Why ties with Myanmar are important for India
New Delhi:Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s just-concluded visit to Myanmar was the third by an Indian prime minister in five years, and the second by him in three years, though it was his first bilateral visit.
Taken together, these visits underline the importance of Myanmar to India—it is seen as a crucial partner in the fight to end insurgency in India’s north-east, as a gateway to South-East Asia and a key component of Modi’s new vision for South and South-East Asian regional cooperation. It is also a neighbour that is increasingly being wooed by China.
Modi’s visit came at a difficult time for Myanmar’s state councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, as she faced mounting criticism for failing to speak up for the minority Rohingya Muslims.
Against this backdrop, India signalled support.
“India condemned the recent terrorist attacks in northern Rakhine State, wherein several members of the Myanmar security forces lost their lives. Both sides agreed that terrorism violates human rights and there should, therefore, be no glorification of terrorists as martyrs,” a joint statement released on Wednesday said.
On its part, Myanmar “reaffirmed its respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India and steadfastly upheld the policy of not allowing any insurgent group to utilise Myanmar’s soil to undertake hostile acts against the Indian Government. Myanmar also appreciated Government of India for upholding the same principle.”
For India, terrorism has been a major security challenge since the mid-1980s. According to Indian intelligence agencies, separatists and insurgents operating in India’s north-east have used Myanmar as a base for their hit-and-run operations against India. India shares a 1,600-km border with Myanmar, and Indian and Myanmarese militaries have jointly undertaken operations to flush out militants.
India also sees Myanmar as a key partner because of its membership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or Asean—the economically dynamic bloc that has some of the fastest rates of GDP growth in Asia. India, Myanmar and Thailand are building the Asian Trilateral Highway, which will connect India to Asean—which groups together Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
India is also building the Kaladan project, a road-river-port cargo transport project, which aims to link Kolkata to Sittwe in Myanmar and then from Myanmar’s Kaladan river to India’s north-east. Apart from boosting the economy of Myanmar, the project will also create an alternative route for goods from India’s north-east to the rest of the country and the world. Both projects are expected to be completed by 2020.
Myanmar is also a key component of India’s strategy to bridge South and South-East Asia through Bimstec, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. It comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and brings together 1.5 billion people or 21% of the world population and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of over $2.5 trillion.
For India, making Bimstec work is important as for years it has blamed Pakistan for holding back the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or Saarc grouping.
Countering the China factor, Modi’s visit underlined the cultural and religious similarities with Myanmar besides the partnerships it can build in other areas.
Beijing has increased its economic profile in the country in recent times pushing for a special economic zone at Kyauk Pyu among other projects. The special economic zone, expected to cover more than 4,200 acres (17 sq. km), includes the $7.3 billion deep sea port and a $2.3 billion industrial park, with plans to attract industries such as textiles and oil refining, a Reuters report said.
New Delhi has already extended $2 billion in soft loans. It has offered to help Myanmar developmental assistance in the areas it wants rather than be prescriptive.
According to the joint statement, a new Indian proposal suggests the setting up of infrastructure and socio-economic projects jointly with Myanmar in the restive Rakhine state—in the areas of education, health, agriculture, agro-processing, upgradation of roads, small power projects and livelihood activity.
All this is to counterbalance China which has made deep inroads into India’s immediate neighbourhood.