Myanmar: Priority for the New Indian Government

04 Jul, 2014    ·   4545

Dr Rahul Mishra explains Myanmar's significance for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's foreign policy

Ever since Narendra Modi assumed office as the Indian Prime Minister, speculations regarding his foreign policy priorities have been rife. Many in the Indian media suggest that since this is the first time Modi is at the helm of central government affairs, he would find it tricky to deal with the foreign policy challenges on a day-to-day basis, while vigorously pursuing the domestic agenda that not only involves revamping the economy but also improving governance in the country crippled by corruption.

Though at a purely symbolic level, Modi’s invitation to the South Asian leaders to attend his swearing-in ceremony gave signals regarding his foreign policy preferences: greater attention towards the immediate neighbourhood to ensure peace, partnership and development. Modi invited the heads of governments of of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member countries, and Mauritius, who willingly attended the event. One may argue that like Mauritius, Myanmar could have also been invited as both the countries are, in geographical terms, part of Southern Asia.

At the substantive level, the highlights of Modi’s foreign policy were showcased in Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s address to the joint session of the Indian Parliament on June 9, 2014. While there was no direct mention of Myanmar in the president’s speech, several issues hint at the country’s salience in Modi’s neighbourhood policy.

Promoting Inter-regional Connectivity 
In his address, President Mukherjee spoke at length about inter-regional connectivity. In the recent years, India has actively pursued the idea of trans-South Asian connectivity, links with Myanmar and countries in the Southeast Asian region. Road and rail links with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan have been worked on, with some success. In that context, India’s initiatives to connect with Myanmar have been remarkable. It has ‘travelled more than half’ to bring Myanmar along in terms of infrastructure development and road, rail, waterways and air connectivity. Inter alia, India has initiated projects such as the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, and revamping national waterways to link with Myanmar. In June 2014, India and Myanmar agreed on a weekly bus service connecting Imphal, Moreh, Tamu, Kalewa, Monywa and Mandalay towns. Visa-on-arrival facility will also be extended to travellers. The 579kilometer route is likely to be inaugurated in October 2014, marking the beginning of direct road links between India and Myanmar.

While it is expected that the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project will be completed by the end of 2014, Sittwe is also being revamped. Slow progress in the Sittwe project has hurt India’s energy interests. So far, as the National waterways are concerned, with the restructuring of the Ministry of Water Resources to make it the Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, the government has made its intentions clear on the issue of cleaning up of the river Ganga – that wasn’t just evident in Modi’s pre-election campaign speeches, but has also attracted huge funds from the central government to make Ganga and other eastern rivers fully navigable, which will also benefits hinterlands. The Chennai-Dawei Corridor is another great opportunity involving Myanmar. 

Illegal immigration
Illegal immigration from the eastern flank has been a major challenge for India. Due to porous borders, lack of proper fencing along the Myanmar and Bangladesh borders, lack of requisite security apparatus and strict vigil, India has be unable to check illegal immigration. While Bangladesh has been the most prominent source, Rohingya immigrants from Myanmar have also come in hoards. According to estimates, New Delhi alone has over 5000 Rohingya immigrants while an estimated 20,000 Rohingyas are present in India.

In that context, fencing along India’s borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh is a critically important matter. India has been facing opposition along both the Bangladesh and Myanmar borders. Without addressing the problem resolutely, India’s boundary woes are not likely to be addressed. 

Bringing Northeast India into the Mainstream
The central government has already initiated plans to improve connectivity within India’s Northeastern states. Developing infrastructure projects automatically involves working on energy projects. In both India and Myanmar, demand for energy far outweighs the supplies. In Myanmar, only 26% of the population has access to the electricity. 

One of the most dreadful consequences of the neglect of India’s Northeastern regions has been the illegal production and sale of the narcotic substances. According to some estimates, the Northeastern region has become the hub of drug trafficking, and has become the channel for drug trade from the golden triangle.

Role of Japan and the US
At the regional geopolitical level too, Myanmar will remain a key country for the Modi government. For instance, the recently conceptualised India-Japan-US trilateral dialogue has been projected as one of the major initiatives to bring India closer to the US and Japan. Myanmar is a country of great interest for India, Japan and the US.

One may argue that while the US, President Barack Obama, played a key role in bringing Myanmar back to the international system, Japan has become one of the biggest investors and a major player in Myanmar’s economy. India, naturally, has direct stakes in Myanmar at all levels. If the three countries are able to devise a common strategy on Myanmar, it will not only help Myanmar, but will also bring India, Japan and the US closer.