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Special Content

Vol.27, 2017

An Assessment of Prime Minister Modi’s Recent Visit to Myanmar

Gunjan Singh

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently concluded his first bilateral visit to Myanmar. He visited Myanmar for a three day trip from September 5 to 6, 2017. Myanmar is a very crucial partner of India. Myanmar is expected to play a very important role in the India’s Act East Policy which was proposed by the Modi government in 2015. Myanmar is also crucial in India’s security dynamics as it shares a long land border of 1,643-km withfour of the north eastern states of India. This makes Myanmar strategically very important for countering the insurgencies movements in the Indian North East.
During his recent visit the Indian Prime Minister met Myanmar President Htin Kyaw and Aung San Suu Kyi the State Counsellor. He attended a banquet organized by the President of Myanmar. During his visit the Prime Minister discussed issues like counter-terrorism, security, investment, trade, energy, infrastructure and culture with the State Counsellor. He also inspected the guard of honour in the Presidential Palace in Nay Payi Taw. The Indian Prime Minister also visited the mausoleum of last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and the Kali Bari Temple. He also visited Bogyoke Aung San Museum and the 11th-century Ananda Temple which was badly affected during the 2016 earthquake. India is playing an important role in the renovation of the temple.
During his latest visit to Myanmar, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the Indian diaspora and emphasized the role and importance of Myanmar as an important neighbour. While talking to the diaspora he addressed the issues of demonetization and GST. He reminded the diaspora that it was in Myanmar that Subhas Chandra Bose gave his famous speech calling for, “tum Mujhe khoon do, mai tumhe azaadi doonga”. He told the diaspora that the India –Myanmar relations were driven by five Bs. They are Buddhism, Bollywood, Bharatanatyam, Business and Burmese Teak. He further stressed the need for another ‘B’ which should refer to Bharosa.
During this recent visit to Myanmar, India and Myanmar signed a total of 11 agreements. Some of the agreements signed focusedtowards the strengthening of the maritime security cooperation. They agreed to share information on white shipping and improve data sharing. An agreement was signed between the Indian Election Commission and Union Election of Myanmar. Both sides also agreed to organize cultural exchange programmes. The Press Council of India and Myanmar Press Council also signed agreement for cooperation. They also announced the establishment of an India-Myanmar Centre for Enhancement of IT skill. There was also an agreement on ‘Medical Product Regulation’ and on increasing cooperation and improving the training center for women police at Yamethin in Myanmar. The Indian Prime Minister also announced that India is ready to give free visas to the people of Myanmar visiting India and New Delhi will also be releasing the 40 Myanmar people who are in Indian jails. These efforts only highlight the significance which India extends towards Myanmar as a prominent neighbor and regional partner. It also brings forth the fact that India is ready to help Myanmar in developing its capabilities and becoming domestically stable.
Another important area of discussion was the trade relations between India and Myanmar. India and Myanmar signed the trade agreement in 1970.But even after 50 years of the trade agreement, the trade figures between India and Myanmar stand at a meagre 2.2 billion dollars. This is primarily because the relations are not as rosy as India would like it to be. There have been massive delays in the completion of the infrastructure projects promised by India. The upgradation undertaken by India for the road stretch from Tamu to Kalewa proved to be temporary. Just after two monsoons the road is again no useable. Even the promise of construction of link between Kolkata seaport and Sittwe seaport is still incomplete. In order to improve trade there is a need to improve the shipping link between the two countries. Today most of the trade happens in Singapore. This is also because of lack of proper banking cooperation between India and Myanmar which needs to be improved. This visit will also help in speeding the work on Kaladan multi-modal transport. This will help in connecting India with Myanmar. The Indian side needs to start working with more commitment towards the completion of projects which will help in facilitating the bilateral and regional integration and trade. India needs Myanmar’s cooperation to improve the economic conditions of the North Eastern States and similarly Myanmar needs Indian investments and trade to improve its domestic economic conditions. Both sides need to pay renewed focus in order to improve the current situations.
Myanmar is an important neighbor as it plays a crucial role in the success of India’s Act East Policy. In the words of Yashwant Sinha, former Minister of External Affairs, “If the North-East of India has to become the economic hub of Asia and a powerful link on its cross roads, it is important that we pay more attention to Myanmar, Thailand, and the countries beyond in East Asia, and look upon them as connected to India by land and not merely by sea”. Even though in the past India trained around 200 Myanmar military officers. India has also helped Myanmar with night vision systems, radar, rocket launchers and engineering equipment and torpedoes amounting to 37.9 million dollars. There is a need for the Indian government to get increasingly involved in the developments of Myanmar.  The need for a closer relationship with Myanmar was stressed by the Prime Minister in his speech when he concluded by saying that, “I believe that in the coming time, we will work together to build a strong and close partnership for our mutual benefit”.
However, in spite of all the positive talks of cooperation and trade, this visit was somewhat overshadowed by the ongoing Rohingya crisis. In the last few days almost 146,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled the country and looked for shelter in Bangladesh. While addressing the issue the Indian Prime Minister and Aung Sang Suu Kyi blamed the problem on terrorists and extremists. Narendra Modi said that, “We share your concerns about the extremist violence in the Rakhine state and especially the violence against the security forces and how innocent lives have been affected and killed”. According to the Joint Statement issued by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs,
The two leaders discussed the security situation prevailing along their borders and expressed concern at various incidents of terrorism and extremist-inspired violence that have taken place in their respective territories. Recognizing that terrorism remains one of the most significant threats to peace and stability in the region, both sides condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and agreed that the fight against terrorism should target not only terrorists, terror organisations and networks, but also identify, hold accountable and take strong measures against States and entities that encourage, support or finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues”.
India’s nerighbourhood policy has been under a stronger scanner since China began making stronger inroads in the South Asian region. The closeness of China and Pakistan has always worried New Delhi, however, in the last few years; Beijing has been successful in building closer ties with Sri Lanka and Nepal. A similar trend has been visible in the case of Myanmar as well. In the last few years, the country has moved closer to China, something which India is not comfortable with. Immediately after joining office Aung Sang Suu Kyi visited China before her visit to India, highlighting the importance which Myanmar assigns to Beijing. This may also be because for the last few years, Myanmar has been feeling pressurized by the Western countries on its handling of the Rohingya crisis. China has also been helping Myanmar in negotiating a number of political crises. On the other hand trade between Myanmar and China is around 9.5 billion dollars. For the last few years China has been keen on providing Myanmar with the much needed political and financial help and support. China has also been keen for Myanmar to join its One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative. Myanmar is looking for ways to accelerate its economic growth and global standing and the growing Chinese interests in ports in Myanmar and Myanmar as a link to the Bay of Bengal provides Myanmar with a much needed opportunity.Myanmar’s recent policies highlight an attempt to balance both India and China. However, the terms and conditions of the Chinese investments and loans have always been problematic and questionable and India needs to step up its promises and work towards concluding the ongoing projects. With this backdrop India needs to step up its promises and work towards further assimilating its relations with Myanmar. Myanmar is India’s neighbor sharing a long land boundary and this geographical fact cannot be changed. India and Myanmar will both need each other and there is a need for building increased trust and cooperation.
(The author is Researcher in Indian Pugwash Society, New Delhi. views expressed are personal.)