EXCLUSIVE | Northeast the focus as India, Myanmar boost ties


By Aroonim Bhuyan

With India and Myanmar seeking to boost bilateral ties through a high impact visit by Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Chief of Army Staff Gen. M.M. Naravane to the eastern neighbour earlier this month, the Northeast remains the focus of New Delhi’s geopolitical strategy towards the east.

The India-Myanmar relationship rests on key pillars like connectivity, security and defence cooperation, development aid, energy cooperation, and people-to-people ties. But India’s northeastern region holds the key to most of these areas.

“The Northeast is obviously very relevant to India-Myanmar ties,” former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar Rajiv Bhatia explained to The Northeast Today.

“Four states of the Northeast are adjacent to Myanmar. Development of one side is interlinked to the development of the other side,” Bhatia said adding, “When they do development projects in western Myanmar, it is appreciable to the people of India’s northeastern region.”

During the visit of Shringla and Gen. Naravane, the two sides discussed maintenance of security and stability in their border areas and reiterated their mutual commitment not to allow their respective territories to be used for activities inimical to each other.

India also announced a grant of $2 million for the construction of the border haat bridge at Byanyu/Sarsichauk in Chin State (Myanmar) that will provide increased economic connectivity between Northeastern state of Mizoram and Myanmar.

Both sides also proposed to finalise the third phase of the Rakhine State Development Programme (RSDP), including the setting up of a skills training centre.

The Rakhine State, a region close to northeastern India, is of special concern for New Delhi following the Rohingya refugee crisis that was sparked in August 2017.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered India’s other eastern neighbour Bangladesh over the last three years after the Myanmarese army launched a crackdown on the minority Rohingya community following a series of attacks on security personnel in Myanmar's Rakhine state.

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The Rohingya do not enjoy citizenship status in Myanmar and are sparingly given refugee status in Bangladesh.

To overcome this crisis, India has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on RSDP. A pre-fabricated housing project, under the first phase of the programme, for the internally displaced persons in Rakhine State was completed and handed over in July 2019. India is undertaking a total of 12 projects under the RSDP.

During the high-level visit this month, a project agreement on the upgrading of agricultural mechanisation under the RSDP was also signed.

According to a statement by the External Affairs Ministry, Foreign Secretary Shringla also conveyed India’s support for ensuring the safe, sustainable and speedy return of displaced persons to the Rakhine State.

Connectivity is another issue where the Northeast is key to India-Myanmar ties. Among the major connectivity projects India is investing in Myanmar are the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-modal Transport Project. While the Trilateral Highway will link Moreh in Manipur with Mae Sot in Thailand, the Kaladan project will connect Mizoram with the Sittwe port in Myanmar, thereby giving India access to the Indian Ocean on that side.

However, the progress of work on the Trilateral Highway, on which India is building 69 of 72 bridges, has been slow. Though the Indian government has been trying to expedite the project, there has been no indication of its exact status.

On the other hand, during the visit of Shringla and Gen. Naravane, both sides agreed to work towards operationalisation of the Sittwe port in the Rakhine State in the first quarter of 2021.

Connectivity is a key factor of India’s geopolitical strategy under New Delhi’s Act East Policy under which it seeks to enhance engagements with the extended eastern neighbourhood. While the Northeast has been described as the springboard of this policy, Myanmar is seen as the gateway to Southeast Asia that is the target region.

For India, connectivity is a major key in countering China, given its growing influence in the region.

“China has been working for a long time to gain access to the Indian Ocean,” Bhatia pointed out, referring to the strategically important Kyauk Pyu port, also in the Rakhine State, in which Beijing has taken a stake of up to 85 per cent.

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The port, a part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pet Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will be the entry point for a Chinese oil and gas pipeline. Crude oil brought from West Asia will be stored at the port before it is sent to China through the pipeline.

“Clearly, this visit (of Shringla and Gen. Naravane) was to consolidate and strengthen India’s relations with Myanmar so that its dependence on China is reduced,” Bhatia said.

India and Myanmar also share an expanding partnership in the area of energy cooperation and both sides recognise the mutual benefit of greater integration in the energy sector between the two countries.

After India approved an investment of over $120 million in the Shwe Oil and Gas project in Myanmar, the two sides, during the visit of the foreign secretary and the army chief, also discussed possibilities of building a petroleum refinery near Yangon involving an investment of $6 billion, according to media reports.

This apart, both India and Myanmar have been in discussions to establish a high capacity high voltage grid interconnection between the Indian power grid and the Myanmar grid.

“Discussions on the low voltage radial interconnections between the northeastern states and Myanmar have also progressed,” the External Affairs Ministry statement following the high-level visit said.

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The Northeast also figures prominently in defence and security cooperation between India and Myanmar. During the visit this month, the Indian side expressed its appreciation to Myanmar for handing over of 22 cadres of Indian insurgent groups to India earlier this year.

Apart from this, following the signing of an MoU on maritime security cooperation and exchange of white shipping information, India and Myanmar engaged in coordinated patrol operations.

The importance of the Northeast in India’s eastern geopolitical strategy was encapsulated by Foreign Secretary Shringla in a webinar last month, organised by the Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India (ICFAI) University, Sikkim.

“In foreign policy terms, we might say that the states of the Northeast are the link between two fundamental pillars of our foreign policy, Neighbourhood First and Act East,” he said.

“We have a vision for this region that is captured in the three Cs – connectivity, commerce, and cultural commonalities. In partnership with our neighbours and friends to the east, we are working to improve the infrastructure and connectivity in our northeastern states while also facilitating greater regional integration.”

(The writer is a New Delhi-based senior journalist covering diplomacy and foreign affairs)