In Person

Myanmar Plays a Role in New Delhi’s Two Major Foreign Policy Initiatives: Indian Ambassador

By The Irrawaddy 13 December 2019

The Irrawaddy sat down with Indian Ambassador Saurabh Kumar to discuss many issues of mutual interest between the two countries, including India’s infrastructure projects in Myanmar, border security, defense cooperation, the peace process, and Chinese influence here and in the region.

Mr. Ambassador, how would you describe the relations between India and Myanmar? During the past four years we have seen many developments in relations between the two governments and militaries?

Myanmar is a close friend and a neighbor; it is at the intersection of India’s two major foreign policy initiatives, Act East and Neighborhood First. It is the only country where these two initiatives converge, and in that sense our relationship is unique.   In the last four years, our bilateral relations have picked up, with visits at highest levels, ministerial levels and functional levels.  When I called on the President of Myanmar to present my credentials, one of the things he mentioned was that the high-level engagement between the two countries has contributed to the development of relations, and that this engagement should be strengthened. The President of India was in Myanmar last December, and extended his invitation to the President of Myanmar to visit India at a mutually convenient date.  We are looking forward to that visit. Apart from the high-level visits, we also have engagement in different areas, including regular foreign office consultations, joint working groups in different sectors, and in general our engagement with Myanmar has been increasing over the last few years.

Geopolitically, Myanmar is strategically located between two Asian giants—India and China. In what sectors is India currently helping Myanmar?

We use several C’s to describe our relations. Connectivity is very important; so are commerce; capacity building and culture.  There is also the community.  We are doing several projects as far as connectivity is concerned. In August 2018, Tamu-Moreh [between Sagaing Region and India’s Manipur State] and Rihkhawdar [in Myanmar’s Chin State] and Zokhawthar [in India’s Mizoram State] were declared as land-border crossing points between India and Myanmar. Infrastructure at both these land-border crossing points is being developed.  You are also aware of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, the port and waterways component of which is complete, and  the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. As regards the latter, we are working on a 109-km road stretch, which remains to be completed.   Also, there are 69 bridges on the India-Myanmar Friendship Road [part of the Trilateral Highway] where work is to be done. Connectivity therefore is a big item for the two countries.

Trade and commerce is also important. Our trade is also around US$1.7 billion [2.55 trillion kyats]. What we need to see is that the basket of items, which is a bit restricted at present, expands. There is considerable and increasing interest amongst Indian companies to invest and do business in Myanmar. Recently some initiatives have been taken, including the development of a container terminal by an Indian company, Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone [APSEZ] with an approximate investment of around US$280 million. We are looking at several other projects in your country, including in the hydro-carbon sector, electricity sector and other areas of infrastructure.  Our cooperation in the area of capacity building and training is also picking up, and at the base of all this is our cultural links and people-to-people exchanges.  So overall, I would say that the relationship is progressing and we would like to see our age-old ties further consolidate and expand in coming years.

India is seriously engaging in connectivity and has a lot of projects underway. We are also seeing a large wave of infrastructure projects from China. Many Myanmar people would like to see New Delhi become more engaged in this country; how can India engage more visibly? You have been posted as the ambassador to the country. How will you actively promote India’s role?

There are two aspects to your question. One is the policy framework about which I have already spoken, viz., Act East and Neighborhood First policies. Second is what we do with the policy framework.  As I have mentioned earlier, connectivity is very important. Once we have good land connectivity, we will have greater movement between the two countries. As we achieve greater people-to-people interaction, it will give a boost to different areas of cooperation, including in trade and commerce.

Land connectivity is one part of it. Recently you may have also heard that our air connectivity has also been strengthened, though a lot more needs to be done.   A good beginning, nevertheless, has been made. Right now there are daily flights from Yangon to Kolkota and also flights, a few times a week, from Mandalay to Imphal in Manipur, the northeast of India.

Ultimately what needs to happen is that there has to be greater interest in India for Myanmar, and vice versa.  For this both our countries need to work together.  Once this interest grows, which would to a very large extent depend on people-to-people exchanges and ease of travel, we would have laid the ground for more solid commercial and economic engagement and, in general, stronger bonds between our two countries.

