Guest Column

Greater Cooperation Between Myanmar, India Could Have Benefits for Both Nations

By Jacob D'Souza 14 December 2020

Warmer relations and growing cooperation between India and Myanmar are today clearly visible. There is an appreciation of the relationship at the highest levels both within the National League for Democracy-led government and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military).

Bilateral military relations have been steadily growing stronger after the two countries held joint operations on the northeastern border against armed groups a few years ago. Meanwhile there has been political engagement and very recent support provided to Myanmar’s Union Election Commission (UEC) through training for its officials on large-scale electoral management. Support for Myanmar’s COVID-19 medical response, carried out by the Indian Embassy in Myanmar and its consulates, has also been praised.

India’s Northeast Region (NER) and Myanmar have had historical, cultural and social links, a shared organic border, and free movement on the part of ethnic groups such as Ahoms, Lushais, Chins, Nagas, Meitei, Hmar and others. These facts must be kept in mind by the two governments in order to revive the shared organic border while at the same time making it a connecting bridge between the two countries. Myanmar shares a 1,643-km international border with the NER in the states of Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Manipur (389 km), Mizoram (510 km) and Nagaland (215 km).

The Moreh-Tamu border area and market is considered one of the oldest, and in a way is seen as ground zero for India-Myanmar economic transactions by those who are from the area.

According to the latest figures from Myanmar’s Ministry of Commerce, export trade via the Tamu border station was about US$3.86 million (5.12 billion kyats) from January 2020 to November 2020 as compared to $10.16 million (14.29 billion kyats) from January 2019 to November 2019. The decrease shows the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic impact and closed borders.

Major exports from India include cement, engineering goods, transport equipment, motorcycles, iron and steel, medicine, chemicals and allied products, and cotton yarn; while major items imported to India from Myanmar are betel nuts, turmeric, red kidney beans (Rajma), kuth roots, gram, resin and dry ginger.

The Moreh-Tamu border crossing is gearing up to be one of the main economic trade and transit points between India-Myanmar-ASEAN. That strategy suits India and Myanmar under New Delhi’s Act East/Look East policy and engagement with ASEAN for economic integration, i.e. joining the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), strengthening India’s connectivity with the Trans-Asian Highway.

Seeking to create its own legacy in building India-Myanmar-ASEAN connectivity, the current Indian People’s Party (BJP)-led government has pushed the Act East Policy (AEP) with the objective of promoting economic cooperation and cultural ties, while also strengthening its strategic relationships linked to border and national security concerns.

Myanmar is at the intersection of India’s two major foreign policy initiatives, Act East and Neighborhood First, and is the only country where the two policies converge, making it unique for India. That point was highlighted by the Indian Ambassador to Myanmar in an interview with The Irrawaddy in December 2019, in which he invoked connectivity, commerce, capacity-building, culture and community to describe the strengthening of relations between the two countries under the two converging policies. Indian policy-makers hope to develop a strong cross-border community and revive its cultural links in order to strengthen commerce between the NER and border areas of Myanmar.

The ongoing efforts by India to implement the AEP through the NER can repair the broken cultural and social links that still exist at an informal level. This requires a formal consolidation that actually comes down to the people-to-people relationships developed when travel and trade are allowed, supported and encouraged to flourish.

Developing connectivity between the NER and border areas of Myanmar will result in the emergence of a strong cross-border community. For this India needs to expedite travel and transport infrastructure across the border for communities on both sides.

This has to be considered not just via land, but also via air and rail. Both governments need to implement such projects at a faster pace, with some tangible results showing in 2021.

There has been a marked change in India’s engagement with Myanmar’s government and military leadership in the past few years, along with the bolstering of relations with ASEAN, which reflects a newfound interest in engaging India’s eastern neighborhood and beyond.

In order for the NER to strengthen its trade links with Myanmar, there is an equally strong need to create adequate infrastructure for the promotion of export-oriented units and a business environment that facilitates cross-border linkages. A strategy-driven connectivity for stimulating development of the cross-border areas is needed.

India and Myanmar need to find common ground, not only with India’s Act East and Neighborhood First policies, but also in Myanmar’s own Look East Policy (adopted in 2018), so that India’s actions and activities could both complement and support Myanmar’s own.

The institutionalization of cooperation between the two countries will provide the respective governments an opportunity to address their respective cross-border concerns to each other, while bearing in mind human rights issues and other challenges.

Looking at the issues from each other’s perspective, India and Myanmar may find mutually beneficial actions to address their economic and strategic needs.

The importance of opening up land, maritime and air connections between India and Myanmar becomes crucial to increasing and improving communication, enhancing trade and business, and exchanging cultural and educational values. There are many middle-income Myanmar families who would like to send their children to study in India, because India’s educational facilities are less expensive than those in other countries. For those in the border areas, education is available across the border—much closer than Yangon or Mandalay—at an affordable price.

India and Myanmar need a post-COVID19 strategy that increases connectivity via trade. The health and education sectors will also be of vital importance, as will be the transportation sector in order to facilitate these people-to-people exchanges.

Myanmar’s own foreign policy may seem impinged upon by the geopolitical overtures of its larger neighbors, India and China. But that should not deter it from identifying its own economic growth path, especially now that the people of Myanmar have given the NLD-led government an even stronger mandate to forge such a path.

Jacob D’Souza is a Bangkok-based observer of Myanmar and Southeast Asian issues. His views are his own.

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