New Delhi: Manmohan Singh arrived in Myanmar on Sunday, aiming to boost bilateral relations during the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the previously isolated state in a quarter of a century.
Singh’s 27-29 May visit comes at a time when the former military-ruled state is making a transition towards democracy and economic reforms.
Terming India’s ties with Myanmar as a “close friend and neighbour”, Singh said in a statement, before his departure that the two nations will focus on “new initiatives and define a road map for the further development of our cooperation in the years ahead.”
“Stronger trade and investment links, development of border areas, improving connectivity between our two countries and building capacity and human resources are areas that I hope to focus on during my visit,” he said. “We also hope to sign a number of agreements/MoUs (memoranda of understanding) to further strengthen our bilateral cooperation in these areas.”
Singh is among a growing list of international leaders to visit Myanmar in recent months—UK Prime Minister David Cameron visited last month with a trade delegation, and earlier this month, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak also visited the South-East Asian nation.
The increasing international focus on Myanmar follows the holding of its first elections in decades in November 2010 and naming former military general Thein Sein as president in March last year. Since becoming president, Sein has surprised the international community by taking many steps towards democracy, including releasing democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from 15 years of house arrest and allowing her National League for Democracy to contest parliamentary elections in April this year. Other steps include freeing other political prisoners, opening talks with ethnic rebels, easing media censorship and restoring labour unions’ right to strike.
“I wish Prime Minister Singh was one of the first to visit, though it’s never too late. We are not in competition with the West here,” said Charan Wadhva, an economist with the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “Myanmar for us is economically, politically and strategically significant. It’s our gateway to the South-East Asian Nations. We have a lot to offer Myanmar in terms of economic and political partnership and importantly, the Myanmarese wants us. This is an important visit, the Prime Minister will be looking to consolidate the ties we have built up with Myanmar.”
It is easy to see why countries that previously shunned it are keen to renew ties with Myanmar. Various reports suggest that Myanmar abounds in natural gas, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, limestone, precious stones, hydropower and petroleum.
“Myanmar could see strong growth if it pursues the necessary reforms to take advantage of its rich natural resources, young labour force, and proximity to some of the world’s most dynamic economies, including China and India,” Meral Karasulu, chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission in Myanmar, was cited as saying on the Fund’s website earlier this month. “Against the background of political and economic changes in the country, growth in Myanmar is picking up modestly. In the last year, GDP (gross domestic product) growth is estimated to have increased to 5.3%, and is expected to rise to 5.5% in FY 2011/12, and 6% the following year.”
India, which was once criticized for engaging the previous military regime, is hoping to cash in on the goodwill it has generated through the years. While many countries, particularly Western nations slapped sanctions on Myanmar and its military rulers, India rejected the idea describing it as counterproductive and went ahead with investments in Myanmar’s oil and gas and infrastructure sectors.
On his trip, Singh is being accompanied by a group of 25 businessmen who will explore opportunities in areas spanning information technology, power, energy and telecom.
“Myanmar economy has so much potential for development that we feel the scope for cooperation is in virtually all fields of industry—agro-based industries, resource-based industries, information technology, communications, hydrocarbons, transport,” Indian foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai told reporters in New Delhi on Friday.
The Indian delegation hopes to sign about 10 agreements, including increasing both land and air connectivity and development of border areas besides helping Myanmar in agriculture development, one of the two mainstays of its current economy.
“There are a large number of other minerals in which Myanmar is believed to be extremely rich. We are happy to share our experience and help Myanmar develop them,” Mathai said. “The $1.2 billion (Rs 6,684 crore) trade is $900 million coming to India and $300 million going from India. So, this is obviously something which the Myanmar side is quite happy with. But they do see prospects of greater exchanges with India particularly in the north-east,” Mathai said.
India’s strategy is manifold. Developing stronger bonds with Myanmar will help develop India’s north-east. Increasing connectivity in the region and linking it with Myanmar will help India access South East-Asian markets, boosting its “Look East” policy. It will also help counter strategic and economic rival China, which has made economic inroads into Myanmar and other countries in the region with a major presence in the infrastructure sector.
India expects that a democratic Myanmar is more likely to lean towards its western neighbour than China, one of the reasons why the government is supportive of the democratic processes underway there. “India welcomes Myanmar’s transition to democratic governance and the steps taken by the government of Myanmar towards a more broad based and inclusive reconciliation process,” Singh said. “We stand ready to share our democratic experiences with Myanmar.”
During his three-day stay, Singh will meet key leaders in the government including Thein Sein in the capital Naypyitaw. Suu Kyi will call on Singh—a departure from tradition where foreign leaders including British Prime Minister Cameron have called on Suu Kyi. Singh will also make a speech on “India and Myanmar: A Partnership for Progress and Regional Development,” before his return.