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Special Reports

Myanmar shows India the road to Southeast Asia

By Tony Allison1. Overview
Amid much pomp, at 11 am on February 13 Construction Minister Saw Tun of Myanmar and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh of India cut a ribbon to open a 160-kilometer highway that will link South and Southeast Asia.

Named the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road, the highway, which was build entirely by the Indian Army's Border Roads Organization at a cost of US$30 million, will link the northeastern Indian border town of Moreh in Manipur state with Kalewa on the Chindwin river in Myanmar. It is to be extended to the second largest Myanmese city of Mandalay. Ultimately, the road will be a key link in a proposed Asian Highway linking the continent to Europe.

Also in attendance at the ceremony was Secretary 2 Tin Oo, Chairman of the Central Supervisory Committee for Ensuring Secure and Smooth Transport, who died in a helicopter crash on Monday. (See separate story)

Media in both countries made much of the occasion, hailing a new era of friendship, in line with the name of the road. However, the opening of the highway has far-reaching political, economic, security and drug suppression repercussions, rather than the simple acknowledgement of friendship.

The road, which took three years to build, will cement existing trade and cultural contacts between the two neighbors. According to Myanmar government statistics, India is the largest market for Myanmar exports, buying about $220 million worth of goods in the 1999/2000 (April-March) fiscal year. India's exports to Myanmar were $75.36 million. Most trade goes via Singapore because there are almost no shipping links between the countries.

The road will make it easier for security forces to take on armed Indian insurgents who operate out of jungle bases in the northwest of Myanmar. Myanmar has problems with Kachins, and India has problems with Naga separatists, among others.

As important, the road link is a major diplomatic gain for both nations. For isolated Myanmar it is being heralded as a coup for the military regime in challenging the international boycotts they face for the repression of democracy. For its part, New Delhi gains much by deepening its engagement with Yangon to ward off what it perceives as a potential threat from China's growing influence in Myanmar.

The Indian foreign minister, making the first official trip to Myanmar since the military took power in 1988, said the road was proof of India's strong desire to develop and diversify its relations with Myanmar, and was the first of several cross-border cooperation projects. India and Myanmar also agreed to start border trade at four points and cooperate in battling Indian insurgents. Myanmar is likely to reopen the Indian consulate in Mandalay.

Singh commented, "This is the first major project in the field of infrastructure cooperation between our two countries that has been completed. The significance of this road is its continuation of the great tradition of social and spiritual linkages between our two neighboring countries. Some 60 years ago, your country and mine faced the direct ravages of war led by others from afar, for the benefit of their empires. India and Myanmar were not yet free."

Before leaving Myanmar on his three-day visit Singh opened the Myanmar-India Friendship Center for Remote Sensing and Data Processing, set up with the help of the Indian Space Research Organization. It is the first of its kind in Myanmar and will have a vital role to play in the processing and dissemination of data from satellites. Its applications cover weather forecasting and disaster management capabilities, determination of forest cover and other land use delineations, cropping surveys, urban planning, environmental monitoring and ground water surveys. Ministers at the center's opening ceremony said it was the beginning of closer cooperation between our two countries in space and related technologies.

Following Singh's visit, India will also help in developing and exploration of Myanmar's oil and natural gas fields. Myanmar has significant gas reserves in the Arakan region which can be piped either to India or Southeast Asia. The gas could be sent to India along a corridor through Bangladesh, provided Dhaka did not object.

India is also keen for Myanmese help in combatting drug smuggling from Southeast Asia into India, though the problem is not as serious as on the Thai border with Myanmar. India also sees scope in tie-ups in Myanmar in the railway sector. Trains in Myanmar run on meter gauge and its rolling stock is similar to that of India. Myanmar is also keen to sell its surplus power to India.

Myanmar's military regime has faced international condemnation for not respecting the verdict of a decade-old national election, which gave a landslide to Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). However, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and Suu Kyi are holding talks for the first time in seven years. The UN-brokered dialogue is expected to lead to the first tentative steps towards restoring democracy. Beginning mid-January, the military regime has stopped harassing NLD members, several of whom have been freed.

