India should seize the opportunity to build ties with Myanmar
PRESIDENT U Htin Kyaw began a four-day trip to India on August 27 accompanied by his wife, Daw Su Su Lwin, several key ministers and senior officials. This is the president’s first state visit to the neighbouring country, and his arrival presents a critical opportunity for India to cement closer ties.
President U Htin Kyaw comes to India as a guest of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee, who will hold a banquet for the delegation.
The visit follows External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s one-day trip to Myanmar on August 22, the first high-level official from India to visit since the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power in April.
At the time, Myanmar government officials told Ms Swaraj that they would not allow any insurgent group to use Myanmar’s territory to attack India.
Ms Swaraj’s visit took place just days after the Indian Army had an encounter with militants from the National Socialist Council of NagalandKhaplang (NSCN-K) who were allegedly trying to enter the country from Myanmar. There were reports that the Indian army had crossed over to Myanmar to pursue the militants, but this was officially denied by New Delhi.
It will be important for Indian leadership to continue engaging President U Htin Kyaw’s administration in substantive talks on crossborder security issues.
The timing of the visit is good for both New Delhi and Nay Pyi Taw as the NLD government holds talks with several ethnic armed groups and prepares for the pivotal Panglong peace conference later this week.
Though the NSCN-K is not currently engaged in talks with the Myanmar government, the Modi government could use this visit to discuss the group.
President U Htin Kyaw’s visit also comes within a week of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s own four-day visit to China, a traditional rival of India.
During the China visit, the two countries signed agreements on economic and technological cooperation that will result in the building of two new hospitals and a strategic bridge in Kunlong, 32 kilometres (20 miles) from the Chinese border in northeastern Myanmar.
China is a major trading partner with Myanmar, with total two-way trade amounting to over US$9.4 billion in the first 10 months of the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to Chinese media.
In an effort to improve bilateral ties, Myanmar has agreed to review several suspended dam projects backed by China in order to determine a mutually agreeable solution.
The Chinese leadership also assured the state counsellor that Beijing will continue to play a constructive role in promoting peaceful settlement of the decades-old armed conflicts in Myanmar.
In light of these developments, India should seize the opportunity of President U Htin Kyaw’s visit to strengthen and enhance bilateral relations.
In addition to cross-border security issues, there are three specific areas where India should seek to boost ties: the education sector, institution building and people-to-people relations.
Few students from Myanmar, if any, attend Indian universities. The Indian government and educational institutions across India should do more to attract students from Myanmar, perhaps by offering scholarships or through exchange programs. Additionally, civil society organisations and the private sector should offer vocational trainings for short-term results.
Second, institution building can be accomplished in a number of ways. For example, the Indian government should invite Myanmar politicians who are new to democracy to give them first-hand experience observing how a democracy works in a diverse and pluralistic society.
Myanmar politicians should be allowed to observe parliamentary proceedings, and attend courses offered by Indian universities and think tanks on the theory and practice of democracy and federalism.
The third priority, improving people-to-people relations, should be easily achieved. Not only do India and Myanmar have a shared border, but the two countries are also home to millions of people from the same ethnic community, separated during the creation of India and Myanmar in 1947 and 1948 respectively. Examples include the Kachin, the Kuki, the Naga and the Shan, who live alongside the India-Myanmar border.
The two countries share a 1624kilometre (1009-mile) boundary in four northeast Indian states – Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. Despite this geographical proximity, cross-border contacts among ordinary people are relatively insignificant. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Myanmar in 2014, India agreed to build 71 bridges along the roads used by Indian buses.
Bus service between Imphal and Mandalay, a distance of about 580 kilometres, was originally planned to start in 2012-13, but Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh launched it on December 9, 2015, as a trial run, which has not been resumed.
Similarly, the first flight service between Myanmar and Manipur was introduced in November 2013, but never followed up because of immigration concerns. Though weekly direct Air India flights on the Delhi-Gaya-Yangon route and Golden Myanma charter flights to India were launched in November 2014, the connectivity between the two countries still remains very poor.
Reliable road links, bus and train services, the introduction of visa-onarrival facilities at the border, and regular flights are some of the key areas the Indian government could easily capitalise on in order to benefit its Act East Policy.
Nehginpao Kipgen is an assistant professor and executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His books and article have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.
President U Htin Kyaw (left) and his wife Daw Su Su Lwin offer prayers at the Mahabodhi Mahavihara temple in the Indian town of Bodhgaya on August 27.