India-Myanmar: partners in progress

After decades of isolation, India’s eastern neighbour – Myanmar is now perceived as a link to new markets. The transformation of ‘Look East Policy’ into the much coveted ‘Act East Policy’ has also added to the significance of Myanmar in India’s foreign policy considerations. Over the years, India’s policy towards Myanmar has been largely shaped by security and stability at the borders, diffusing cross-border insurgent groups, and economic development of its North-eastern states. Accordingly, Myanmar has extended all support for curbing insurgency and militancy on its borders. It has given assurance that it will not allow insurgent groups to use its territory against India. Reciprocity on the Indian side is visible in supporting Myanmar to promote democratic values and re-build its institutions along with socio-economic reforms.

So far as India’s interest in Myanmar is concerned, it is stepping up its development cooperation in the light of Myanmar’s continuing reform process. It is also rejuvenating its historical and cultural ties. It is trying to leverage on ‘soft’ power diplomacy and fostering deeper economic and business links. For boosting its engagement with Myanmar, India has kept its focus on ‘Development Assistance’, supported through grants-in-aid, lines of credit, training programmes, and provisions for expert knowledge and capacity building initiatives thereby overpowering the Chinese economic clout which are more commercial in nature through loans at high rates of interest. This is particularly noticeable in the field of health and education; infrastructural development and energy cooperation; trade and commerce; transport and communication; parliamentary training and support for ethnic reconciliation initiatives.

As a result, India has successfully established centres for industrial training and enhancement of IT skills and other capacity building programmes. The ‘High Impact Community Development Projects’ and the ‘Border Areas Development Projects’ have been crucial in reaching out to States in the border regions of Myanmar and boosting people to people contacts. In its recent efforts under ‘India-Myanmar Friendship Project’ India has handed over 250 pre-fabricated houses in the Rakhine State for the rehabilitation of refugees after their return. According to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “the extent and depth of the India-Myanmar relationship is visible in the robust development cooperation partnership, which has a strong “people first” philosophy…..India stands ready to enhance our development partnership with Myanmar……And, do so as per the priorities of the Myanmar Government”.

For Myanmar, its India policy is more guided by ‘soft-power’ connections and cultural diplomacy. Though shared historical-cultural linkages between India and Myanmar abound our mythologies and literature, the influence that India has on this captivating land cannot be underestimated. Along with the shared cultural and historical lineage, India has a great deal to offer. Religion, spiritualism and film industry in the form of ‘Buddhism, Yoga and Bollywood’ have been the strength of India’s ‘soft power diplomacy’ and it has been a connecting ground with Myanmar for centuries. Therefore, it may be said that India is a neighbour which Myanmar cannot afford to ignore.

Nevertheless, its engagement with India in recent times in the economic field and trade statistics have not been satisfactory which has just reached 1.6 billion in the year 2017-18. The two countries have also signed several bilateral investment promotion agreements facilitating their venture in each other’s country. As of April 2019, India’s investment in Myanmar reached $763 million, ranking 11th in the line-up of foreign investors with 30 permitted enterprises. The range of areas covered by Indian projects includes roads, railways, telecom, power, energy, hydrocarbons, remote sensing, agriculture, industry, IT, health-related services and education. Several Indian companies are already making inroads such as ONGC Videsh Limited, Jubilant Oil and Gas, Escorts, Tata Motors, Essar Energy, RITES, Apollo, CIPLA, Ranbaxy, Cadila Healthcare Ltd, Dr. Reddy’s Lab. and Century Ply.

Myanmar’s oil and gas has attracted the largest foreign investment. Funding some of the projects under technical and economic cooperation programme has been another feature of Indo-Myanmar partnership. Defense cooperation has also been marked by regular exchanges of high-level visits and bilateral military exercises. The coordinated patrol (CORPAT) by the two navies started in March 2013 aims to enhance mutual understanding and foster improved professional interaction between the two navies for maritime interoperability and to address terrorism, illegal fishing, drug trafficking, human trafficking, poaching and other illegal activities. Areas of bilateral defence cooperation also include among others: maintaining security, peace and stability along the border and capacity building for Tatmadaw.

Education is a crucial area where India exercises competitive advantage in Myanmar for building a sustainable academic partnership between the two countries. Decades of isolation and poverty have taken a toll on education therefore, building up an effective workforce in Myanmar requires higher Centres of Excellance and Learning. Myanmar attaches high priority to education and is calling for increased investment in this sector. Enhancing strong academic links between institutions of India and Myanmar and replicating best learning practices will help in human resource development and contribute to social and economic transformation of the country.

In the wake of the regime transformation and the new political dynamics emerging in Myanmar, India will now have to push more vigorously to expand its economic interests. India’s economic involvement in Myanmar, largely through the public sector, has not been up to the mark with complaints about implementation delays and quality controls. This gap, however, must be bridged by the Indian private sector which might make inroads, as opportunities expand in this land of golden pagodas. The building of rail-road connectivity through Myanmar to other Southeast Asian countries and reviving old rail-road links from Assam to Vietnam calls for much attention. Investment in agriculture, industry, banking sector, education, health, transport and communication is urgently required by India, besides its existing share in pearls and pulses, timber, oil and natural gas projects. Last but not the least, engagement with the Tatmadaw, NLD and the ethnic parties and Track II diplomacy at the level of civil society, cultural and academic exchanges may go a long way in strengthening ties between the two countries.

Regime transformation and political developments in Myanmar since the last few years have opened a new chapter in India-Myanmar relation. Given the political transformation taking place in Myanmar, the country offers immense opportunities for re-engagement which India may use to its strategic advantage. The traditional relation of friendship and cooperation between the two countries could be deepened and intensified further to each other’s mutual benefit. Since both nations share a common thread of cultural ancestry, Myanmar may have to learn a lot in modern times from Indian experience of democratic decentralisation and federal reforms.

Source: The Economic Times

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