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Myanmar Rises In India’s Strategic Calculus

English: Burma (Myanmar) (dark green) / ASEAN ...

English: Burma (Myanmar) (dark green) / ASEAN (dark grey) (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Myanmar on Aug 8-11 to attend a number of meetings held in Nay Pyi Taw to boost New Delhi’s ties with ASEAN and other Asia-Pacific nations.

Swaraj also held bilateral talks with the leaders of the host country, Myanmar, as part of the Narendra Modi government’s policy to strengthen relations with the neighboring nations. Myanmar occupies a central position in India’s Look East Policy (LEP) as it serves as a gateway to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). For the last two decades, India has been engaged with the quasi-military regime of Myanmar on the diplomatic, economic and defense fronts to consolidate New Delhi’s position vis-à-vis Beijing. The growing assertiveness of China in the Asia-Pacific region is a matter of concern for India like many other Southeast and East Asian nations. Myanmar is the only ASEAN member with which India shares both land and maritime boundaries.

During her talks with Myanmar’s Foreign Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin, Swaraj raised India’s serious concern over some militant outfits of Northeast maintaining bases inside its territory and asked the neighboring country to take action against them. Swaraj said she told the Myanmarese foreign minister that the insurgent groups are not only a security threat to India but to his country as well and that they need to “handle sternly”. President U Thein Sein assured New Delhi that his government would never allow its territory to be used for anti-Indian activities when the visiting external affairs minister raised the issue.

India shares a 1,640 km-long porous border with Myanmar which is notorious for movement of terrorists and smuggling of small arms and narcotics. Innumerable incidents involving cross-border movement of militants operating from Myanmar have been reported.

The continuous smuggling of small arms across the Indo-Myanmar borders is a major concern for India’s security establishment. On Aug 19, Inspector General of Border Security Force (BSF) in charge of Meghalaya sector said the Northeastern militants regularly receive “substantial quantity” of illegal arms and ammunition from China and Myanmar.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson said both governments would focus on operationalising a Memorandum of Understanding facilitating intelligence sharing and cooperation between the security forces of two countries. Several Northeastern states have urged the Centre on numerous occasions to initiate firm steps to end cross-border movement of militants who have been maintaining training camps in northern Myanmar. Intelligence reports have pointed out that after being evicted from Bangladesh, a few militant groups, including United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent), had shifted their underground camps to the Sagaing division of Myanmar, an almost inaccessible region not frequented by Tatmadaw — the armed forces of the country. Both the countries have enhanced border cooperation in the recent period and this has fetched positive results. The Fifth India-Myanmar Regional Border Committee meeting was held in the last week of July this year.

During the bilateral talks with Myanmar’s foreign affairs minister, Swaraj stressed on expanding connectivity, trade and tourism between the two countries. They discussed connectivity projects, including land, maritime and air connectivity and the much-awaited India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway to facilitate trade and people-to-people contact. Swaraj sought speedy implementation of the 3,200 km road project which will establish link between India and ASEAN members. She also discussed completion of the multi-nodal transport link between Kolkata, Sittwe and Mizoram.

Despite close geographical proximity, Myanmar is not properly connected to India. There is no direct flight between the capital cities. At times, only charted flights for pilgrims operate from Kolkata. Swaraj urged Myanmarese leaders to start flight services between New Delhi and Yangon via Bodhgaya. Adding fillip to LEP, Golden Myanmar — a private airliner of the neighboring country began regular chartered flight services between Mandalay and Imphal from June 27, 2014. The new air route is part of the bilateral air service agreement inked by India and Myanmar in 2012. Manipur Transport Secretary H Laxmikumar said the state government also plans to launch bus services between Imphal and Mandalay.

India’s Ambassador to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhay had undertaken a 10-day visit to the Northeast in April 2014 to explore the possibilities of improving connectivity with the neighboring country through land and air routes, cooperation through various student and faculty exchange programs, augmenting cultural cooperation, formalization of border trade, examining economic feasibility of opening Stilwell Road and facilitation of investments between both the nations. He pointed out that Myanmar has now opened trade routes and this would be of great benefit to the Northeast region.

India is interestingly poised to emerge as a key investor of infrastructure projects in Myanmar. The Myanmar government has recently cancelled $20 billion Kyaukhpyu-Kunming railway project connecting China through Rakhine state, Magway region, Mandalay and Shan state funded by Beijing due to public opposition. Some Indian observers maintain that withdrawal of China offers India an opportunity to step up its engagement with Myanmar. Impressed by Modi’s previous development works, the president told Swaraj that the Gujarat model is also applicable in Myanmar. It seems the Myanmar government is keen to embrace India as one of its development partners.

Border trade is another key component of Indo-Myanmar economic ties. According to a study conducted by Manipur University, the volume of India-Myanmar trade through Manipur has been steadily rising over the years. India is the major beneficiary of the border trade with Myanmar. The study has also found that the scale of illegal trade through the porous border has increased simultaneously.

India intends to further enlarge the scope of cooperation between Nay Pyi Taw and New Delhi. In the recent bilateral talks, Swaraj mooted the idea of a Joint Consultative Committee between the two countries to deliberate upon various bilateral issues and suggested that apart from union ministers, chief ministers of both the countries could also participate in it. She urged the Myanmarese leaders to organize a Festival of Myanmar in India to reflect the cultural linkages between the two countries.

According to reports, the Modi government seeks to expand its engagement with Myanmar in the coming months and Swaraj’s visit was an effort in this direction. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit Nay Pyi Taw on Nov 13 for the East Asia Summit, and the Myanmarese leaders have extended an invitation to him for a bilateral visit too. India needs the crucial support of the Myanmar government to ensure security and stability of its restive Northeast. Myanmar is strategically significant too as China’s presence and influence is more pronounced here than any other nation in the neighborhood.

*The article is written by Rupak Bhatacharjee.

*Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent analyst.

*He can be reached at drrupakbhattacharjee_2011@hotmail.com

(Courtesy: south Asia Monitor)

*You can read the original article here.

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