"This new context diminishes the arguable diplomatic odium of a particularly warm handshake between India and Myanmar at this moment," commented the Indian national daily The Hindu in an editorial.

New Delhi's policy is based on the reasoning that it is better to engage Myanmar than to ostracize it. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) used the same argument when they admitted Yangon into the now 10-member regional grouping in 1997. During his visit Singh praised Yangon for the steps it was taking for the restoration of democracy, although he carefully did not mention Suu Kyi by name.

Myanmar is India's gateway to Asean and the recent Ganga-Mekong initiative (see below) testifies to India's determined intent to engage the region.

2. China's influence
China's increasing engagement with Myanmar's military junta since 1988 has made India uneasy. In particular, India believes its national interests demand the Bay of Bengal - which straddles Myanmar - does not become a hotbed of interference by foreign navies. New Delhi keeps a close watch on the Coco Islands in Myanmar, where China has upgraded its radar and naval auxiliary facilities.

India monitors China as it supplies equipment and reportedly assists in constructing a naval base in Sittwe, a strategically important Myanmese sea port close to India's largest city, Kolkatta (formerly Calcutta). Beijing also funds road construction linking Yangon and Sittwe, providing the shortest route to the Indian Ocean from southern China. China has helped in upgrading Myanmar's naval facilities and in setting up four electronic listening posts along the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. One of these is very close to Indian defense facilities.

The Chinese have built an all-weather road from Kunming in southern China to Mandalay in central Myanmar. There have also been reports of Myanmar providing some visiting and berthing facilities to the Chinese navy.

Beijing also provides military support to the 350,000-strong Myanmar armed forces.

3. India looks east
In the early 1990s, former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao formulated the look-east policy as a fundamental shift in Indian policy. Since then, a special relationship with Myanmar has evolved as the the centerpiece of the policy to establish close physical and economic links with its eastern neighbors. Sandwiched between South and Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a natural land bridge linking the two regions and India is keen to exploit this location by building cross-border roads into Myanmar.

Geographically, the northern borders of Myanmar form a junction with Bangladesh, China and the sensitive eastern frontiers of India. Myanmar is an important country on the rim of the Bay of Bengal, lying astride India's southeastern trade routes. The southeastern coast of Myanmar is close enough to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India, so developments in that area could affect India's security interests in the Bay of Bengal.

For Myanmar's part, the government suffers economic and political sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, and its government does not entertain hopes for getting any aid from them. Despite being admitted to Asean, Myanmar's prospects for receiving major economic help are bleak. Only China undertakes some significant development projects, mostly in the field of infrastructure. But China alone is not in the position to satisfy Myanmar's needs in foreign aid and investment. Hence Myanmar's government plans to receive such support from India's government and big business.

Myanmar says its relationship with India is based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which are: mutual respect for each others' territorial integrity and sovereignty; non-aggression; non-interference in each other's internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence.

Development of ties: Burma, as it was known then, was a major theater during World War II and the leadership of the period - headed by General Aung San (father of Suu Kyi) - has the unique distinction of shifting allegiance from Axis to Allied powers. On attaining independence in January 1948, Burma was held as a model for the developing nations in Asia and identified as a state with the highest potential and promise.

Burma played a major role in emerging Asian solidarity and relations between Delhi and Rangoon (now Yangon) were strong. A large Indian population in Burma provided the substance to the relationship and considerable trade flourished by way of Burmese teak, rice and gems between the Indian east coast and Rangoon. India provided considerable support to Burma in the early years when the state had to deal with insurgencies and sub-national militancy.

However post-1962, Burma's fortunes underwent a radical change. Growing internal unrest abetted by external forces and the inability of the civilian leadership to deal with this turbulence saw the military in control. Then followed a period of intense xenophobia and insularity that pushed the country into near isolation with a resultant downturn in ties with India. Domestic policies including the expulsion of ethnic Indians and later a closer Sino-Burmese axis soured the relationship with Delhi and for a quarter of a century until 1988 there was virtually no contact.