India and Myanmar also share a long border. The government of India is in the process of signing some kind of peace treaty with the Isak-Muivah faction National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). What do you expect from that peace treaty? We have also seen a lot of cooperation between the Indian and Myanmar armies with regard to Naga insurgents’ activities along the border. What do you expect from that in terms of peace? You talk about trade and development, but what are the hinderances to stability and peace in this region?

As you mentioned, we share a more than 1,600-km-long land boundary. Maintaining peace and stability on the boundary is of mutual interest to Myanmar and India. I think there have been some positive developments from the end of last year through this year. We have good collaboration with your government and the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] in terms of maintaining peace in the border areas, and the two armies have acted in a coordinated manner to ensure that either country’s territory is not used by elements which are inimical to the other. So your armed forces are taking action in your territory to ensure that Myanmar territory is not used by elements inimical to India and we are doing exactly the same. So this is a good understanding we have between the two countries.  We have engagements between the two armed forces at different levels, starting at the border post level and moving up.   So this is a positive development and we look forward to this cooperation continuing.

We have seen lot of cooperation indeed over the last five years. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has flown to New Delhi and other parts of India. The last time, the Indian  Defense Ministry also mentioned that Myanmar is a key pillar of India’s Act East policy. India also agreed to sell some submarines to Myanmar. There is also a lot of defense cooperation going on, with India promising to provide [military hardware] to Myanmar. It is very interesting to see the two countries’ militaries deepening this relationship. How would you describe it, keeping in mind that the Myanmar army is facing a lot of criticism over human rights violations?

As I mentioned, cooperation in security sector and defense sector between India and Myanmar is not something new; this cooperation has built over a period of time. I would not like to comment on any particular transfer from India to Myanmar, but let me say that I think a good beginning has been made in terms of defense procurements by Myanmar from India, and we look forward to this growing. India itself is pursuing a policy where we are giving a lot of emphasis to defense exports from India and the fact that this area of engagement between the two countries has grown is a welcome development.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has warned that when people talk about the Rakhine issue, they tend to forget about terrorism issues there. The Myanmar army also talks a lot about counterterrorism issues and receiving training from neighboring countries. How do you view India’s attempts to enhance relations with the Myanmar army?

On the Rakhine issue, there are different dimensions. Human rights is an important dimension. There are other dimensions, namely the security dimension, and there is also the development dimension. So we would like to engage with your country to see that the Rakhine problem is resolved at the earliest and we would be happy to cooperate across different areas. In fact, as you would be aware we built 250 houses in northern Rakhine for the displaced people to return to. This was done under the framework of the Rakhine State Development Program, under which we have committed US$5 million [7.49 billion kyats] every year over a period of five years for socio-economic projects. We have conveyed to both the Union and the Rakhine State governments that we would be happy to undertake socio-economic projects and help to establish vocational training center in Rakhine to increase employability of the youth there.

Regarding India’s views on the challenges of Rohingya repatriation, there is growing Arakan Army influence in the Rakhine area, especially in the areas bordering Bangladesh and India. One wonders whether these will impact ongoing development projects that are supported by India in this region. How does this impact the relationship?

There are two parts: first is the return of the displaced people, and the second is security related to the projects India is undertaking. On the first one, Myanmar has an understanding with Bangladesh for the return of the displaced people. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar have understandings with the UN bodies. We would like to see these understandings implemented and action taken on the ground for the return of displaced people to Myanmar. On the security of Indian projects, regarding the Kaladan Multi Modal Project—particularly the construction of the road from Paletwa in Chin State to Zorinpui [in Lawngtlai district of India’s Mizoram State]—because of the security situation the road construction work has been impeded. We have not been able to do much on account of the security situation in Paletwa, so we are looking at various other options as to how or what we can do so that the road construction work can continue. We believe that development is a requirement in Rakhine State, and that the Kaladan project would contribute to that. The Sittwe port would be operational in a month or two. That itself should generate some economic activity, and once the road is completed, then Sittwe port would get linked to the India-Myanmar border and to Indian side. That again would be a positive, as far as trade and economic activity in the region is concerned. So we do hope that everybody realizes that the economic potential of the project will be in everybody’s benefit once we are able to complete the project.

It seems obvious that the Kaladan project is on the AA’s radar. They have attacked the project.

