Both countries may finalise pact for bus service to connect Imphal and Mandalay

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in the Myanmar capital on Sunday on a three-day visit aimed at improving economic ties with a country that is just beginning to emerge from decades of isolation and is seeking to normalise ties with the outside world.

In a statement before his departure from New Delhi, Dr. Singh, who meets President Thein Sein on Monday, said the focus of his visit would be on strengthening the existing trade and investment links, building agreements for greater connectivity and for development of areas along their shared 1,600-km border.

Four of India's north-eastern States straddle this border — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram; people of shared ethnicities live on both sides.

Dr. Singh's visit may see the two sides finalising an agreement for a bus service to connect Imphal to Mandalay. The proposal has been approved by India, and awaits the green signal from Myanmar's Cabinet.

In any case, as announced by Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai last week, both countries intend highlighting the bus service as an initiative in the common interests of both, in a joint statement that is to be issued at the end of the visit.

The bus service, aimed at promoting both trade and people-to-people contact, is a component of development in the region that India sees as crucial to its internal stability as well as to its Look East Policy.

Ceasefire agreements

For the same reasons, New Delhi is also clearly interested in the ceasefire agreements the Myanmar government has concluded since January 2012 with several ethnic rebel groups on its sides, notably the one in April with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang).

Earlier this month, the Centre extended its own truce with this and another faction, the NSCN (I-M), and another Naga group.

The thinking on the Indian side seems to be that the more efforts Myanmar makes at peace with the ethnic insurgents on its side, the better for both countries. There are more than 50 rebel groups on the Myanmar side of the border, some of which have links with rebel outfits on the Indian side.

India has made no official comment on the ceasefires, which are the first step of a three-stage process the Myanmar government has in mind towards establishing its writ in the insurgency-hit areas. After concluding the ceasefire pacts, Myanmar's plans to have political negotiations, to be followed by a grand agreement, with all the groups.

As well as the moves to bring the leader of the country's pro-democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, into the political process, Dr. Singh appeared to refer to these efforts to make peace with the insurgent groups when he welcomed the “broad-based reconciliation process” in Myanmar, linking this to the transition to democratic governance.

Dr. Singh said that his visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister since Rajiv Gandhi's visit in 1987, “will provide an opportunity to review the progress in implementation of decisions” taken during President Thein Sein's visit to India in October last.

“We will also consider new initiatives and define a road map for the further development of our cooperation in the years ahead,” Dr. Singh said.

After his talks with President Thein Sein, the Prime Minister will go to Yangon on Tuesday, the last day of his visit. There, he will meet Ms. Suu Kyi. India, which turned its back on the Nobel Laureate during her years of house arrest as it cultivated the military leadership, has held that the policy was driven by the need to engage with Myanmar, as with all other neighbours, irrespective of their internal arrangements.

He will also interact with members of the Indian community in Yangon.

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