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India’s Outreach To Myanmar: BETTER LATE THAN NEVER!, by Monish Tourangbam, 30 May, 2012 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 30 May 2012

India’s Outreach To Myanmar


By Monish Tourangbam

Research Scholar, School of International Studies (JNU)


An Indian Prime Minister visiting close-door neighbour Myanmar after 25 years is newsworthy but beyond this, the visit which materialized post significant changes in Myanmar, provides opportunities for scripting a new history. Given the small country is India’s gateway to South-east Asia. Thus, New Delhi’s relations with Naypyitaw (Myanmar’s new Capital) is a vital component of India’s re-energized Look East Policy.


Importantly, in comparison to China-Myanmar trade which totals $4.4 billion, India-Myanmar trade stands at $1.2 billion; a figure that New Delhi looks to double by 2015. As a step towards realising the huge trade potential, both sides agreed that the Reserve Bank of India sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Central Bank of Myanmar on currency arrangements between India and Myanmar in the near future.


Notwithstanding, the fact it was comparatively easier for China to invest and do business with the military junta in Myanmar while New Delhi had to function under constraints. Even when India decided to take the real politik route and engage with the military junta, it faced a barrage of criticism for ignoring Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratic quest.


But, as new rays of hope appear in Myanmar, India should make the most of the situation and make plain both via promises and practice that it is ready to extend all forms of assistance in Myanmar’s quest for democracy and transparency.


Pertinently, there are signs that the leadership in Naypyidaw is eager to decrease its over-dependence on Beijing as shown by going against a Chinese hydro-electric power project in response to strong public opposition.


Indeed, the country has witnessed monumental changes wherein ex-military leader Thein Sein is now the civilian head. He is largely seen as pragmatic and reform-minded, keen that Myanmar becomes part of the globalised economic grid, not a pariah State shunned by major countries of the world. Many countries which refused to do business with Naypyitaw are now re-assessing their sanctions policy, ready to match step-for-step with Myanmar’s path to reform and democratization.


Unfortunately, there are still many red lines drawn by the military, in terms of power-sharing. Whereby, the future of democracy in Myanmar to a large extent hinges on when and how these “red lines” are withdrawn or relaxed by the military. For instance, a majority of Parliament’s seats are reserved for the military.  So, despite the long-deserved freedom accorded to Aung San Suu Kyi and the political space provided to her Party, the verdict is still open for Myanmar.


Nevertheless, this has not stopped countries from making a beeline for resource-rich. Myanmar. Lately, the country has played host to a number of high profile visits including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and British Prime Minister David Cameron. 


In fact, given India’s proximity to Myanmar, Manmohan Singh’s visit came a little late. Understandable, given New Delhi’s ‘latecomer’ approach to international politics, it provides some solace. A number of deals were signed, and if efforts towards development of regional connectivity materialize, New Delhi would have made strides towards effecting regional changes in its favour.


Besides, the visit gave an opportunity to reach out to Aung San Suu Kyi. The Prime Minister’s meeting with her reaffirmed India’s unwavering support and commitment to democracy in Myanmar. Despite, New Delhi engaging with the military junta to safeguard its strategic and security interests. During their meeting in Yangon, Manmohan Singh extended Suu Kyi an invitation from UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi to visit India to deliver the next Jawaharlal Nehru memorial lecture, which she accepted in principle.


This apart, India and Myanmar inked 12 MoU’s for enhancing bilateral cooperation, including a US$ 500 million Line of Credit which was finalized during President Thein Sein’s visit last October. Also, for India’s energy security interest oil and gas rich Myanmar is crucial.


According to International Monetary Fund forecasts Myanmar's gas revenue would rise to $3 billion this year and $4 billion in 2013. Asserted Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, “New Delhi will be emphasising and flagging our interest in our companies getting more opportunities in Myanmar, both onshore and offshore.” The signing of the Production Sharing Contract between the Myanmar Government and Jubilant Energy of India was welcomed.


Connectivity between the two countries too is a priority issue, the proper implementation of which would greatly enhance bilateral ties across the board and lead to development of border areas on both sides. The economic development of India’s North-East region is being viewed as an antidote to protracted insurgency problem there.


In this context, provisions like the Air Services Agreement, MoU on establishing Border Haats, progress in the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project and finalisation of Zorinpui (Mizoram) as the Land Customs Station are important steps.


Significantly, as Myanmar is India’s bridge to the ASEAN countries, the proposed trilateral highway project that hopes to connect Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar by 2016 is welcome. Both Governments have decided to undertake repair/upgradation of roads on their respective sides of the border. But, an agreement on the much-anticipated passenger bus service between Manipur’s Capital Imphal and Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city could not be signed. Sources aver Myanmar’s Cabinet is yet to clear it. 


Needless to say, India’s many agreements/deals with Myanmar would face real challenges at the implementation stage. Many analysts believe New Delhi’s lackluster attitude is a crucial impediment. Indian-aided projects are falling behind schedule and despite all the positives in the relationship, there is real fear of India and its companies being characterized as ‘laggards’, not being able to implement projects on time. As such, India has to battle not only its own demons but also those unleashed by countries like China.


Clearly, India’s outreach strategy towards a reform-driven Myanmar and its efforts to engage multiple entities should be viewed on the merits of ties, and not based on concerns raised by other countries’ approach towards Naypyitaw. Raising decibel levels against China and giving the impression that every Indian foreign policy decision is ‘China-centric’ will not help India’s interests.


Remember, during the Cold War, Indians were fiercely critical of America’s obsession with anti-communism. At this juncture, we too should not be caught in a ‘Sino-centric’ phobia. Certainly, the China factor looms large vis-à-vis Myanmar and New Delhi has some catching up to do. However, in diplomacy, it is not always necessary to say what you do and to do what you say! ----INFA


(Copyright, India News and  Feature Alliance)

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