By Rajeev Sharma
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be on a historic three-day visit to Myanmar (May 27-29), the first by an Indian prime minister in 25 years to this neighbour of great strategic and security interest for India. This is a historic moment for India-Myanmar ties. On instructions of Myanmar’s strongman President Thein Sein, Myanmar has accorded State visit status to Manmohan Singh’s upcoming trip, the highest in international diplomatic protocol.
The prime minister will be accompanied by External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon. Rajiv Gandhi was the last Indian Prime Minister to have visited Myanmar, way back in 1987. Thein Sein had paid a state visit to India in October last. Apart from the Prime Minister’s official engagements and his official talks with President Thein Sein in Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital of Myanmar, an important highlight will be his meeting with Myanmar’s charismatic leader and nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the Chairperson of the National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi has recently joined the mainstream of national politics by contesting and winning election for the country’s parliament.
The Prime Minister would also visit the historic Shwedagon Pagoda and the Mazar of the last Mughal Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, in Yangon. He would also interact separately with the Indian community in Myanmar. About 2.5 million people of Indian origin live in Myanmar.
A delegation of CEOs of major Indian companies will be in Myanmar on the occasion of PM’s visit. The delegation has been put together through the efforts of both CII and FICCI. The delegation will be led by Sunil Bharti Mittal Chairman and Group CEO of Bharti Enterprises and Rajya Vardhan Kanoria Chairman & MD of Kanoria Chemicals & Industries Ltd. The composition of the delegation is reflective of the interest of Indian industry in engaging Myanmar in various areas of trade and investments.
Myanmar’s strategic significance for India is immense. India and Myanmar share a long land border of over 1600 km and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. As the only ASEAN country which shares a land border with India, Myanmar is a bridge between India and ASEAN. Rightly and justifiably, Myanmar was given the status of observer in SAARC in August 2008.
For over two decades Myanmar remained a virtual vassal state of China. It has only been in past few years, particularly since 2006, when Myanmar has reduced its over dependence on China and deepened its ties with India. Ever since Suu Kyi’s election in parliament last month, Myanmar’s closed society has started opening up to the West also and the United States has a few days back allowed its business and industrial houses to do business with Myanmar.
India and Myanmar had signed a Treaty of Friendship way back in 1951 and Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to that country in 1987 laid the foundations for a stronger bilateral relationship. But just a year later, the August 8, 1988 military coup in Myanmar caused a severe setback to India-Myanmar ties as myanmar became an iron-curtain state, totally cut off from the rest of the world, except China.
Things started improving as the 21st century dawned. In 2002, the Indian Consulate General in Mandalay was re-opened and the Consulate General of Myanmar was set up in Kolkata. The vital momentum in India-Myanmar ties came in October 2004 when Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council, Senior General Than Shwe paid an official goodwill visit to India. Since then, the two neighbours have been coming closer with every passing year and presently the two sides have a true strategic partnership going on.
After the devastating cyclone ‘Nargis’ which ravaged Myanmar in May 2008, India responded immediately with relief materials. A year ago, India announced assistance of US $1 million for humanitarian relief and rehabilitation in the areas affected by the severe earthquake in Shan State in March 2011. Of this amount, US$ 250,000 has been handed over as a cash grant to the Myanmar Government while US$ 750,000 was utilized for reconstruction of one high school and six primary schools in Tarlay Township that was worst affected by the earthquake.
India and Myanmar signed a border trade agreement in 1994 and have two operational border trade points (Moreh-Tamu and Zowkhatar –Rhi on the 1643 km long border. A third border trade point is proposed to be opened at Avakhung-Pansat/Somrai. With these efforts, the border trade between the two sides has swelled to US$ 12.8 million in 2010-11.
India is actively involved in over a dozen projects in Myanmar, both in infrastructural and non-infrastructural areas. These include upgradation and resurfacing of the 160 km. long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road; construction and upgradation of the Rhi-Tiddim Road in Myanmar; the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project. An ADSL project for high speed data link in 32 Myanmar cities has been completed by TCIL. ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL), GAIL and ESSAR are participants in the energy sector in Myanmar. M/s RITES is involved in development of the rail transportation system and in supply of railway coaches, locos and parts.
India announced the extension of a new concessional facility of US$500 million Line of Credit to Myanmar as well as technical and financial support for three new projects, namely the Setting up an Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education (ACARE) in Yezin; Setting up a Rice Bio Park demonstrating the various techniques in rice biomass utilisation in the Integrated Demonstration Farm at Nay Pyi Taw; and Setting up an Information Technology Institute in Mandalay.
Bilateral trade has expanded significantly from US$ 12.4 million in 1980-81 and breached the $ one billion mark for the first time in 2010-11, as per the Central Statistical Organization (CSO), Yangon. India’s imports from Myanmar are dominated by agricultural items (beans, pulses and forest based products form 90% of Indian imports). India’s main exports to Myanmar are primary and semi-finished steel and pharmaceuticals.
It is heartening to note that India and Myanmar have rediscovered themselves. It’s a win-win situation for both the neighbours who have traditionally had close ties for centuries. Even the West has now realised that one way to reach out to Myanmar and engage with that country is through India. From Myanmar’s perspective, it is a good thing that its leaders have realised that they should not keep all their eggs in one basket and engaing only with China would actually harm their long-term national interest.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author anda strategic analyst.)