Commentary/Amberish K Diwanji
Myanmar in ASEAN is a chance for India
Last month, an event likely to have far-reaching consequences for India occurred. Myanmar, along with Laos, joined the Association for South-East Asian Nations.
By doing so, ASEAN moves its land frontiers right up to India, sharing a long border of 1,600 kilometres. For India, keen to increase its trade with Southeast Asia, and also achieve a shift in global perception of being seen as a Southeast Asian country rather than just be bracketed in South Asia, considered the world's second poorest region, immense opportunities are now available.
But before we start jumping with joy, we must remember that India is little prepared to exploit the advantage of Myanmar's entry into ASEAN. One reason for this is the rule of the military junta in Myanmar, euphemistically called the State Law and Order Restoration Council. SLORC has been under international scrutiny for human rights abuses and suppression of democracy. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the elections, remains imprisoned, with the army in firm control. It was for this reason that the West was so critical of ASEAN for admitting Myanmar, especially after it took the principled stand of refusing entry to Cambodia which erupted in a civil war between rival political factions.
In light of this scenario, any move by the Indian government to push up crossborder trade ties will be risk global censure. India is already on the defensive regarding human rights abuses in Kashmir and the North-East and for a host of other issues. It is unlikely to upset the apple cart. However, though India has pledged moral support to Suu Kyi, it will not actively seek to help her cause, following New Delhi's doctrine of non-interference in other countries's "internal" affairs. Thus, the Indian government is reduced to the role of a spectator as far as events in Yangon are concerned, reacting to events instead of making them happen.
The second hassle goes beyond Yangon to the region of Myanmar that borders India -- the Arakkan region. This area is virgin territory, mainly jungle and unexploited. Many of the people living in these parts have been waging an armed struggle against the authorities in Yangon, seeking independence or greater autonomy for themselves. Many of the Rohingya Muslims who inhabit the hills bordering Bangladesh have been forced to flee to Bangladesh following a crackdown by the Myanmarese authorities, who are mostly Buddhists. Yangon is unable to enforce its writ in this regions as much as it would like to.
The other hurdles have been 'Made in India'. It is our neglect of the North-East region that borders Myanmar. Incredibly, Indian grants to the North-East over 50 years amounts to less than Delhi's annual grant! While the trouble in the North-East has not drawn international attention which Kashmir has (thanks to Kashmir's history, and Pakistan's involvement), the difficulties are comparable. Insurgency, simmering for decades, has skyrocketed over the past few weeks.
The North-East, which possess rich resources, is one of India's most neglected regions. Differences in ethnicity, culture, language, and religion heighten the feeling of alienation with other Indians residing west of Assam. There is also the ailment of drug addiction among large sections of the youth, sapping the strength of the North-East's best youngsters.
If alienation is one problem, it is compounded by the festering tribal conflicts within the North-East. The Bodos are demanding a separate state carved from Assam; Manipuris warn New Delhi against giving away their territory to the Nagas: Nagas seek the creation of a greater Nagaland, which comprises parts of Myanmar and other states in the area; the Kukis, Meiteis, and Peiteis, are at daggers drawn, killing each other at regular interval.
To make the extremely bad situation worse has been New Delhi's bungling. Inevitably, bureaucrats who know little of the North-East's history, culture and the differences among the people who inhabit the region, prepare peace accords and plans for the area which break down, or suppress the issues rather than resolve them. Over the years, this has fueled resentment against New Delhi.
The creation of East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) took away the natural market for the northeast region and its products. Lack of transport and the region's geographic difficulties (rivers, hills, jungles) make mobility difficult. The region requires massive investment (by one estimate, over Rs 175 billion immediately) to create infrastructure and set up an industrial base. Development is the urgent need of the hour to prevent tribal conflicts turning into civil wars and setting the North-East afire. It is, to put it mildly, an arduous task, which will need years of effort and dedication, and sadly, New Delhi appears too busy in its politics to really care.
Yet, in many ways, pushing for further trade ties with ASEAN can help develop the region, which New Delhi seems incapable of doing on its own. The recent formation of the Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand Cooperation Council is only a further pointer towards increasing our trade and strategic ties with countries on the east. It can once again bring about a vast and much more prosperous market for goods from the North-East, and access to materials at prices much cheaper than from the rest of India. New Delhi needs to take the initiative vis-a-vis ASEAN by seeking to create border trading posts, and build roads and railways linking India and Myanmar.
Economic development alone will not resolve all the problems of the North-East (or of northwest Myanmar), but it will certainly go a long way in mitigating some of the causes of poverty. Economic prosperity will also relegate the tribal identity conflicts once it is realised that infighting only hurts trade. Moreover, improved trade will also cut into the prosperous crossborder smuggling, worth billions of rupees, which only proves that regardless of the governments's intentions, there does exist an economic relation between India and Myanmar.
Besides land trade, sea trade too offers potential. Myanmar lies just across the Bay of Bengal, and the historic linkages shared between India and Myanmar (both were once governed by the British until Myanmar was separated in 1935), can be used to benefit.
If there is one reason more why India must take notice is because now even China stands poised to improve its relations with ASEAN via Myanmar. Unlike India, Beijing is on good terms with the Yangon regime, and like India, China shares a long border with Myanmar. Yet, if China offers potential, it is also feared in Southeast Asia. This may have been one reason why ASEAN allowed Myanmar entry despite the West's frowns: not to do so would only push it further into Beijing's arms. While at present India is no match for China as far as ASEAN is concerned, it remains a player of some importance, and perhaps the one country which in future can match up to China in various departments.
Last, but certainly not the least, New Delhi must not forget that Myanmar has offered the Chinese a naval base in the Bay of Bengal. India cannot afford to let Yangon become a Chinese puppet -- doing so would mean being ringed by a China-Pakistan-Myanmar axis, a strategic nightmare. ASEAN also won't be pleased to let China have a base in one of their member countries.
During the British raj, Imphal was called the Gateway to Southeast Asia. There were many Indians settled in Myanmar (then called Burma), who were, unfortunately, forced to leave after Burma gained independence. India, thus, enjoys great advantages in seeking to deepen and widen ties with Myanmar and ASEAN. The gateway is in India, and New Delhi must take the initiative. Question is, will it?
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