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The roads to Myanmar

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Old October 5th, 2004, 11:54 PM
George Moore
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Default The roads to Myanmar

Thanks for the read. More links are on


(Sai Leik) wrote in message . com...
Volume 18 - Issue 05, Mar. 03 - 16, 2001
India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

The roads to Myanmar

Jaswant Singh's visit to Myanmar, the first such visit by an Indian
Foreign Minister in the last 20 years, opens a new chapter in
bilateral relations between the two countries.

AMIT BARUAH in Yangon and Mandalay

"YOU are travelling on India-Myanmar Friendship Road," reads a
signboard on the 160-km Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road close to Myanmar's
western border with India. The signboard was put up by Project Sevak,
the 320-strong contingent of the India's Border Roads Organisation
that built the road, linking Moreh (in Manipur) to Kalewa and Kalemyo,
which will soon be linked to Mandalay in central Myanmar, the
country's second largest city.

The project was conceived in March 1993, when India's Foreign
Secretary visited Myanmar. "The project was... aimed at promoting the
vast potential available for cross-border trade between India and
Myanmar as well as contributing to the overall socio-eco nomic
development of the region," an official note said. What made it a
unique venture was the fact that the money for it came from the
Ministry of External Affairs. It was India's first foray into
strengthening infrastructure in Myanmar. The constructio n of the road
began in November 1997 and it was completed in three years.

On February 13, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh hopped across
in an Indian Air Force (IAF) MI-8 chopper from Imphal to Tamu to
inaugurate the road project. It was the first visit by an Indian
Foreign Minister to Myanmar in 20 years.

The inauguration and the warm reception that Jaswant Singh received
was only the first in a series of such events. The Minister, who flew
to Kalewa in a Myanmar Air Force helicopter, was welcomed by hundreds
of people who lined the "Friendship Road" from Kalewa to Kalemyo. In
Kalemyo, several Myanmar Ministers were at hand to greet the Ministers
from four northeastern States who accompanied Jaswant Singh, sending a
strong signal that northeastern India was to be linked in a major way
to Myanmar.

A formal border trade agreement was signed between the two countries
when P. Chidambaram visited Myanmar in February 1995 as Minister of
State for Commerce. However, formal trade is still to pick up, as a
visit to the forlorn customs check-post in Moreh showed. The informal
trade between Myanmar and India continues to flourish, with all manner
of goods flowing across the international border. India constitutes
Myanmar's largest export market, pulses and beans being the major
items of export. From India medicines, cycles, spare parts and lungis
(made as far away as in Coimbatore) continue to cross the border. The
stakes, it would appear, are higher in the informal trade than in
formal trade.

During Jaswant Singh's visit, it was decided to open four more trading
points on the border, including one linking Champai in Mizoram to
Yangon. The two countries have agreed to set up immigration and
customs points in these areas. There is little doubt that India has
earned an enormous amount of goodwill by upgrading the road in
Myanmar. It will essentially benefit the local people in Myanmar, as
it makes travel and trade easier for them. The mobility of the
Myanmarese security forces is also likely to be increased by the
construction of the road, thereby making things difficult for Indian
insurgent outfits.

An insurgent group, the Revolutionary People's Front (RPF), announced
in Imphal on February 11 that it would "boycott" the one-day visit of
the External Affairs Minister to Manipur. According to a report in The
Imphal Free Press, the RPF said that the road in Myanmar was aimed at
"upsetting the existing cordial relationship between the people of
Manipur and Myanmar".

The unhappiness of the Manipur "underground" was evident from the
statement. It is also clear that Myanmar is not hesitant in
cooperating with the Indian security forces in dealing with the
insurgency problem. Myanmarese officials told Frontline t hat the
hotlines between the security forces on both sides were operational
and there was cooperation between the two sides.

Evidently, Myanmar is happy with the Indian involvement in
infrastructural and other developmental work at a time when China has
made inroads into the country. Thousands of Chinese have entered
northern Myanmar from the Yunnan province, while trade betwe en the
two countries has grown vastly - from a mere $40 million in 1988 to
$760 million in 1995.

There is no doubt that India has few options but to engage with
Myanmar. Given the fact that the military is firmly entrenched in
Myanmar, India would have let its case go by default, without such
engagement. A team of diplomats, led by Ambassador to Yan gon Shyam
Saran did considerable groundwork in the last few years to make the
engagement possible.

