Guest Column

For India, a Myanmar Policy Minus its Northeast is Incomplete

By Bidhayak Das 27 March 2018

The recently concluded India-Myanmar business conclave in Yangon was nothing short of old wine in a new bottle, with both sides agreeing on the need for improved connectivity, better relations, etc. Perhaps it is time for some soul searching in order to come up with a more pragmatic plan and one that translates into action. As a part of that plan, a crucial factor that would make a huge difference would be the involvement of India’s northeastern states, which connect the country to Myanmar and its other eastern neighbors. Just for the record, Myanmar’s Chin State and Sagaing Region share a 1,643-km border with India’s four northeastern states, namely Arunachal (520 km), Nagaland (215 km), Manipur (398 km) and Mizoram (510 km).

It would be wrong to say that the need to engage the northeastern states has not been felt by the Indian establishment in New Delhi since the inception of its Look East Asia — now Act East Asia — policy in the 1990s. However, efforts to involve these states have been piecemeal to say the least, with occasional exchanges and visits of chief ministers and junior ministers and some India-Asean motor rallies through Myanmar. In the truest sense of the term, there has not been a concerted effort to engage even the key states of Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram or even Assam in any of the business conclaves that have been held so far.

It is no wonder, then, that most of the conclaves have promised so much and delivered so little, especially when measured against how much progress China — or even Thailand for that matter — has made in trade, commerce and connectivity, even in support of different aspects of the political process in Myanmar. The problem is not hard to find, and can be best summed up in the words of a former Indian civil servant: “New Delhi is too far from the northeast and it will continue to be, and the bureaucracy does not have an inkling of how to deal with the northeast vis-à-vis Myanmar.” India may not want to be measured against the policies and strategies of China or Thailand, or of Western countries that have already made significant forays into Myanmar. But surely New Delhi must start to explain why its much touted Act East Asia policy is still a non-starter of sorts.

All the ongoing projects that India has with Myanmar as part of its Act East Asia agenda are either stalled awaiting bureaucratic clearance or have made extremely slow progress. For instance, the 1,400-km India-Myanmar-Thai highway project has stretches through Sagaing that have remained undriveable for a long time and bridges that are not fit for international transport. On the Indian side, there are also a number of issues — insurgency, communal unrest, social upheaval caused by arriving migrants — that need to be properly addressed with long-term strategies. The Act East Asia policy must take all of these factors into account.

Even if the Indian establishment believes there has been progress in different sectors, what explanation could it possibly have for lacking any mutual planning with its northeastern states to ensure that the Act East Asia agenda actually gains more momentum than it has managed over the last five years or more? What is even more surprising is that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been unable to use the expertise of its regional governments in the northeastern states to augment its Act East Asia policy. After the recent victory of the BJP and its allies in Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, the party now has direct influence over the governments of at least six of the eight states that make up India’s northeast.

An article in the Wire titled “India’s Look East Policy and the Northeast: Bridging Spaces or Widening Schisms?” in January 2017 had this to say: “The participation of the northeastern state governments or institutions in the Look East policy is nearly non-existent. Surprisingly, in the policy documents, there is barely any mention of the tourism sector, which has a huge potential in the picturesque northeast.” It goes on to claim that “Seemingly, the imposition of sovereignty on many parts of northeast India post-1947 is now followed by the imposition of India’s policy agenda in the post-liberalisation era. There is no doubt that increased connectivity will increase volumes of trade, as it was in the pre-partition era. However, what’s troubling is that in both the post-1947 and post-liberalisation era, the consent of and consultation with the northeastern societies have been bypassed.”

These will surely be testing times for New Delhi, for yearly business conclaves where promises are made and forgotten will not yield many results on the ground. One is reminded of the unfulfilled promise made by then-Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at a similar event in Yangon in 2014. Soon after returning to India, she said, she would knock on the prime minister’s door and urge immediate air connectivity between the two countries. The demand from most of the Indian delegates was that there be at least one direct flight daily between New Delhi and Yangon, given that there were none and that even countries like Vietnam and Nepal had direct flights, not to mention China and Thailand, which had two to three flights a day and a similar number of operators.

It surely makes for very good food for the ear when both India and Myanmar reiterate their commitment — as Indian Junior Commerce Minister C R Chaudhury and Myanmar Deputy Commerce Minister Aung Htoo did at Thursday’s conclave in Yangon — to strengthen bilateral relations and improve connectivity. Or perhaps when the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) keeps reiterating its plans to collaborate with Myanmar’s business and investment communities, which it has been doing for some time. I remember attending the India-Myanmar business conclave in June 2014, where similar promises were made and it all sounded very positive. Promises to set up a CII office are not new, either.

There is no reason to believe that “things would happen gradually,” as a former Indian diplomat in Yangon used to say when confronted with the question “When do we get to see words translate into action?” But more than rhetorical assurances, what matters most is that India understand the call that Myanmar has repeatedly made — that, given the strategic position of Myanmar as an entry point for India into Asean and the greater Mekong subregion, a comprehensive and action-packed policy involving all the states in India and in Myanmar is extremely important.

What may be encouraging to notice, and what New Delhi and even Naypyitaw must take note of, is the interest shown by the BJP-ruled states of the northeast to echo what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been saying — that development of the northeast is an essential component to realising the dream of a developed country. There was perhaps a sense of seriousness when, at an election rally on Feb. 22 in Tuensang, Nagaland, Narendra Modi sounded out the BJP’s plans and expressed his firm resolve to see the Act East Asia agenda made a reality. He did not forget to mention that one of the key aims of the initiative is to connect the people of the northeast with Southeast Asian countries in order to foster speedy development.

Leaving aside the politics of how elections are won in India, it is worth noting that the BJP, which is seen as essentially a Hindu party, has been able to gain ground in a largely Christian region. In fact, the recent electoral success of the BJP in northeast India is being partly attributed to the government’s Act East Asia policy and its broader message of development. Besides this, it is also being seen as the best possible electoral balance that could have come about, as having the same party in power in New Delhi and in the states makes it easy to make decisions in favour of a policy and having them implemented without any fuss. This view has been reflected in the Indian media. In an article titled “How BJP’s northeast election victories further India’s Act East policy,” online media outlet Livemint quoted Prabhir De, head of the New Delhi-based Asean-India Center, as saying: “The BJP’s win in these states means that there will be greater collaboration between the center and states in terms of formulating and implementing policies for development, and this includes integration with the Asean.”

Thus it is time that policy practitioners in New Delhi wake up and consider the importance of the northeast not just as states that stand to benefit but also as partners in planning how to make Act East Asia a tool for greater economic engagement with countries in Southeast and East Asia and, as many scholars have articulated, for finding a solution to the vexed insurgency problem in northeast India.

The author is a former senior journalist who has worked for national and international news media in India and elsewhere. Currently he is a contributing editor for The Irrawaddy.