In March, as President Hamid Karzai sat with lawmakers over a budget session, explosions ripped through the palace area, forcing the President’s aides to evacuate him as Kabul went into a lockdown. Such incidents aren’t uncommon in Afghanistan where the pro-Taliban Haqqani network masterminds high-profile attacks and threatens to take over the country. Next door, Pakistan struggles to tackle radicalization and often elicits doubts about its survival. In short, the western part of South Asia remains volatile, dangerous and ungovernable.
In contrast, developments in the subcontinent’s eastern part saw President Thein Sein’s government open up the world to Naypyidaw after decades. As Aung San Suu Kyi emerged victorious in the recent local elections and Myanmar opened its doors to the world, leaders wasted little time in making a beeline to woo the region’s new queen bee.
These two significantly contrasting events in different parts of South Asia mark the divergent paths undertaken by countries here. To the west of India, violence seems to be the natural arbiter of political discord. It’s a compass of cultural belligerence—an expression against the supposed incongruity between the concept of nation-state and tribal or religious radicalism, and a failure to build institutions or engage with the global community.
As the western part of the subcontinent hurtles towards an imploding anarchy, the eastern part curiously seems headed in the other direction. Though it is early days yet, Myanmar seems to go from being a problem child to a fledgling nation that’s taking baby steps towards global integration. Its neighbour Bangladesh has warded off coup attempts, staved off fundamental elements, laboured towards political stability and moved away from its martial law past.
What do these changes in Myanmar and Bangladesh mean for the region?
The impact of a growing positive perception about the eastern part when juxtaposed against a rapidly ungovernable western part has important ramifications for India and the subcontinent. As a large landmass that splits two dissimilar security canvases on either side of it, India’s political robustness and business equations with its neighbours are more likely to determine the stability in the region—more so with its eastern neighbours because of the relative advantage of political cohesion and compatibility achieved here.
India has had its security challenges on both its western and eastern fronts. However, it is on the eastern front that India has now built better relations—with Myanmar and Bangladesh. The revival of relations with Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh resulted in the dismantling of insurgent camps that split the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), led to the surrender of Arabinda Rajkhowa, and subsequently helped weaken North-East insurgent groups such as the National Liberation Front of Tripura and the All-Tripura Tiger Force that relied on Ulfa for funds.
On its part, Indian intelligence inputs helped Bangladesh nip a Hizb ut-Tahrir-supported coup bid against the Dhaka government this year. Such actions have helped increase mutual trust translating into increased cross-border trade. Hasina plans to reserve special economic zones for Indian firms and expects Indian investments worth $7-9 billion in the power sector. Road infrastructure planned from Bangladesh to Tripura can further isolate insurgent groups. Access to markets will enable Bangladeshi firms to explore large consumer markets in India’s north-eastern states.
On the other hand, Myanmar shares a 1,600km boundary with four north-east Indian states. Though its jungles in Kachin have served as hideouts for the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, Myanmar remains an economic corridor for India to engage with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The changing political landscape of Myanmar brings economic opportunities for Indian firms such as in the telecom space where the market penetration is 1% of its 60 million population. Suu Kyi’s elevation and Myanmar’s new-found openness promise to help improve security and business ties between the two countries.
A watershed period awaits the region in the next few years. The extent of China’s role and political stability in Myanmar and Bangladesh are factors that can decide the security of the region. If cross-border Indian investments to these two countries continue to develop, business compulsions will make it difficult for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-supported groups to camp in border areas. Changing security equations in the eastern part of South Asia will enable India to focus on insurgency in its northern areas rather than be operationally committed on two fronts, and also economically link India’s north-east with its eastern neighbours.
Despite early optimism, there remain areas of concerns. Disgruntled Bangladesh military generals backed by Pakistan’s ISI are keen to re-establish anti-India terror camps in Bangladesh. A possible loss for Hasina in the 2013 general election can bring back radicalism and anti-India antagonism that can scare investors away from Dhaka. It is vital that the Indian government engages with Khaleda Zia, too, and ensures a continuance in relations. India’s “Look East” policy cannot work without Bangladesh, Myanmar and the participation of its north-eastern states in developing the region.
Traditionally, South Asian politics has been defined as an outcome of mercurial Indo-Pak rivalries. Openness, stability and economic promise in its eastern part can help build trade, bring investments and enhance joint security capabilities; the resulting prosperity can usher in stability and relative peace. Though it may take some time to effect changes, India has a chance to play an important part in keeping alive the momentum.
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