Myanmar sits at the confluence of Asia’s great civilisations: India and China. The recent opening up of the country, after a very long period of isolation, means that for the first time in more than 50 years investors and intrepid travellers can see the country for themselves and decide how to work together for speeding up socio-economic growth. The opportunity for catch-up growth is therefore enormous. The bloom is nascent and could well be tripped along the way. An optimistic outlook, however, simply because Myanmar cannot go anywhere but up, should encourage all of Myanmar’s neighbours, especially India, to pursue actively all opportunities of cooperation that are coming up.
Myanmar is set to host the ASEAN summit in 2014 and any host country would hardly miss such an opportunity to enhance its image not only in absolute terms but also on an irreversible basis. The next general elections in Myanmar are due in 2015 when about four years and more of its version of the economic reform process, would have yielded some dividends. It is up to all friends of Myanmar’s people to engage more actively at the grass-roots level. In India’s case, this could translate to greater intensity of border trade and a deeper connection at the entrepreneurial level. India, with its own experience in hosting summits and many popular elections, is well placed to extend its assistance as needed, by its neighbour.
It is not only in this setting, but in the quiet but deep flow of historical association between the two countries that the current visit of the president of the National League for Democracy of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, is taking place. The visit, though nostalgic for the Myanmar leader, has had its moments of discomfort when Ms. Suu Kyi referred in her speech that “… India had drawn away from us during our very difficult days, but I always had faith in the lasting friendship between our two countries based on lasting friendships between our two peoples”. This was the reference to the support extended by the Indian government to the former military regime over the last two decades and more. The Indian government, however, has had its compulsions to enhancing the frequency of exchanges between the two sides during this time for security reasons.
As a potential leader who can set the course for her nation in the decades to come, one can surmise that Ms. Suu Kyi also sees the benefits of long term socio-economic engagement with India, on the base of a strong political partnership. The changes, sought to be brought about by the current ruling “civilian regime” in Myanmar would depend a lot on the encouragement granted to the spirit of entrepreneurship that characterises all Asian countries.
Myanmar is just next door to India, where entrepreneurs abound. From the humble smokeless stove in a village, to high-performance supercomputers, India has an army of innovators and institution builders for Myanmar to tap into. Over the last decade, cooperation with Myanmar on a variety of sectors ranging from education and training to border infrastructure, including connectivity, has been elevated to a higher level not only through the bilateral route but also through the regional framework of BIMSTEC, MGC and ASEAN. These have set a stage for embracing a series of surface connectivity projects that can bring the two countries and their peoples closer.
India’s northeastern region shares 1,643 km of border with Myanmar. Four States of the region — Arunachal Pradesh (520 km), Mizoram (510 km), Manipur (398 km) and Nagaland (215 km) — make up this length. Both India’s northeast and the contiguous Sagaing regions have enjoyed age-old trade relations. For the development of India’s northeast, especially surface connectivity with ASEAN countries starting with Myanmar is essential, for fully exploiting the benefits of the India ASEAN FTA, in force nearly two years now.
In September 2012, at a meeting in Delhi, experts from Myanmar, Thailand and India agreed to speed up the implementation of the trilateral highway project connecting Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Bagan and Mawlamyine in Myanmar. This also needs to be seen in the context of the ongoing project of connecting Kolkata and Mizoram via the port of Sittwe in Myanmar (the so called Kaladan Project). Apart from making border and bilateral trade more efficient, it would also enable Buddhist pilgrims in Myanmar to visit India by road at a time of their choosing.
It is seen that Ms. Suu Kyi is visiting a major institution of excellence and a bigger institution of entrepreneurship in Bangalore. Perhaps fortuitously, as a first concrete result of the efforts made by IIM Bangalore for cooperation with ASEAN countries, a group of 20 MBA students from the University of Mandalay in Myanmar attended a workshop cum training programme organised by the Centre for Public Policy, titled ‘The India Experience’ , at IIM Bangalore from October 28 to November 7, 2012.
The training included pedagogy relating to various aspects of entrepreneurship, management of small and medium enterprises, sustaining and expanding the financial and human resources of an enterprise, both in the national and in the global context. Field visits to various businesses and socially oriented organisations in Bangalore were also included in the programme.
All the participants have returned with a very positive impression about the value of the training they received from both the lecture segment and the visits to various companies/organisations. They were very appreciative of the expertise and knowledge possessed by IIMB professors. Depending on their background, they also highlighted the benefits they got from visiting various institutions like Biocon, Narayana Hrudayalaya, Infosys, Akshaya Patra and Himalaya Pharmaceuticals. Some of them even vowed to replicate those models in their own context.
When this training is seen in the light of the successful visit of our Prime Minister to Myanmar in May 2012, it acquires a greater salience. This would be one among the many steps to enhance bilateral exchanges on the one hand and also contribute in a significant way to the ongoing efforts in the Myanmar government towards opening their economy to foreign cooperation and investment in the private and the public sector. Principally, the sectors of health, education, construction, banking and financial services, telecom and tourism offer themselves as areas of investment in Myanmar for Indian entrepreneurs. The future is indeed bright with immense possibilities for yielding all-round benefits across all layers of society in Myanmar.
(N. Ravi is a retired IFS officer, presently Senior Fellow, Centre for Public Policy, IIM, Bangalore)