The roads to Myanmar

Print edition : March 03, 2001

Jaswant Singh's visit to Myanmar, the first such visit by an Indian Foreign Minister in the last 20 years, opens a new chapter in bilateral relations between the two countries.

"YOU are travelling on India-Myanmar Friendship Road," reads a signboard on the 160-km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road close to Myanmar's western border with India. The signboard was put up by Project Sevak, the 320-strong contingent of the India's Border Roads Organisation that built the road, linking Moreh (in Manipur) to Kalewa and Kalemyo, which will soon be linked to Mandalay in central Myanmar, the country's second largest city.

Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh with Myanmarese leaders after inaugurating the "India-Myanmar Friendship Road" at Tamu.-

The project was conceived in March 1993, when India's Foreign Secretary visited Myanmar. "The project was... aimed at promoting the vast potential available for cross-border trade between India and Myanmar as well as contributing to the overall socio-eco nomic development of the region," an official note said. What made it a unique venture was the fact that the money for it came from the Ministry of External Affairs. It was India's first foray into strengthening infrastructure in Myanmar. The constructio n of the road began in November 1997 and it was completed in three years.

On February 13, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh hopped across in an Indian Air Force (IAF) MI-8 chopper from Imphal to Tamu to inaugurate the road project. It was the first visit by an Indian Foreign Minister to Myanmar in 20 years.

The inauguration and the warm reception that Jaswant Singh received was only the first in a series of such events. The Minister, who flew to Kalewa in a Myanmar Air Force helicopter, was welcomed by hundreds of people who lined the "Friendship Road" from Kalewa to Kalemyo. In Kalemyo, several Myanmar Ministers were at hand to greet the Ministers from four northeastern States who accompanied Jaswant Singh, sending a strong signal that northeastern India was to be linked in a major way to Myanmar.

A formal border trade agreement was signed between the two countries when P. Chidambaram visited Myanmar in February 1995 as Minister of State for Commerce. However, formal trade is still to pick up, as a visit to the forlorn customs check-post in Moreh showed. The informal trade between Myanmar and India continues to flourish, with all manner of goods flowing across the international border. India constitutes Myanmar's largest export market, pulses and beans being the major items of export. From India medicines, cycles, spare parts and lungis (made as far away as in Coimbatore) continue to cross the border. The stakes, it would appear, are higher in the informal trade than in formal trade.

During Jaswant Singh's visit, it was decided to open four more trading points on the border, including one linking Champai in Mizoram to Yangon. The two countries have agreed to set up immigration and customs points in these areas. There is little doubt that India has earned an enormous amount of goodwill by upgrading the road in Myanmar. It will essentially benefit the local people in Myanmar, as it makes travel and trade easier for them. The mobility of the Myanmarese security forces is also likely to be increased by the construction of the road, thereby making things difficult for Indian insurgent outfits.

An insurgent group, the Revolutionary People's Front (RPF), announced in Imphal on February 11 that it would "boycott" the one-day visit of the External Affairs Minister to Manipur. According to a report in The Imphal Free Press, the RPF said that the road in Myanmar was aimed at "upsetting the existing cordial relationship between the people of Manipur and Myanmar".

The unhappiness of the Manipur "underground" was evident from the statement. It is also clear that Myanmar is not hesitant in cooperating with the Indian security forces in dealing with the insurgency problem. Myanmarese officials told Frontline t hat the hotlines between the security forces on both sides were operational and there was cooperation between the two sides.

Evidently, Myanmar is happy with the Indian involvement in infrastructural and other developmental work at a time when China has made inroads into the country. Thousands of Chinese have entered northern Myanmar from the Yunnan province, while trade betwe en the two countries has grown vastly - from a mere $40 million in 1988 to $760 million in 1995.

There is no doubt that India has few options but to engage with Myanmar. Given the fact that the military is firmly entrenched in Myanmar, India would have let its case go by default, without such engagement. A team of diplomats, led by Ambassador to Yan gon Shyam Saran did considerable groundwork in the last few years to make the engagement possible.

It was not easy in the initial stages, especially since India had taken a pro-democracy position in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, the ice had been broken and there was a series of contacts, capped by the visit of Gen. Maung Aye, Vice-Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is known officially, to India in November 2000. A sign that the relationship was poised to grow came from indications that Myanmar was considering India's request to reopen its consulate in Mandalay. Currently, only China has a consulate there.