It was not easy in the initial stages, especially since India had
taken a pro-democracy position in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
However, the ice had been broken and there was a series of contacts,
capped by the visit of Gen. Maung Aye, Vice-Chairman of the State
Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is known
officially, to India in November 2000. A sign that the relationship
was poised to grow came from indications that Myanmar was considering
India's request to reopen its consulate in Mandalay. Currently, only
China has a consulate there.

Indian officials make no bones about the fact that Myanmar is
strategically important for India. Non-engagement with Myanmar, they
argued, could only undermine India's interests. According to the
officials, India had a stake in maintaining a friendly pos ture
towards Myanmar. Any help from Myanmar to insurgents in northeastern
India could prove disastrous, they said. "It's a matter of interest,
not sentiment," they said. They added that both India and Myanmar need
to have stakes in trade and infrastructu re development so that the
international border remained tranquil.

The idea behind the road project is to ensure that Myanmar is not only
friendly with India but also has a stake in keeping India's
northeastern border peaceful. The officials believe that even if there
is a change of government in Myanmar, the stakes in the relationship
will ensure that everything proceeds smoothly. Building equations with
different governments was a matter of diplomacy as long as there were
common interests. India, the officials said, was aware of the "China
factor" in the relationship but they denied that it was interested in
matching the Chinese move for move. "Such an exercise will not be a
productive one for India," they said. They are also keen to ensure
that stronger relations are forged between the two countries; the
projects t hat would be taken up in this regard include the
construction of a gas pipeline from Myanmar to northeastern India.

While India and Indians must remain wedded to the concept of democracy
(Jaswant Singh said in his talks that he had "commended" the military
leadership for the steps taken for a return to democracy), it is
evident that the policy of taking positions has long been abandoned by
India. In fact, Jaswant Singh went so far as to say that India
considered it a "privilege" to be a partner in the socio-economic
development of Myanmar. "Since Independence, we have been happy to
share our experiences, skills and technologies with friendly
developing countries. In more recent years, there has been a rapid
expansion in our political, economic, cultural, scientific and
technical exchanges. The visit to India by H.E. Gen. Maung Aye... last
November was an important l andmark in the growth of our
understanding. Today the Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa road stands as visible
proof of India's strong desire to develop and diversify its relations
with Myanmar," he said.

In Yangon, Jaswant Singh inaugurated a Centre for Remote Sensing and
Data Processing, which will use images from the Indian Remote Sensing
Satellite, IRS-1C. It is the first of its kind in Myanmar. Speaking on
the occasion, Jaswant Singh said: "In develo ping countries like India
and Myanmar, resource surveys are vital for national infrastructure
development. The applications of remote sensing cover weather
forecasting and disaster management capabilities, determination of
forest cover and other land use delineations, cropping surveys, urban
planning, environmental monitoring and groundwater survey. The Centre
we have inaugurated...will continue to be an enduring symbol of our
partnership as we move ahead into subsequent phases of upgradation."

Myanmarese Foreign Minister U Wing Aung told Frontline that Yangon had
discussed with India the development of the Kyaukpyu port, in which
the Chinese too have shown interest. Kyaukpyu, which can be developed
as a deep-sea port, will offer India s ea access, through Mizoram,
into the Bay of Bengal. However, U Wing Aung made it clear that
Myanmar wanted good relations with both India and China. He said that
peace between the two neighbours was essential for Myanmar. He added
that Yangon was closely watching the bilateral interaction between
Beijing and New Delhi. U Wing Aung confirmed that talks between the
Myanmar government and the Opposition National League for Democracy
(NLD) were part of a gradual process.

THERE have been other signs too that Myanmar wants to open up to the
rest of the world after a prolonged period of isolation. Even the
visit of the Indian media delegation that toured Myanmar along with
the External Affairs Minister was considered a firs t in many years. A
senior Myanmarese official told Frontline that his government's public
relations record left much to be desired. Given the fact that the
press is tightly controlled, Myanmar's case often goes by default. The
only foreigner worki ng as a full-time correspondent in Myanmar is
from China's Xinhua news agency. Perhaps, Yangon needs to appreciate
the fact that while the press the world over would like the country to
return to democracy, outsiders cannot dictate the course of such a p
rocess. For instance, just the fact that Myanmar purely is an
important neighbouring country, with a 1,463 km-long common land
border, makes it necessary for India to engage with it. Just as India
appreciates the "sensitivity" involved in dealing with th e Myanmarese
government, Myanmar must understand that India is a democracy.

For Myanmar and India, a new chapter in bilateral relationship was
inaugurated with Jaswant Singh's visit. Since both the countries have
no overlapping claims of any sort, years of indifference could soon
give way to a process of engagement. That can only be welcome.


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