The ruthlessness of the army in the bloody repression of August 8, 1988, led to Delhi distancing itself further and the relationship was severely strained.

Change in tack: In the early 1990s, New Delhi decided to engage Myanmar's military regime, with both governments cooperating in tackling cross-border terrorism, rebel activities and drug trafficking. This security component remains an important link in India-Myanmar ties.

Preliminary discussions were held between India and the Myanmese foreign office between February and August of 1992, which led to the visit of the vice foreign minister of Myanmar, U Baswa, to India from August 11-13 of that year.

The Myanmese delegation made three points during that visit. First, it said it respected India's commitment to democracy and hoped India would be patient about the revival of democracy in Myanmar. Second, Myanmar acknowledged that security and political concerns existed which are shared by both countries. Myanmar was therefore willing to cooperate with India in taking joint action to meet the security and strategic interests of both countries. The third point Baswa made was that Myanmar would be willing to increase economic and technological cooperation.

Subsequently, there were visits of the home secretaries, drug suppression officials and the ministers of commerce between the two countries.

Breakthrough: These contacts culminated in November 2000 with the visit of Maung Aye, Vice Chairman of the SPDC and the second most powerful leader in Yangon's military junta, to India, with a 16-member delegation. As leader of the armed forces he is the most likely candidate to become Myanmar's next supreme leader.

This was the first exchange at the higher political level between the neighbors since the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi travelled to Yangon in 1987.

During the visit the countries agreed to step up bilateral cooperation by establishing cross-border transport and communication infrastructure to improve trade and business ties and take advantage of the "many economic complementarities" between their countries.

In a joint statement the countries also vowed to take steps to contain terrorist activities and enhance economic ties along their 1,600-kilometer border. The two sides described the visit of Aye as highly successful.

The creation of transport and communication infrastructure would, the joint statement said, promote more frequent exchanges both at the government and people-to-people level, and actively encourage business ties. The countries also discussed possible Indian participation in major developmental projects in Myanmar, such as the Tamanthi hydroelectric project and the Kaladan river navigation, road and gas pipeline project.

The two sides felt the existing level of cooperation, especially in the economic and commercial fields, did not reflect its true potential. Bilateral trade between the two countries in 2000 was worth $295 million, with the majority of goods going from Myanmar to India.

Besides economic ties, other issues that figured in Aye's discussions with Indian leaders was cooperation to curb the activities of extremist groups and drug traffickers along the Indo-Myanmar border and reports of China's growing influence in Myanmar.

Both sides expressed satisfaction at the level of cooperation in tackling terrorism and insurgency, with Union Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani highlighting the successes achieved by the Myanmar Army in operations against anti-Indian guerrillas.

During the visitm New Delhi extended a $15 million credit line to Myanmar for the purchase of industrial and electrical equipment from India. This followed the full utilization of an earlier $10 million credit line for setting up industrial plants and purchasing railway rolling stock.

Aye's visit, however, exposed some divisions within the Indian government over New Delhi's stance towards Yangon. Defense Minister George Fernandes, a staunch supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, stayed away from all official functions organized for the Myanmar delegation.

The visit also provoked criticism from Myanmese pro-democracy activists based in India who staged demonstrations in New Delhi and some of the northeastern states bordering Myanmar. The activists also expressed concern over the possible supply of Indian defense hardware to Myanmar.

In the spirit of improved relations, New Delhi was one of only four International Labor Organization (ILO) Governing Body members to oppose strict ILO action against Myanmar late last year for alleged forced labor practices.

Critics of Indian foreign policy point to the apparent inconsistency of the Indian refusal to deal with the military government in Pakistan while courting the generals of Myanmar.

