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Delhi takes first step for great leap to Myanmar after 50 years of disconnect

Naypyidaw, May 28: It is a great leap forward for a country that bore the brunt of Myanmar’s descent into a long night of army rule. What India and Myanmar initiated here today could change history and geography not only for the two neighbours but for a region where China’s domination has long been taken for granted.

The agreements signed between the two countries today could go a long way to revive a relationship that broke down completely when, following the military coup in Myanmar in 1962, Indian businesses were nationalised and Indian entrepreneurs expelled en masse. The vacuum that followed further disconnected the lives of millions of people living along the long border between the two countries.

In all the agreements that were signed today, the thrust is clearly on re-connecting or simply connecting what has remained disconnected for nearly half a century. Whether it is building roads, ports, power facilities or telecommunications and opening up India’s Northeast to a new world of opportunities, it has all the makings of a brave new beginning.

The fact that Myanmar is at last taking its first steps towards democracy makes its transition significant for its neighbours and for the world at large.

In his opening remarks at the delegation-level talks, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set the tone by saying that his visit was aimed at preparing a “roadmap for the future”.

His references to “path-breaking reform measures taken by the government of Myanmar towards greater democratisation and national reconciliation” clearly had an underlying message that could not have been missed by U. Thein Sein.

The message from the man who initiated India’s economic reforms was: the hopes of a new beginning for Myanmar could collapse if the country relapsed into another military rule. Economic hopes of and from Myanmar are inextricably linked to its political progress — a point that Singh is expected to make during his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is the icon of Myanmar’s democratic hopes.

From India’s point of view, trade and road connectivity could get better only with a corresponding political connectivity with democracy as its engine.

During the talks here, India thus offered not only trade and investment opportunities but also its institutions — Parliament, the National Human Rights Commission and the media — to help Myanmar’s progress towards democracy. Singh offered Sein India’s help in training the latter’s parliamentarians.

“Myanmar surely would need help in this as democracy is yet an untested thing for both its rulers and its people,” remarked an Indian official.

Sunil Bharti Mittal, who is leading a team of top Indian businessmen, put the whole exercise in perspective. Talking about the team’s meeting with Myanmar president, U Thein Sein, which lasted more than an hour, he said: “No, we haven’t missed the bus in Myanmar (to China). This is a country that is happening only now (with the democratic reforms).”

It was symbolic of India’s new attempt to connect to Myanmar that Mittal urged Sein to allow Indian mobile phone companies to start roaming facilities here.

A joint statement issued after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Sein said the two leaders agreed on a “vision for the future in the pursuit of the common good — bilaterally, regionally and globally”.

The Indian side was optimistic that the agreements and the projects they envisaged would “seek to fill vital gaps in our connectivity and physical infrastructural linkage with Myanmar”.

Of the 12 agreements and memoranda of understanding signed between the two sides today, most covered issues and areas linked to connectivity — road, rail and air services —and the overall thrust on what was described in the joint statement as “India-Myanmar border area development”.

The bus from Imphal to Mandalay, though, may take some more time to roll. The road on the Myanmar side is “not there”, as foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai told visiting Indian journalists here.

It would take three years to complete the road and allow the proposed bus service to be operational throughout the year. The road is currently unusable during the rainy season. The Myanmar side also wanted to discuss with India customs and other issues.

The Prime Minister announced that India would repair or upgrade 71 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa Friendship Road. Another project, to be completed in 2016, would help establish “trilateral connectivity” from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. The two sides hoped to establish “seamless trilateral connectivity” by 2016. The revival of the Joint Task Force on the Trilateral Highway between the two countries is expected to help the initiative.

But the people in India’s Northeast can now resume something that they have done for centuries before the new nation-states disrupted it — they can buy and sell their own goods in the border “haats” (markets).

An MoU signed today provided for the setting up of such a market on a pilot basis at Pangsau Pass in Arunachal Pradesh, the point where the old Ledo (or Stillwell) Road from Assam enters Myanmar. The two sides also agreed on setting up such markets in other places along the India-Myanmar border.

The Prime Minister announced a package of assistance that included India’s offer of $5 million per year for five years for undertaking small development projects such as schools, health centres, roads and bridges, agriculture and agro-processing units in the Naga self-administered zone in Sagaing Division bordering Manipur and the Chin state bordering Mizoram.

Calcutta, too, had something to offer in this comprehensive attempt at engagement between India and Myanmar. An MoU was signed between Calcutta University, whose vice-chancellor Suranjan Das was here, and Dagon University for academic exchanges. India also offered to set up a Myanmar Institute of Information Technology.

India had offered to give Myanmar a $500-million line of credit during the Myanmar President’s visit to New Delhi last October. An MoU was signed today to make it operational. The central banks of the two countries, according to another MoU, will work on currency arrangements.

There was no big-bang deal on energy, though. The two sides “encouraged” Indian companies to invest in the oil and gas sector in Myanmar. It seems India’s hopes for a greater share of Myanmar’s huge oil and gas reserves will take time to materialise.