Indian officials make no bones about the fact that Myanmar is strategically important for India. Non-engagement with Myanmar, they argued, could only undermine India's interests. According to the officials, India had a stake in maintaining a friendly pos ture towards Myanmar. Any help from Myanmar to insurgents in northeastern India could prove disastrous, they said. "It's a matter of interest, not sentiment," they said. They added that both India and Myanmar need to have stakes in trade and infrastructu re development so that the international border remained tranquil.

The idea behind the road project is to ensure that Myanmar is not only friendly with India but also has a stake in keeping India's northeastern border peaceful. The officials believe that even if there is a change of government in Myanmar, the stakes in the relationship will ensure that everything proceeds smoothly. Building equations with different governments was a matter of diplomacy as long as there were common interests. India, the officials said, was aware of the "China factor" in the relationship but they denied that it was interested in matching the Chinese move for move. "Such an exercise will not be a productive one for India," they said. They are also keen to ensure that stronger relations are forged between the two countries; the projects t hat would be taken up in this regard include the construction of a gas pipeline from Myanmar to northeastern India.

While India and Indians must remain wedded to the concept of democracy (Jaswant Singh said in his talks that he had "commended" the military leadership for the steps taken for a return to democracy), it is evident that the policy of taking positions has long been abandoned by India. In fact, Jaswant Singh went so far as to say that India considered it a "privilege" to be a partner in the socio-economic development of Myanmar. "Since Independence, we have been happy to share our experiences, skills and t echnologies with friendly developing countries. In more recent years, there has been a rapid expansion in our political, economic, cultural, scientific and technical exchanges. The visit to India by H.E. Gen. Maung Aye... last November was an important l andmark in the growth of our understanding. Today the Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa road stands as visible proof of India's strong desire to develop and diversify its relations with Myanmar," he said.

In Yangon, Jaswant Singh inaugurated a Centre for Remote Sensing and Data Processing, which will use images from the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite, IRS-1C. It is the first of its kind in Myanmar. Speaking on the occasion, Jaswant Singh said: "In develo ping countries like India and Myanmar, resource surveys are vital for national infrastructure development. The applications of remote sensing cover weather forecasting and disaster management capabilities, determination of forest cover and other land use delineations, cropping surveys, urban planning, environmental monitoring and groundwater survey. The Centre we have inaugurated...will continue to be an enduring symbol of our partnership as we move ahead into subsequent phases of upgradation."

Myanmarese Foreign Minister U Wing Aung told Frontline that Yangon had discussed with India the development of the Kyaukpyu port, in which the Chinese too have shown interest. Kyaukpyu, which can be developed as a deep-sea port, will offer India s ea access, through Mizoram, into the Bay of Bengal. However, U Wing Aung made it clear that Myanmar wanted good relations with both India and China. He said that peace between the two neighbours was essential for Myanmar. He added that Yangon was closely watching the bilateral interaction between Beijing and New Delhi. U Wing Aung confirmed that talks between the Myanmar government and the Opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) were part of a gradual process.

THERE have been other signs too that Myanmar wants to open up to the rest of the world after a prolonged period of isolation. Even the visit of the Indian media delegation that toured Myanmar along with the External Affairs Minister was considered a firs t in many years. A senior Myanmarese official told Frontline that his government's public relations record left much to be desired. Given the fact that the press is tightly controlled, Myanmar's case often goes by default. The only foreigner worki ng as a full-time correspondent in Myanmar is from China's Xinhua news agency. Perhaps, Yangon needs to appreciate the fact that while the press the world over would like the country to return to democracy, outsiders cannot dictate the course of such a p rocess. For instance, just the fact that Myanmar purely is an important neighbouring country, with a 1,463 km-long common land border, makes it necessary for India to engage with it. Just as India appreciates the "sensitivity" involved in dealing with th e Myanmarese government, Myanmar must understand that India is a democracy.

For Myanmar and India, a new chapter in bilateral relationship was inaugurated with Jaswant Singh's visit. Since both the countries have no overlapping claims of any sort, years of indifference could soon give way to a process of engagement. That can onl y be welcome.

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