Days before Malaysia's Prime Minister's visited Myanmar, his envoy to the country made a telling comment.
“It is widely expected that the visit will focus on economic issues,” he told a group of journalists just before the visit two months ago, and added: “Everybody is interested in Myanmar. If you are late, all the opportunities will be gone.”
That sentiment must be high on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's mind as he embarks on a visit to the country on Sunday.
It is the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 25 years, but he is already one among a host of other world leaders who have been beating a path to Myanmar after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit last year signalled the approval of the country's political reforms.
Following the E.U and other countries, the U.S. announced last week that except arms sales, it would suspend all sanctions against Myanmar. The move came after the Myanmar government initiated a series of political reforms starting 2010 that have seen the release from nearly two decades of house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the democracy icon's election to parliament last month.
The easing of sanctions will also enable world financial institutions to establish relations with the country, besides facilitating aid from individual nations. The U.S. has announced that it will appoint an ambassador to Myanmar, after nearly two decades of downgraded diplomatic relations.
It was no surprise then that this past week, when protests erupted in Yangon and Mandalay against power outages, the Myanmar government announced it was buying, on an emergency basis, six generators from the U.S company, Caterpillar, which would be air-freighted into the country within days; plus, it would buy two 25-MW gas turbines from General Electric.
At one time the largest donor to Myanmar, Japan stopped giving aid from 2003 so as not to upset the U.S and EU, though it did not have any sanctions against the country. Now, it is in discussions with Naypitaw for the “Most Favoured Nation” status, after writing off $ 3.1-billion pre-2003 debts owed to it by Myanmar.
New Delhi spurned the sanctions treatment to Myanmar. Bar a short period of disengagement in the 1990s, it assiduously competed with China to cultivate the Myanmarese military rulers over objections by the U.S and other western countries.
But such is the gold rush to Myanmar that despite its early mover advantage, India, which shares a 1,600-km boundary with the country, and has long ethnic, religious and cultural links, still finds itself scrambling with not just China, but the rest of the world for a share of the pie.
A delegation of 25 Indian CEOs, representing all sectors of Indian industry, will also visit Myanmar during the Prime Minister's three-day visit. Of the companies they represent, at least three already have contracts in Myanmar — one for an onshore oil exploration project, a second on a solar energy project, and one even working on constructing a pipeline to China.
During his visit, Dr. Singh will hold bilateral discussions with President Thein Sein, but his meeting with Ms. Suu Kyi, now the leader of the opposition in Myanmar's parliament, will be keenly watched.
The new political climate is obviously one in which New Delhi feels more comfortable doing business with Myanmar, even though it virtually politically abandoned Ms. Suu Kyi in the last decade.
India believes it has no choice but to engage with its neighbours, “irrespective of the situation” — Myanmar was no different — and is convinced that it was this policy and the pressures it exerted privately on the military junta to undertake political reform that have been vindicated.
In a country where the people have grown only too conscious that the military rulers signed away too many of the country's resources into outside hands, particularly to China, India's engagement with Ms. Suu Kyi, who is undeniably the only people's leader in Myanmar, would be important for its economic ambitions there.
At a briefing for journalists ahead of the Prime Minister's visit, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said India would flag its interest in seeing more Indian companies getting onshore and offshore oil and gas exploration projects, but also in other areas.
The bilateral trade is worth $1.2 billion — almost two-thirds of that is from Myanmar's exports of moong dal to India. Both sides are only too aware that the potential is far higher. As Myanmar is still mainly an agricultural economy, India is expecting to be involved in the country's farming modernisation at several levels, including research.
Every other sector of the economy, as Mr. Mathai pointed out, also beckons.
“Myanmar's 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,” he said.
India's main infrastructure venture in Myanmar is the Kaladan project to link the Sittwe port to Mizoram by road and an inland waterway. Mr. Mathai defended the slow pace of the project, which began in 2008, blaming it on the changes in the road-link. The waterway is expected to be completed by 2013, and the road link by 2014.
Keywords: India-Myanmar relations