Monday, 30th October 2017

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Myanmar calling

After staring down the Chinese at Doklam, India would be seeking to send a message to its neighbours who want to balance relations with both Beijing and New Delhi. The first bilateral visit of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to Myanmar since he took over comes just after his sojourn at Xiamen in China for the BRICS summit. As India seeks to push its 'Act East' agenda with renewed vigour, the visit to Myanmar is one opportunity that Modi will not miss to drive home India's message to smaller neighbours - China is stronger militarily and economically but India is no pushover and is fast catching up. If Doklam has set the stage for that, Modi will start spreading the message with his Myanmar visit. To his great relief, India has not only completed the second phase of its ambitious $484 million Kaladan multi-modal transport project (the Sittwe port and its inland waterways terminal) but it is all set to start work on the final phase that will connect the Paletwa river terminal to Zorinpui in Mizoram. China has already completed its Kyaukphyu port project that will connect the port on Rakhine coast to Yunnan by a rail-road link and a hydrocarbon pipeline. It is pushing for an agreement on the special economic zone.

By Subir Bhaumik
  • Published 6.09.17
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After staring down the Chinese at Doklam, India would be seeking to send a message to its neighbours who want to balance relations with both Beijing and New Delhi. The first bilateral visit of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to Myanmar since he took over comes just after his sojourn at Xiamen in China for the BRICS summit. As India seeks to push its 'Act East' agenda with renewed vigour, the visit to Myanmar is one opportunity that Modi will not miss to drive home India's message to smaller neighbours - China is stronger militarily and economically but India is no pushover and is fast catching up. If Doklam has set the stage for that, Modi will start spreading the message with his Myanmar visit. To his great relief, India has not only completed the second phase of its ambitious $484 million Kaladan multi-modal transport project (the Sittwe port and its inland waterways terminal) but it is all set to start work on the final phase that will connect the Paletwa river terminal to Zorinpui in Mizoram. China has already completed its Kyaukphyu port project that will connect the port on Rakhine coast to Yunnan by a rail-road link and a hydrocarbon pipeline. It is pushing for an agreement on the special economic zone.

Both Sittwe and Kyaukphyu are in Rakhine state, the northern part of which is now on fire. A fresh bout of Rohingya Islamist militancy followed by a heavy military response has left nearly 100 dead - 12 Myanmarese security personnel and rest supposedly Rohingya 'terrorists'. According to human rights groups, however, most of the latter were villagers who might or might not have joined the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on its coordinated August 25 predawn offensive on almost 30 police stations and one army base in a wide arc between the towns of Buthidaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung. Thousands of Rohingyas are fleeing to Bangladesh, which is trying to block their entry, not always successfully. The United Nations is pushing the Aung San Suu Kyi government to allow a delegation to check the ground situation in northern Rakhine. But Suu Kyi has so far resisted the pressures, obviously mindful of the still powerful Tatmadaw (Myanmar army). But the day she accepted the recommendations of the Rakhine advisory commission headed by the former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, the ARSA offensive killed the space for moderation and reconciliation and led to a quantum leap in the conflict.

The Modi visit will come as a boon for Myanmar's beleaguered government as it fights huge international pressure to open up the Rakhine state for UN inspection. India has made it clear that it backs Myanmar's military offensive against terrorists (ARSA) and the ministry of external affairs statement has made it clear that it will stand by Suu Kyi. The Indian ambassador, Vikram Misri, told Mizzima media last week that his country has 'common interests' with Bangladesh and Myanmar to fight cross-border terrorism. "The Modi visit will also show the world there is more to Myanmar than Rohingyas and Rakhine crisis," he quipped, pointing to Modi's visits to the Bagan Pagodas, the Shwedagon Pagoda (picture) and Kali temple as a way to emphasize the Indo-Myanmar civilizational links and shared cultural heritage. He might be alluding to the heavy tweeting that Modi resorts to during foreign visits that helps highlight venues he has visited.

Modi is not visiting the Kaladan project because of the situation in Rakhine but the Indian envoy was keen to drive home the point that much of Myanmar is peaceful and normal. India will go heavy on new physical infrastructure projects like roads, rail and ports but also give equal emphasis to soft enabling aspects that makes using trans-border infrastructure easy. Misri was pointing to BBIN type Motor Vehicles Agreement that could turn a transport corridor into one boosting trade and people-to-people contact. Indian help in facilitating Myanmar's democratic transition through more visits by Myanmarese lawmakers to India and its 'exchange of experience' in negotiating deals that institutionalized federalism , its support for education and health, its training of personnel in infotech, banking and finance - Delhi has much to offer and Modi is keen to push for deals both of symbolic and substantial nature. A memorandum of understanding for facilitating the pagodas at Bagan is a case in point - Indian archaeologists have already done a wonderful job with restoration of the Ananda temple, which holds a key place in Buddhist cosmography.

The Indian envoy also made two vital points during his interview with Mizzima. One, Delhi was creating through its funding (largely through grants and some through concessionary lines of credit) public assets for Myanmar's economy, not a commercial infrastructure for promoting Indian business. He doubtlessly had China in his sights when he said that. Myanmar media are full of stories of the Chinese pushing for a huge majority stake in the Kyaukphyu project. Two, India was not out to offer any model or set any agenda, alluding to Western pressures on human rights and speedier democratic transition. The Mizzima interview made it clear that India's embassy, normally written off as a smaller player in Myanmar, was determined to punch hard and heavy and not miss any opportunity to score brownie points.

India has signed up for sending military training teams to develop Myanmar's special forces and prepare them for not merely tackling insurgents and terrorists but also UN peacekeeping duties. In a move closely monitored by China, the first steps to institutionalize military-to-military cooperation has been laid. India is engaging both the democratically elected government and the military. The MEA's statement after the August 25 attacks, condoling the deaths of Myanmar security personnel and backing a hard crackdown, matches India's own reservations about Rohingyas as a 'community producing jihadis', reflected in Kiren Rijiju's promise to deport all the 40,000-odd Rohingyas in India. That Bangladesh's ruling Awami League has similar reservations about Rohingyas, apparent after Dhaka offered military support for joint operations against ARSA (which has links with the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen in Bangladesh and the Indian Mujahideen in India and is a creation of Pakistan's dreaded Lashkar-e-Toiba, points to a strong Delhi-Dhaka-Nay Pyi Taw axis emerging on the Rohingya issue. One could expect a greater level of security cooperation through covert intelligence sharing arrangements (not necessarily agreements) between the three governments.

India's offer to support and help (in a way Myanmar wants) the peace process contrasts with China's continued covert support to powerful northern insurgent groups like the Kokangs and the Was. Myanmar's angst over Indian claims of attacking insurgent bases inside Sagaing is not what Burmese politicians or generals are talking about - they are keen to study the Indian peacemaking experience, of using peace as an instrument of war by tiring out and wearing down a powerful insurgent group through long-drawn out negotiations. There is so much for India to offer and after staring down the Chinese at Doklam, Modi would be in no mood to let go of any opportunity. At least, if the mood in the Indian embassy is anything to go by.