A peaceful and stable northeast, and in turn Myanmar, is the key to India forging links with the dynamic economies of the region

The significance of Northeast India as a bridgehead between India and Southeast Asia is being increasingly realised by policymakers in New Delhi. For a long time, the security dimension dominated Indian thinking. As a result, Northeast India was viewed as a liability and a burden. However, in the context of India’s “Look East” policy, there is increasing realisation that if infrastructure development takes place, Northeast India could become a point of convergence among the dynamic economies of Southern China, Southeast Asia and India. During Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar in May 2012, memoranda of understanding were signed not only to enhance border development, but also to increase connectivity between the two countries and through Myanmar with Thailand and the Indo-Chinese states.

Northeast India — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura — shares land borders with China, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal. It accounts for 7.6 per cent of the area and 3.6 per cent of India’s population. However, it makes up for 40 per cent of India’s land borders with neighbouring countries.

Traumatic transition

The inter-state boundaries of many Asian countries, including Northeast India, are colonial creations. Instead of uniting people who speak the same language, follow the same religion and belong to the same ethnicity, they tend to divide them. Mizos, Nagas, Meiteis are all divided between India and Myanmar. And in times of turmoil, they find sanctuary and support from kinsmen across borders.

After independence, guided mainly by security considerations, New Delhi began to push the administrative machinery to the borders. The transition, as B.G. Verghese, has put it, “was not without trauma — civil wars, insurgency, conflicting nationalisms, refugee movements, gun running, smuggling, narcotics, AIDS, trafficking in women.”

I became conscious of the connectivity among peoples when I visited the University of Manipur a few years ago. I met a Naga student who had come from Myanmar for higher education. I asked him naively, “was it difficult for you to get a student visa from the Indian Embassy in Rangoon?” The student started to laugh. When I asked him why he was laughing, he replied, “Sir, I just cross the mountains and come to the University. During the vacation, I cross the mountains and return home.” The higher education system in Northeast India is relatively more developed than the northwestern part of Myanmar. The universities in Northeast India should liberalise admission rules and institute scholarships for Myanmarese students. Such a gesture will be heartily welcomed by the people on the other side of the border.

Exploitation of connectivity among peoples could constitute the strong building blocks of regional cooperation. It took a long time for New Delhi to realise this simple truth. After much hesitation, an agreement was signed in 1994 to permit border trade; the Moreh-Tamu point in Manipur was operationalised in April 1995. A second trade point was opened in Champai-Rhi in Mizoram in 2004. Another trading point, through Nagaland, will come into force soon. According to government statistics, in 2011 the border trade was worth $12.8 million. This figure does not convey the truth as unofficial trade continues in a big way. At an international seminar, Ambassador Ranjit Gupta mentioned that annual border trade is worth $750 million.

Lost opportunities – energy

Unfortunately there is a big hiatus between Indian intentions and realities. Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has given two illustrations as to how the Government of India has failed to exploit the opportunities to its advantage. After the Asian economic crisis of 1997, India had a good opportunity to build relations with Myanmar in the field of gas exploration.

To quote Shyam Saran, “This was a window of opportunity for energy starved India. Despite persistent efforts with our own Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas and the public sector giants, ONGC, Indian Oil and GAIL, these opportunities were ignored and we have now joined the ranks of rejected suitors.” The second relates to hydroelectric projects in the Chindwin river, near the Myanmar-Nagaland border. The entire generated power could be transferred to India. General Than Shwe was very keen that India should undertake the project. To quote Shyam Saran again, “It was an uphill task getting our own government to think strategically and pursue the project expeditiously.” Flimsy reasons were put forward like Northeast India was “surplus in power.” He concludes, “It appears that after much dilly-dallying the Thamanthi project is finally poised to take-off. I certainly hope so.” The lesson is clear. If we do not avail of the opportunities provided for bilateral and regional cooperation, India’s image is likely to nosedive.

If Northeast India is to become an economic hub and break out of its landlocked isolation, and fruitfully engage in dynamic interaction with its eastern and northern neighbours, it is essential that it should become an area of peace and stability. This presupposes reconciliation among various ethnic groups and between ethnic groups and the government. This requires an imaginative approach and the ushering in of a political system where multiple identities can coexist harmoniously. The same holds true of Myanmar.

‘Friendship between peoples’

If Myanmar is going to be at war with itself, Indian attempts to forge links with Southeast Asia through Myanmar will be a non-starter. The prerequisite for cordial relations is for Myanmar to become a vibrant democracy. During her recent visit to India, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi declared, “I was saddened to feel that we had drawn away from India, or rather India has drawn away from us, during our very difficult days, but I always had faith in the lasting friendship between our two peoples.” She laid emphasis on “friendship between peoples,” not “friendship between governments,” because, she added, “governments come and go, and that is what democracy is all about.”

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is senior professor (retired) in the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.)

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