INVISIBLE NEIGHBOUR - The Northeast and India's Myanmar policy

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By Aloke Sen The author is India’s former ambassador to Myanmar
  • Published 13.10.11

Winds of change are blowing through Myanmar. The new civilian government of President Thein Sein has of late been busy ushering in reform, of both political and economic kinds. There are unprecedented gestures of goodwill towards the democracy movement leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, freer debate in the parliament, crackdown on corruption, moves to bring competitiveness and transparency to the opaque business sector, some more freedom for the muzzled media. Even Myanmar’s fiercest critics are taking note of the changes, the only question being, is the government serious about staying the course? Doubt over sustainability is legitimate, given Myanmar’s past faltering at liberalization. But in India, we must take the shifting winds for real — these developments are both a challenge and an opportunity — and fine-tune our policy.

Under the civilian government, a new set of personality equations is at work which would likely help sustain the reform. President Thein Sein is viewed as personally more liberal and conciliatory, and the main Opposition leader now more willing and responsive. Indications are that the president’s initiatives are not a solo show but supported by his colleagues in the power structure. At the same time, Myanmar has serious accumulated social, political, economic and security issues to sort out. So it is unrealistic to expect magical transformation in the near term, even with a more helpful cast of characters. The process is bound to be slow. But if current trends can be maintained, Myanmar has a brighter future ahead of it.

Presuming nascent ‘democracy’ holds in Myanmar, the country would, by degrees, emerge out of its long isolation, with more and more sanctions-imposing countries deciding to deal with its elected government, and profit from lucrative trading and investment opportunities thrown up by the immensely resource-rich country. The process could be aided by the fact that Myanmar would not have any further need of ‘privileged relationships’ — collaboration of a handful of ‘friendly’ countries — that had long been the diplomatic arrangement for the beleaguered old regime. Unsentimental diplomatic relationships can be pursued by the new government, on the more conventional lines of mutuality of interests and substance of exchanges. In other words, we should expect to see a more level playing field for Myanmar’s suitors, old and new.

While on the subject of privileged relationships, there is speculation about China’s future standing. If they are able to find greater acceptance from the rest of the world with their new openness, would Myanmar’s leadership still need China’s protective umbrella? China not only stood steadfast, on innumerable occasions, between the old regime and global accountability, it also threw, even if as much in self-interest, vital economic lifelines that Myanmar needed when shunned by powerful nations. Starting in the late 1980s, especially volatile times for Myanmar, China cemented its position through astute policy and determined implementation. And this happened in spite of Beijing’s being caught on the wrong side of much of Myanmar’s modern history.

China’s current ranking as pre-eminent external partner is unlikely to change any time soon though, faced with greater openness in Myanmar’s society and potentially keener competition from others, Beijing may have to change its style of diplomacy. One is already hearing of bursts of popular discontent over China’s heavy-handed execution of infrastructure projects in sensitive ethnic minority areas, something that could have been easily taken care of in the old days. China is too big, strong and proximate to ignore. But it may have to be more accountable for its actions in future.

So what would be India’s place in changing Myanmar? It is useful to remember that we are the other giant neighbour, with some of the same assets that China has so deftly used at our command. But if our efforts over the years have not brought us full dividends, then we need to take another look at our strategy.

The first change we need is in mindset. Unlike China, we have never consciously focused on our Myanmar relations. In spite of its indisputable strategic significance, Myanmar for us is an ‘invisible neighbour’. How often does it figure in policy debates in seminar rooms or the media, and if it does, is it for the right reasons? In interminable discussions over the need for a transit route for India’s Northeast, the focus is always — even if justifiably — on Bangladesh. Myanmar’s capacity to offer a similar route is hardly noticed, as also the fact that a transit project, Kaladan, is currently in implementation. In discourse on India’s Look East policy, Myanmar being an actual, and only, land bridge to the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations does not register.

Greater investment in the relationship is a necessity, though it cannot be the sole responsibility of the government. India’s business houses have largely ignored Myanmar, partly because of unfamiliarity with its system, partly prompted by fear that doing business with Yangon would displease sanctions-imposing States. In the process, valuable economic space has been ceded to competitors. The situation can be remedied only if our entrepreneurs realize the full economic importance of this neighbouring country.

It has also been a mistake not to make deliberate use of a proximate geographical area as the spearhead of our Myanmar policy. China has done this with great success. India has its Northeast states — four of them with a direct land border with Myanmar, as China has its Yunnan province. China’s employment of the relatively underdeveloped Yunnan in building relations with the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) is a valuable lesson in economic diplomacy. Simultaneous with the advancement of China’s cause in these countries, the strategy has lifted Yunnan itself to a higher plane of prosperity. But to achieve that success, development of a domestic region and penetration of an external market had to be a conjoint objective for China.

We need to press home the same natural advantage our Northeast states offer in attaining our objectives in Myanmar and through it, the broader Asean region. Aligning the Northeast and Myanmar policies would need to go beyond lip service and involve massive investment, but more than that, effective coordination, which is currently not the case. It is not that substantial resources are not committed to the Northeast; the need is for more intelligent use of them.

The connection is easy to see. If we fail to elevate border trade points like Moreh and Zokhawthar to the level of facilities and efficiency that China’s Ruili boasts, trans-border trade would remain insignificant. To get the full benefit of India’s key projects under way in Myanmar — transit and energy prime among them — the infrastructure of the Northeast, the point of entry, would have to be improved in perfect conjunction. Unless that happens, the huge volumes of fresh cargo that the Kaladan project would unleash into the Northeast system would cause upheaval. If a connecting pipeline or transmission line is not built to the Northeast in time, gas and electricity that India hopes to produce across the border will not reach their intended beneficiaries. Using locations in the Northeast as an operational base for the Myanmar market (the way Chinese entrepreneurs use Kunming) could give our entrepreneurs the logistical advantage that they currently lack.

India does enjoy a healthy enough relationship with Myanmar. But the Northeast as spearhead can impart to our policy the edge that we may need in a changing Myanmar. In that sense, India’s Myanmar policy may be inseparable from India’s Northeast development policy.