19 January 2005

Inside Myanmar II: Distant neighbours warm to each other, but slowly

19 January 2005
The Hindu

Inside Myanmar - II

Distant neighbours warm up to each other, but slowly

By Siddharth Varadarajan

Yangon: When the Government of India took a major policy decision in 1991 to build good relations with the military regime in Myanmar, the assumption was that ending New Delhi's open support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy movement there would generate a strategic payoff. India wanted Myanmar's active cooperation in fighting the Naga and Manipuri insurgent groups. Balancing China's growing footprint was also a concern, as was India's desire, since the mid-1990s, to use Myanmar as a bridge to Southeast Asia.

Thirteen years on, those objectives remain only partly fulfilled.

There is cooperation on the insurgent groups but the Indian side feels there is a gap between Myanmar's stated policy and action on the ground. India has a growing economic presence in Myanmar and is a significant player in the country's gas sector, but is still dwarfed by China. New Delhi's concerns about the Chinese presence at naval and communication facilities here remain, even though various agencies of the Indian Government have differing assessments on the extent to which these facilities actually impinge on India's security.

As for integration with Southeast Asia, Myanmar has helped but the lack of good transport infrastructure in the country — as well as in India's northeast — means regional integration is still some distance away. Border trade at Tamu-Moreh in Manipur and Zowkhatar-Rhi in Mizoram is around $20 million per annum but is much less than Myanmar-Thailand or Myanmar-China border trade. Officials say this is because Indian rules do not allow the use of rupees for trade at the border.

Ambitious projects

On the anvil now are two ambitious transport projects — the trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand highway and the trans-Asian railway. India has provided $57 million for the upgrading of the Yangon-Mandalay railway line but work has yet to begin. Eventually, the Mandalay line could be extended into India via Kalewa but the absence of proximate railheads in the northeast means trans-Asian rail travel will not be possible for many years to come. India has helped build and maintain the Tamu-Kalay road but the trilateral project is still hanging fire. One month after the route alignment for the western and eastern sectors was settled trilaterally in December 2003, the Myanmar side came up with a "new concept." Since then, no further meeting has been held.

When Senior General Than Shwe visited India last October, he told the Indian side that poor access to border areas in northwest Myanmar was limiting his army's ability to act against the Indian insurgent groups. Since then, Yangon has handed over a request for earth-moving equipment and suggested eight new road projects to be taken up with Indian assistance. While New Delhi is evaluating this request, there is also a feeling of frustration at the lack of cooperation in other anti-insurgent situations where the lack of roads is not the issue.

In May 2003, for instance, the Indian Home Ministry last year prepared a questionnaire for the Myanmar authorities to use in the interrogation of Indian insurgents in custody in that country.

But New Delhi feels the response from Yangon has been far from satisfactory. The request to allow Indian teams to interrogate captured insurgents in person has not been granted. There is also a feeling that the regime has been turning a blind eye to the activities of PLA and UNLF representatives in Mandalay, many of whom, it is believed, run successful businesses and even use Myanmar passports to travel to other countries.

The big question

Since many of these individuals likely liaised with Myanmar's military intelligence (M.I.), the big question is what will happen now that the entire M.I. set-up has been disbanded following the dismissal and arrest last year of the M.I. chief Khin Nyunt as prime minister.

For now at least, India remains committed to its policy of non-interference in Myanmar's internal affairs. But the Manmohan Singh Government also seems prepared to take a more "clear and consistent stand" on the question of political reform and democracy. At a high-level policy review meeting on Myanmar chaired by the Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, in September 2004, it was decided that India's approach to the military regime, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), would include the call for Ms. Suu Kyi's release, support for the SPDC's own stated goal of a national convention reconciliation process and for U.N. endeavours. None of this, it should be pointed out, amounts to a course correction. In general, the Indian approach to the restoration of democracy in Myanmar continues to be aligned to that of ASEAN, rather than Britain or the U.S.

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