TODAY -

Again Look East policy: PM's visit to Myanmar

E. Bijoykumar Singh *

Gate number 2 at Moreh that leads to Namphalong
Gate number 2 at Moreh that leads to Namphalong
Pix: Lunminthang Haokip



What is our leadership doing? That used to be the refrain when we see the leaders of various countries visiting Myanmar, a happening country in our gate. Considering our stakes in Myanmar everyone wants our leaders to take a proactive role not only for national security but also for economic development as well.

For Manipur, the question has been: is it the opening of the Eastern Gate? Is it going to be another instance of missing the bus or is it the wrong bus? However, the recently concluded three day visit of our prime minister where as many as 12 bilateral MOUs were signed has made up the delay and also shown the presence of an invisible bond between the two neighbours which give a head start to our joint exercises.

The agreements covered areas as diverse as air services and opening of border haats. Also discussed were matters of cooperation related to bilateral trade, comprehensive energy partnership, tourism, pilgrimage and medical consultation, promotion of educational, cultural and literary exchanges and agricultural cooperation.

The overall thrust was on what was described in the joint statement as "India-Myanmar border area development". Myanmar has a 1648 km long land border spread over Manipur, Nagaland ,Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. India's search for a development paradigm of the troubled North Eastern region started revolving around the Look East policy.

The Look East policy never failed to impress. Though never as precise and categorical as our industrial policy, export -import policy etc it has come to be interpreted as loosely spelt out development policies associated with our initiatives in south east Asian countries mainly Myanmar. We, on our part, consider ourselves as the biggest would- be- beneficiary of this policy. Of course the returns to India of a developed NER should not be understated.

Imagine the possibilities in a north east where development has done away with the need of security personnels, where the huge expenditure on maintenance of law and order has been replaced by drive to develop infrastructure!

Let us look at what our PM said in Yangon in a meeting hosted by Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce & Industry and Myanmar development Resource Institute on 29 May: "Myanmar is a critical partner in India's 'Look East Policy' and is perfectly situated to play the role of an economic bridge between India and China and between South and South East Asia. We should work together to create a regional economy that can become a hub for trade, investment and communication in the region."

The North east content of the agreements needs to be examined.

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 people in India's Northeast can now resume something that they have done for centuries - they can buy and sell their own goods in the border "haats" (markets). The MoU signed on 28 May provided for the setting up of such a market on a pilot basis at Pangsau Pass in Arunachal Pradesh, the point where the Stillwell Road from Ledo in 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 in response to a request from the Myanmarese government 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 Nagaland and the Chin state bordering Mizoram.

THERE was no agreement on the much awaited Imphal-Mandalay bus service. Issues like construction of an all weather Kalwa-Monywa (184 km) road and modalities related with check posts, arrangements at the border etc will be sorted out on priority basis. Yet there was no time frame.

The border haat concept is welcome because everywhere along the border similar tribal groups inhabit: the Tangshas along Arunachalpradesh -Myanmar border, the Nagas along Nagaland- Myanmar border, the Mizos along Mizoram- Myanmar border and Kukis along Manipur -Myanmar border. The border haats will go a long way in capitalising in the similarity of traditions and culture as in the case of Indo Bangladesh border trade facilitating people to people contact immensely.

One of the reasons behind the relative success of Indo Myanmar trade at Moreh has been the development of bordering areas. The connectivity across the border in Myanmar in Zokhawthar and Nampong is dismal. A large number of Myanmares visit the weekly market at Nampong to get basic needs. A similar situation prevails across the border in Mizoram.

Chin state is the poorest state in Myanmar. The initiatives taken up by India to take up the developmental programmes such as construction of roads, bridges, schools, health centres etc in the bordering areas across Myanmar will facilitate and transform trade and commerce along the border.The Naga self administration zone consisting of three townships Leshi, Lahe and Namyum was carved out of Sagaing Region in 2010 .In academic exchange, the honour went to Calcutta university and Dagon University probably due to better connectivity and experience.

The PM said:
"These efforts will give a boost to the local economies and provide livelihood opportunities. Trade will expand and be brought within the ambit of the law. These measures will also help curb the activities of insurgent groups and other criminal elements in these areas."

President Thein Sein declared that his country will not allow its soil to be used for anti-India activities. Such an assurance has been given from time to time and it is not known how seriously the Myanmar authority will pursue this policy. Peace in the north eastern region through development is the underlying strategy which combines counter insurgency and economic development drives.

India's investment in Myanmar has been peanuts in comparison with that of China. China has invested around $8.3 billion in Myanmar whereas India, a poor 13th among the foreign investors has pledged $189 million. The volume of China-Myanmar trade in 2010 is $ 4.4 billion against $1.2 billion of Indo- Myanmar trade. China supported Myanmar when every other country including India was looking the other way round. Of this only a rapidly dwindling share is coming from Moreh. The diagnosis has not been properly done and the slide continues despite the LEP. This has led people question the real intention of LEP.

What India is interested in is an enduring partnership of friendship, cooperation and common prosperity between the two countries. How the North east can be seamlessly factored in remains a big question.


* E. Bijoykumar Singh(Economics Department, Manipur University) wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
This article was posted on June 24 2012



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