We recently had a case where a team from India which had come to study the project was taken captive by the Arakan Army.  One Indian unfortunately lost his life.  As I have said, the project is important, the project will benefit Rakhine and its people, it will overall benefit Myanmar and also India. I do hope that security is ensured so that the project can be completed in a timely manner.

India and China are important neighbors and both are engaged with Myanmar, but China is seriously active in terms of development projects and infrastructure, with huge infrastructure projects across the country. Myanmar is increasingly spoken of as a battleground and market for the two Asian giants.

We do not look at our relationship with Myanmar through the lens of another country; we have a sound policy framework in place.  And if we [Myanmar and India] work together and move ahead within our respective policy frameworks, then we would be able to further build our relationship, make it deeper and stronger. I think there is a need for the relationship to become much stronger than what it is today and there is potential for that.   As I mentioned earlier, greater connectivity, greater people-to-people contact, greater business ties are very important for this.

I want to take you up to the Ledo/Stilwell Road from Ledo in Assam to Kunming in Yunnan, China, built during WWII, passing through Myanmar towns like Shingbwiyang, Myitkina and Bhamo in Kachin State. India is still opposed, for reasons of national interest, to both China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) going through the disputed territory of Kashmir. Given that, how does India view this Trilateral Highway as a way to boost tourism and trade between India’s northeastern region and Myanmar’s Kachin, Chin and Rakhine states?

You refer to the Ledo Road and the Trilateral Highway. We have our hands full undertaking the Trilateral Highway Project, which has two components to it: one is the Kalewa-Yargi Road Section, plus 69 bridges that need to be upgraded. We are working on that and we hope the road section should be completed by 2021. As far as the 69 bridges are concerned, we are providing certain funds to the government of Myanmar to maintain the bridges and the work hopefully will start on the bridges very soon. Two: as far as the Ledo Road is concerned, there is nothing which is happening as of now, as we have enough at hand doing the Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi Modal Project.

How do you see Myanmar’s democratization process? Some people say that it is a very fragile process and could collapse any time. Some say that it is making progress but will take some time as there are many challenges. Others are optimistic and say Myanmar will get to where it deserves to be. How do you see the current reform process?

Democratic and other transitions, and reconciliation processes are always a challenge. These are not easy processes. I think your country has come a significant way if you look at it in a long-term perspective. India stands with Myanmar in its democratic transition. We have good engagement with your country in terms of capacity building as far as the democratic transition is concerned. In areas like training of civil servants, district magistrates, town administrators, training for the police force, training of officers of the Union Election Commission [UEC], training of judicial officers, etc.  Across the board we have good capacity-building programs going on.  We have in collaboration with Myanmar set up some state-of-the-art institutes/centers such as the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology [MIIT] in Mandalay and the Advanced Center for Agricultural Research and Education [ACARE] at Yezin Agricultural University.  As I said, these are processes which are complex and take time, but I am optimistic.

There are many countries involved in the country’s efforts to achieve peace via the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. India, Japan, China as well as the Western countries are making contributions. How do you evaluate the ongoing peace process? As we discussed earlier, India is also concerned about the Naga and defense cooperation in terms of trying to contain some elements along the border areas.

You have a framework in the form of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [NCA]. We have been engaging with your country in the form of experience sharing. We have a constitution which is federal in character.  What we have been doing is organizing lectures, visits of experts from India and sharing our experiences in federalism and organizing visits to India, to give exposure to what our experience has been. You know very well what our challenges have been in the northeast and some of these were resolved through peace processes and we have shared our experiences about these peace processes. The peace process and national reconciliation requires time and I wish all concerned will take this to a logical conclusion.

The Foreign Ministry has announced that State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will go to The Hague to face the International Court of Justice over allegations of genocide stemming from the Myanmar military’s role in the Rohingya crisis. Other countries and governments have expressed support to the government, and various ethnic groups have issued statements on the issue. What is your take?

I would not like to comment because it is a judicial process. All I would like to say is that India’s position is well known as we have cast our vote in international fora when such issues are discussed.

After Afghanistan, Myanmar seems to be the most interfered-with country in Asia, and we seem to have gotten used to it. It seems to be a place where external forces and governments take enjoyment from talking about the issues facing the country. As a career diplomat who has been posted to different countries, how would you comment?

It is for Myanmar to decide how it wants to move ahead. It is a decision which is entirely Myanmar’s.

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