India needs to do more in Myanmar

Published on April 27, 2016

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Myanmar Times – April 27, 2016

In what some are seeing as the first step toward a stronger assertion of its interests in Myanmar, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will arrive in Nay Pyi Taw on May 1 in the country’s first high-level engagement with Myanmar since the National League for Democracy government took office. The minister will meet President U Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who also holds the post of foreign minister.

As India is the world’s largest democracy and Myanmar’s immediate neighbour, many are wondering why the visit did not take place sooner: Ms Swaraj is already three weeks behind China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the first foreign dignitary to visit Myanmar since its handover to an elected civilian-led government on March 30.

The larger goal of Ms Swaraj’s mission is to strengthen Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of India’s Act East Policy, which was initially introduced by the Congress government as “Look East Policy”.

In recent years, India and Myanmar have improved their bilateral ties on several fronts. And now the three specific areas where India needs to improve are the education sector, democratic institution-building and people-to-people contacts.

In the education sector, the Indian government has taken some initiatives, including the establishment of Language Laboratories and Resource Centre, the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology, and the Agricultural Research and Educational Centre, and the enhancement of the India-Myanmar Centre for Enhancement of IT Skills.

But few, if any, Myanmar students 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. In addition, civil society groups and the private sector should offer vocational training to generate results in the short term.

The second area is democratic institution-building, which can be done in a number of ways. First, the Indian government should invite Myanmar politicians who are new to democracy to give them first-hand experience as to how democracy works in a diverse and pluralistic society.

Myanmar politicians should be allowed to observe parliamentary proceedings, or attend courses offered by Indian universities and think-tanks on the theory and practice of democracy and on questions of importance to both countries, particularly cross-border issues.

People-to-people contacts is another essential element for improving bilateral relations. 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. Examples are the Kachin, the Kuki, the Naga and the Shan, who live side by side along the India-Myanmar border.

The two countries also share a 1624-kilometre boundary in four Northeast Indian states – Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. But despite this geographical proximity, cross-border contacts among ordinary people are few and far between. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Myanmar in 2014, India agreed to build 71 bridges along roads used by Indian buses.

Bus service between Imphal and Mandalay, a distance of about 580km, originally planned to start in 2012-2013, was launched by Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh only on December 9, 2015. last, as a trial run which has not been repeated.

Similarly, the first flight service between Myanmar and Manipur was introduced in November 2013, but never followed up because of immigration and other questions. 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 remain very poor.

Reliable road links, bus and train services, the introduction of visa-on-arrival facilities at the border, regular flights and the improvement of people-to-people relations are also essential for the success of India’s broader Act East Policy, as Myanmar is the gateway.

The question is whether this will be enough to establish India as a counterweight to a China that for decades now has pursued important economic and industrial interests in Myanmar, in areas where Indian engagement is quite insignificant. As a neighbour of relatively equal size, India is China’s natural competitor in Myanmar, and many feel more could be done to enhance its influence; after all, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was partly educated in India and knows the country well.

For its part, Myanmar should not only cooperate with India, but also needs to implement measures and policies that would enhance bilateral ties. The NLD government, particularly Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, could start by instructing its diplomats in New Delhi to be more open and accessible to people outside the embassy.

NehginpaoKipgen is assistant professor and executive director of Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books, including Democratisation of Myanmar.

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