However, India's reluctance to engage Pakistan is not based on the nature of the regime in Islamabad. It has to do with Pakistan's support for cross-border terrorism into India. While the military rulers in Islamabad are perceived as being relentless in their support to terrorism in India, Myanmar has been helpful in countering insurgency in the Northeast.

4. Drug trafficking
In September of last year India and Myanmar agreed to control drug trafficking. At a meeting of senior officials of the home ministries of both countries, in Yangon, officials reviewed the implementation of programs to curb drug trafficking from Myanmar to northeastern Indian states. The meeting was also attended by Indian officials from the External Affairs Ministry and the Narcotics Control Bureau.

The Indian team was headed by Home Secretary Kamal Pande, while the Myanmese delegation was led by Brigadier General Thura Myint Maung, the deputy minister of home affairs.

Myanmar, Laos and Thailand form the Golden Triangle that produces the bulk of the world's illegal narcotics supplies. Large quantities of drugs, mostly opium, are smuggled into India from Myanmar, which has an extensive border with the northeastern states of Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

Since the two countries set in place a mechanism for national-level meetings between home ministry officials under a 1994 agreement, they have tackled the problem of drug trafficking, which has become serious due to the close links between insurgent groups in the northeastern Indian states and the Myanmese drug mafia.

The Yangon meeting also discussed other cross-border issues, including training camps run in Myanmar by insurgent groups such the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), as well as the movement of people across the border and trade.

5. The Ganga-Mekong initiative
The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) was launched in Vientiane, Laos on November 10 last year when officials from India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam issued a "Vientiane Declaration'' on the framework for cooperation.

The declaration, which reflects an initial concept floated by India, said it had been "inspired by a common desire to develop closer relations and better understanding among the six countries to enhance friendship, solidarity and cooperation".

The initiative has been criticized as being designed to counter-balance the influence of China in the region, specifically as China, which is a riparian Mekong River country, is not included. Supporters say this is not true as the grouping is not formal and is not military in nature.

Though similar in approach to the sub-regional grouping called the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the areas of focus are different in the case of the MGC.

In the tourism field, the MGC will conduct strategic studies for joint marketing, launch the Mekong-Ganga Tourism Investment Guide, facilitate the travel of people in the region, expand multi-modal communication and transportation links to enhance travel and tourism and promote cultural-religious package tours.

The declaration committed the member countries the develop transport networks - in particular the East-West Corridor' and the trans-Asian Highway' - under the sector of transport and communication.

The promotion of air services and linkages in the MGC region and the strengthening of cooperation in the development of IT infrastructure and networks also formed part of the joint statement issued by the six Ministers.

The grouping agreed to promote joint research in the fields of dance, music and theatrical forms and organize round-tables for journalists, writers and experts in literature, performing arts, women's empowerment, health and nutrition and the conservation, preservation and protection of heritage sites and artifacts. The MGC consented to encourage the establishment of networking and twinning arrangements among universities in the region, translate classics of MGC countries into other MGC languages and assured the participation in book fairs in member countries on a commercial basis.

A concept paper, approved by the six ministers at what was formally termed the inaugural ministerial meeting on the MGC, said the cooperation arrangement, primarily aimed at increasing tourism, will also serve as "building blocks'' for other areas of mutual benefit. The MGC's objective was to announce to the international community its "political willingness and aspirations aimed at strengthening our traditional bonds of friendship".

It would also facilitate inter-state movement and transit transport of goods and people in the region. The concept paper made it clear that ministerial meetings would be led by Foreign Ministers and would take place back-to-back with the Asean Ministerial meeting (AMM)/Post Ministerial conference (PMC) held annually in July of each year.

The next ministerial meeting will take place in July 2001 in Hanoi and the chairmanship will be rotated in alphabetical order. Laos, which hosted the inaugural meeting, will remain Chair till July 2001 when Myanmar will take over and continue until July 2002.

((c)2001 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rightsreserved. Please contact content@atimes.com forinformation on our sales and syndicationpolicies.)




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