic proposals have been largely geared towards facilitating Indian private companies in Myanmar. In fact, the two countries have set a target of doubling bilateral trade by 2015 from the present $1.3 billion.

The steps taken to facilitate ’business friendly-banking transactions’ through the establishment of a representative of the Union Bank of India in Myanmar and ’currency arrangement’ to allow payments in local currency have removed major problems faced by traders between the two countries. To achieve the full potential of bilateral trade, New Delhi and Naypyidaw now need to consider expanding the list of border trade items from the present 40 items.

It is important to note that while India has emphasised the need to increase its involvement in Myanmar’s energy sector, it also recognises the need to take ’socio-environmental consideration’ in major energy hydro-power, energy and pipeline projects. In the backdrop of the cancellation of a Chinese-funded mega dam in Kachin State by Myanmar last year over serious social and environmental costs, such gestures will strike the right node among people of Myanmar.

The MoU signed during the PM’s visit to operationalise the $500-million line of credit announced during President Thein Sein’s visit to India in October 2011 also could increase India’s role in the development of Myanmar. Under the MoU, India will extend to Myanmar the concessional credit line that will be utilised in infrastructure development projects, including in agriculture, irrigation, rail transport and power. The credit line is in addition to nearly $300 million extended earlier for several infrastructural projects.

To achieve these goals, increasing people-to-people contact is necessary and, to this end, the two countries have taken initiatives to build institutional tie-ups. Creating these linkages are the only means to ensure that interaction between people in both countries is encouraged.

The implications of the initiatives between the two neighbours will have a long-term positive impact on bilateral relations and on the region at large, if effectively implemented. Focus now needs to turn on the execution of the instruments signed and as India’s ’people-centric’ approach towards Myanmar deepens, both countries will reap the dividends as they forge a closer relationship.

(K Yhome is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

Courtesy: The New Indian Express, June 2, 2012

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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