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PM's visit to Myanmar opens great opportunities

Last updated on: May 27, 2012 14:15 IST

The Chinese influence on Myanmar needs to be contested. They have invested heavily in Myanmar's economy.

India needs to ensure greater integration of the Myanmarese economy to relieve it of the stresses that it would otherwise feel should the Chinese put pressure on them, says Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

The fifth part of a series on India-Myanmar relations to mark the prime minister's visit to that country, which begins today.

  • Part 1: Why India is wary of Myanmar-NSCN-K agreement
  • Part 2: How important is Dr Singh's visit to Myanmar?
  • Part 3: How India, Myanmar bilateral trade can flourish
  • Part 4: India should supply energy to power-starved Myanmar
  • In a season when the global diplomatic community, irrespective of their systems of governance and past relationships is headed for a Myanmarese summer, India has taken the delayed step of scheduling the prime minister's visit at last.

    India's entire neighbourhood has been wooed by the Chinese with substantial gains having come the way in all countries but Bhutan, and yet we cannot pick up pace when Myanmar is taking the biggest strides in its history as it evolves as a democracy.

    There are reasons why Myanmar is of critical import to our national security and stated foreign policy objectives.

    To start with it's our corridor to the east. It provides the land bridge to the Southeast Asian countries and opens a whole world of possibilities for trade and commerce for our north-eastern states.

    Southeast Asia is a huge market that has a potential of being strong enough to substantially strengthen the economic resilience of nations in the area against such shock waves as the recession in the West has generated.

    Myanmar is also a huge repository of mineral wealth. Its gas reserves are very substantial. Our common land borders allow us easy ;access to these resources. Unlike the pipelines being planned for Iranian gas that will have to traverse through a turbulent Afghanistan and a truculent Pakistan, over here the geographic advantages are enormous.

    Myanmar also offers access to the sea for our north-eastern states through the Sittwe port. Though such access could also be availed through Chittagong, Bangladesh is yet to agree to it.

    From the security point of view, our insurgent groups in the north-eastern states have their bases in Myanmar. When our security forces apply greater pressure, they cross over to bases in Myanmar. The improvement of economic conditions in our northeast states is conditional to an easing of the security situation there. A similar situation is faced by Myanmar.

    Though delayed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit throws open a great opportunity. The areas that we need to immediately address in Myanmar are large. Perhaps the most important of all these is the Kaladan project that will provide the multi-modal connectivity with a crossing at More. The project, though conceived long ago, continues to languish in spite of its geopolitical importance and implications on the economy in the area.

    Trade and commerce with Myanmar needs a big boost. In spite of being Myanmar's largest neighbour, next only to China, our trade is lesser than Myanmar's trade with Thailand, China and Singapore. Our private sector has limited investments in Myanmar. In spite of the American sanctions, US companies have big investments in Myanmar.

    Immediate attention needs to be paid to the border trade facilities that are barely adequate now. While major projects have long gestation periods, border trade enhancement can be undertaken faster leading to greater satisfaction for Myanmarese living close to the borders, while proving a boon for us.

    Myanmar is a multi-ethnic State with fault lines between communities having dilated by over 20 years of repressive regimes. We have the experience to assist Myanmar in building its democratic institutions with a pluralistic culture. However, such a step is conditional to adequate people to people contact and interaction between civil society groups.

    A strong military to military relationship and joint operations by the armies of the two neighbours is essential to subdue the insurgencies along the borders. Catering for a large number of vacancies in our military training establishments is intrinsic to developing long- term relationships with Myanmar.

    Though the Myanmar army has a rich experience of handling insurgencies, it has to learn about anti-insurgency operations in a democratic country that entails operating under crippling restraints while shifting the emphasis to winning hearts and minds.

    The Chinese influence on Myanmar needs to be contested. They have invested heavily in Myanmar's economy. The basic reasons for the Americans to step in also include the objective of countering the Chinese influence.

    We need to ensure greater integration of the Myanmarese economy with ours to relieve it of the stresses that it would otherwise feel should the Chinese put pressures on them.

    For the Chinese, Myanmar is a strategic asset that could give it an alternative to shipping through the Malacca Straits by using a combination of Myanmar's ports and land routes thereafter to Western China.

    There are innumerable other areas like healthcare, education, skill building, low cost housing, judicial systems where India could offer valuable assistance to Myanmar.

    Our old bonds that Buddhism built centuries back can serve as strong glue in our mutual relations. However, Myanmar will opt for Indian expertise only if Indian initiatives reflect the pace that matches Western decisiveness.

    Brigadier (retd) S K Chatterji