Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Myanmar from 27-29 May 2012 was historic. Being the first of its kind in the last 25 years, it will herald a new era for Indian diplomacy in South East Asia. It decisively signalled the end of India's tight rope walk between its avowed commitment for democracy on the one hand and practising realpolitik to match China's diplomatic engagement with the ruling junta in Myanmar on the other. Thus, while India could not but help extend its sympathy to the democratic forces, it also had to engage with the junta for ensuring security in the insurgency-affected North-East. It was therefore a relief when democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her party participated in the historic by-election of April 1, 2012 and entered Myanmar's Parliament and thus joined the political mainstream. It is against this backdrop that Manmohan Singh paid his bilateral visit and sought to reinforce Myanmar's role as an essential partner in India's Look East Policy, especially from the perspective of connectivity between India and South East Asia.
Myanmar's vast oil and natural gas reserves and other resources make it a natural partner for many countries in the world. India, being its next door neighbour, cannot be indifferent to this reality. Besides, geo-political considerations, historical and civilizational links, and the ethnic overlap across their borders, have all come together to make India's North-East the land bridge between the South and South-East Asia through Myanmar. The 1,640 km-long border between Myanmar and the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram signifies the importance of this eastern neighbour for India. India expects to reap various economic benefits by bolstering bilateral trade and investment, which critically depends upon better connectivity in the region.
The 12-point agreement signed during Manmohan Singh's visit was specifically along these lines: (a) $500 million line of credit; (b) air service connectivity; (c) border area development; (d) establishment of Joint Trade and Investment Forum; (e) establishment of Advance Centre for Agricultural Research and Education (ACARE); (f) setting up of an Institute of Information Technology for Myanmar; (g) establishment of rice bio-park in Myanmar; (h) co-operation between Dagon University and Calcutta University; (i) co-operation between Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA); (j) co-operation between Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA); (k) cultural exchange programmes; and (l) establishment of border haats (markets).
This bilateral cooperation agreement gives further impetus to India's Look-East Policy. Although the much-hyped bus service between Imphal on the Indian side and Mandalay in Myanmar has faced some technical difficulties because of the non-availability of all weather roads, efforts are on to overcome them. Besides, the strategic location of Myanmar is pivotal to India in reaching out to the economically vibrant South-East Asian countries. Given this perspective, it is imperative that both India and Myanmar agree to improve connectivity on their respective sides of the border. India's Look-East Policy envisages building infrastructure and expanding the transportation network including railroads, aimed at furthering surface connectivity in the region. It is recognized that in addition to more economic contacts, such connectivity will promote social stability in the region by facilitating people-to-people contact amongst trans-border ethnic groups. It is expected that insurgent outfits would lose their recruitment base once the local resources begin to be exploited and employment is generated leading to overall development.
In this context, the efficacy of various projects related to the Trilateral Highway as a component of the Asian Highway cannot be overlooked. The Trilateral Highway aims at connecting India's North-East with Thailand via Myanmar. It could mitigate the disadvantages of landlocked North-East India. There has been an agreement between India and Myanmar on the construction and upgradation of the Kalewa-Yargyi stretch of the Trilateral Highway during recent meetings. In its larger and more ambitious frame, the Trilateral Highway project is an example of triangular road diplomacy between India, Myanmar and Thailand, with a vision of inter-linking the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. It is a component of the Asian Highway, which is scheduled for completion by 2016. Proposed and implemented by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP), the Asian Highway Project includes the Asian Highway 1 and 2 that would pass through the North-East, connecting India with its eastern neighbours.
While the Asian Highway is being built along planned routes to cover a wide spectrum of road network in the North-East region of India, much more needs to be done by the Indian government to make the road functional. The Asian Highway needs to be interlinked with other critical projects that are envisaged to be completed as part of the Look-East Policy such as the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Project and Trans-Asian Railways. At the same time, the local population also suffers from the apprehension that with the opening of the Asian Highway and given the inadequate enforceable regulation on immigration, illegal migration into the region will increase manifold without first adequately addressing the real issues of the region. There thus appears to be some incompatibility between the various development initiatives and approaches adopted in the region and the needs of the local people. Many of the movements, agitations and local protests being witnessed in the region are directly linked to such incompatible approaches.
Nevertheless, with better connectivity and implementation of various development projects, the Asian Highway would enable the North-East region to become a business hub of South Asia. Economic linkages already exist by virtue of the prevailing legal and illegal trade between India and Myanmar through Moreh, a business border town in Manipur, and Tamu in Myanmar. Concrete economic benefits are expected to come up in the region with establishment of border haats. In addition, internal trade routes have the potential to enhance accessibility to sub-regional markets that connect Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan.
Thus, with the coming of the Asian Highway, Myanmar will become the point of convergence as well as the linking route between India and the other South-East Asian countries. That, in turn, will lead to the creation of more secure and safe living spaces for the populace residing on either side of the border.
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Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in)