By Tridivesh Singh Maini
When Dr Manmohan Singh arrives in Myanmar on May 28, he will be the first Indian PM to visit that country after quarter of a century. The last Indian PM to visit Burma was Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. The Indian premiers visit will naturally draw a lot of attention since it comes after so long, and also for the fact that it is a new Myanmar – which is in the midst of a transition towards democracy — which Dr Singh is visiting.
It is very easy to get carried away and distracted from the real issues, since much of the focus tends to be on a few issues such as Myanmar emerging as the new battleground, between China and the rest, and the interest of other western powers in stabilizing democracy in that country.
While there should not be even an iota of doubt, that these issues are important and can not be overlooked, it is imperative to ensure that this never ending geo-political discourse pre-occupied alliances, counter alliances and spheres of influence does not overshadow some of the substantive issues in the bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar.
It is thus imperative to have a clear focus on getting a few things right in India’s bilateral relationship with Myanmar as has been earnestly attempted with other neighbors. Even the harshest critics of the UPA government would not disagree that in an otherwise abysmal report card, if there is any sphere where this government has performed well, in spite of genuine road bloc, it is the realm of neighborhood policy where under the aegis of Dr Manmohan Singh genuine attempts have been made to reach out to neighbors and there have been some clear departures from the past in this process.
Firstly, the earlier squeamishness exhibited by New Delhi with regard to mutual reciprocity and conditionalities has reduced – though not vanished.
Second, while India has been keeping an eye on China’s moves and even taken steps wherever necessary to counter the latter, yet the political leadership has done remarkably well to refrain from making brash comments and the Prime Minister has desisted from making unnecessary belligerent remarks and generally focused on what India should be doing in its neighborhood.
Third, Delhi has begun to realize the relevance of border-states and clear illustrations of this are the increasing connectivity between border provinces and India’s neighbors, setting up of Integrated Check Posts (ICP) at important border posts and the increasing involvement of state governments in India’s foreign policy – something which has facilitated and obstructed India’s efforts.
Fourth, there is a realization that under developed border provinces, whether in the North-East or Kashmir mired in conflict will obstruct any forward movement in bilateral ties. Sincere efforts have thus been made to bring these regions into the mainstream.
Yet, there is a dire need for India to improve its delivery on the ground if it has to utilize some of the good will, it has been able to generate in the neighborhood in recent times, into something tangible.
Firstly, border infrastructure is poor and this acts a major impediment to trade. the proposal for an additional border trade post at Avakhung (Nagaland)-Pansat/Somrai is welcome, it is imperative to improve the infrastructure at existing border posts Moreh (Manipur) and Champhai (Mizoram). There should be regular consultations between Chief Ministers of these states and officials of the Central government to ensure the same. The central government should also pay heed to the demands of regional chambers of commerce, as they have valuable suggestions to provide.
Second, connectivity which is being accelerated up until now is poor in comparison to China’s. The blame for this lies squarely at India’s door step since the pace of completion of projects in Myanmar has been extremely tardy. Projects like the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road construction, upgradation of the Rhi-Tiddim road and the Kaladan multi-modal transport were all announced during the NDA government and are yet to be finished. This inefficiency has done no favors to India’s image in Myanmar.
Third people to people contact between both countries is minimal, and if initiatives such as the Imphal-Mandalay bus, the increase in weekly flights – which is two at the moment have to bear fruit then it is imperative to have a sound visa regime.
In addition to improving its performance in the areas discussed, India’s engagement with Myanmar can also benefit it it can help the latter in its transformation towards democracy by helping it in the creation of democratic institutions. This is an area in which India has a head start over China. In fact in the transition to democracy, India has some clear advantages over Western countries as a consequence of important civilizational and historical linkages a point Thant Myint-U has made very forcefully in Where China meets India.
New Delhi would do well to stick to the basics and focus on utilizing Burma as it’s gateway to South-East Asia and not just view it as an emerging battleground with China. After all geographically Myanmar is truly the place where ‘China meets India’.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation. Disclaimer: Views are personal