India should seize opportunity of Htin Kyaw visit
Security has emerged as top of the agenda for Myanmar President Htin Kyaw’s four-day visit to India, starting today. The visit comes four days after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj paid a visit to the Southeast Asian nation, the first high-level visit of a minister to Myanmar since the National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power.
During the visit, leaders of the Myanmar government told Ms Swaraj that they would not allow any insurgent group to use Myanmar’s territory against India. In return, Ms Swaraj offered all possible help to the new Myanmar government.
Ms Swaraj’s visit happened just days after the Indian Army had an encounter with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) militants along the India-Myanmar border. There were reports that the Indian army crossed over to Myanmar territory to pursue the militants but it was denied by New Delhi. Htin Kyaw’s visit is important for the Indian leadership to engage in substantive talks on cross-border security issue and others.
The timing of the visit is good for both New Delhi and Nay Pyi Taw as the NLD government is holding talks with several ethnic armed groups.
One major goal of the NLD government is to end decades of armed conflicts in Myanmar by holding the 21st Panglong Conference starting on Wednesday.
Though the NSCN-K is currently not engaged in talks with the Myanmar government, the Modi government could use this visit to talk about the group. Htin Kyaw’s visit also comes five days after Myanmar’s state counsellor and de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi paid a visit to China, a traditional rival of India. During the visit, the two countries signed agreements on economic and technological cooperation, among others, that will result in the building of two new hospitals and a strategic bridge in Kunlong.
Another important issue of bilateral talk was on trade and investment. China is Myanmar’s largest trading partner with total two-way trade amounting to $15.6 billion (539 billion baht) in 2015. In an effort to improve bilateral ties, Myanmar has agreed to review the several dam projects invested in by China, including the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam.
The Chinese leadership assured the state counsellor that Beijing would continue to play a constructive role in promoting a peaceful settlement to the decades-old armed conflicts in Myanmar.
In light of these developments, India, which is the world’s largest democracy, should seize the opportunity of President Htin Kyaw’s visit to strengthen and enhance bilateral relations.
Besides the cross-border security issue, the three areas where India needs to focus are the education sector, institution-building and people-to-people relations.
First, the Indian government has taken initiatives such as 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 students from Myanmar, if any, attend Indian universities. The Indian government and educational institutions should do more to attract students from Myanmar, by offering scholarships or through exchange programs.
Second is institution building which can be done in a number of ways. For example, 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 federalism.
Third is improving people-to-people 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.
Moreover, the two countries share about 1,624km boundary in four Northeast Indian states — Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. But despite this proximity, cross-border contacts among ordinary people are relatively insignificant. During Mr Modi’s visit to Myanmar in 2014, India agreed to build 71 bridges along the roads used by Indian buses. A bus service between Imphal and Mandalay was originally planned to start in 2012- 2013 but Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh launched it only on Dec 9, 2015 as a trial run, which has not been resumed since.
Similarly, the first flight service between Myanmar and Manipur was introduced in November 2013, but the service was not continued because of immigration and other issues. Though weekly direct Air India flights on the Delhi-Gaya-Yangon route and Golden Myanmar 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 some key areas the Indian government should prioritise for the success of its Act East Policy.
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His writings (books and articles) have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents – Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.