Act East: The Importance Of Myanmar And What The Modi Government Has Done About It
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Naypyidaw was much needed, and went a long way in strengthening India’s relations with a very important neighbour
On the way back from Xiamen, China, after participating in the ninth BRICS Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a highly successful and much awaited visit to Myanmar from 5 to 7 September. Following the diplomatic solution to the Doklam standoff that had festered for more than 70 days, much on the lines that India had proposed, Modi had travelled to China as a tall and confident leader.
For the first time in the BRICS Summit declaration, names inter alia of Pakistan-based terrorist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), which have carried out several high profile attacks against India, were mentioned. A bilateral meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping and reaffirmation of the ‘Astana Consensus’ to not allow ‘disagreements’ to become ‘disputes’ further increased Modi's clout and international standing. Myanmar is appreciative of leaders who are perceived to be strong and decisive. Modi was hence greeted enthusiastically and with full state honours when he alighted in Myanmar on 5 September.
This was Prime Minister Modi's first bilateral visit to the country, although he had travelled to Naypyidaw, the capital, in November 2014 to participate in the India- Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit. That was also a significant visit because in addition to meeting a large number of world leaders including Barack Obama, David Cameron, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, he also met Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (DASSK), who was then the opposition leader, and Myanmar's President Thein Sein. He also used the opportunity to launch his ‘Act East’ Policy during the visit. Since then, DASSK has become the state counsellor and de-facto leader of the country. Modi had met her in India at the BRICS-The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation Outreach Summit in Goa in October 2016 and following this, on her bilateral state visit to India in New Delhi, where she was received with full state honours. Myanmar President Htin Kyaw also visited India in 2016.
It is a welcome practice that Prime Minister Modi has adopted to visit other countries en route or on way back when he participates in some regional or international conferences or goes for a bilateral visit. In the present case, it was also a signal to China that India has strong and vibrant ties with those countries with which China nurtures close relations. Modi had done this during his earlier visit to China in May 2015 when after his travel to Beijing, he also visited Mongolia, becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to travel to that country, and South Korea.
Modi went out of his way to court Myanmar in all areas of vital economic, defence, security, trade, investment, energy and strategic relations. He also underlined the civilisational and historical bonds between the two countries by visiting the Ananda Temple in Bagan, newly restored by the Archaeological Survey of India, paying his respects at the iconic Shwedagon pagoda and planting a Bodhi sapling in the holy premises, by visiting the Kalibari temple in Yangon and by paying homage at the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadurshah Zafar.
It may be recalled that Myanmar was the only major neighbouring country (barring China) whose leader was not invited to the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Modi on 26 May 2014. This had raised eyebrows as in addition to all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation member countries, Prime Minister of Mauritius was also invited. It is possible that since Myanmar was a country in transition at that juncture, it was thought prudent not to provide high international profile and visibility to the military government which could go against the ongoing process of democratisation. Be that as it may, the current visit of Modi was to make up for all the past instances of neglect and missed opportunities and to fast track bilateral ties.
Myanmar is an integral and crucial element of India's Act East Policy. It is seen as the gateway for India's northeastern states to South East Asia. Collaboration with Myanmar in the area of security and defence ties has been ongoing for the past several years. However, the initiative has been below potential. Myanmar has been cooperating with Indian security forces by denying refuge to insurgent elements in its territory. With Myanmar's support in flushing out militant elements, India has been quite successful in maintaining peace and tranquillity in its four states Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh which share a border of 1,640 kilometres with Myanmar. During Modi's visit, Myanmar announced categorically that its territory will not be allowed to be used for militant activities against India. This unambiguous statement and existing cooperation with Myanmar army and security forces will contribute significantly to ensuring peace, security and stability in the northeastern states of India.
One of the fundamental elements of Act East Policy is to promote security, stability and prosperity of the northeastern states of India. This would be a significant yardstick on which the success or otherwise of the policy will be measured. The government over the last three years has been trying to engage the state governments as well as academia and civil society institutions in the northeastern states to look closely towards expanding contacts with Southeast Asian countries.
Connectivity is an issue that has assumed increased relevance. One of the serious drawbacks of Indian foreign policy is that the country is big on promising to its foreign partners but is tardy and shoddy on implementation and delivery. This is evident in the case of projects undertaken by India in Myanmar also. Since taking over, Modi has insisted and ensured that projects which are taken up in foreign partner countries are completed on time. This is evident in the case of the South Asian Satellite, promise of which was made in November, 2014 and delivery accomplished in May, 2017. The Centre has also insisted that pending projects should be completed expeditiously. This has been visible in the speedy execution of the Parliament Complex and Salma or Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam in Afghanistan in the last two years, both of which were lying idle for more than a decade.
Similar push has been given to the Chabahar project in Iran. During his Myanmar visit, Modi announced that the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP) and the Trilateral Highway, which will join India's northeastern states with Thailand and other ASEAN states through Myanmar will be completed quickly. KMMTTP will be revolutionary in scope and impact once it is completed. For the first time it will connect India's northeastern states with the warm waters of Bay of Bengal. Its impact on connecting these states with the sea and India's landmass could be huge. Modi announced that Sittwe port has already been completed and that work on waterways on the Kaladan river and road connectivity was proceeding apace.
On the Trilateral Highway also work on constructing 69 bridges was advancing at a fast pace. During his visit to Kuala Lumpur in 2015 to participate in the East Asia Summit, Modi had announced a grant of $1 billion to promote connectivity. All these actions will go a long way to encourage economic activity in northeastern states of India as it will help the region to come in closer contact with the business and industry of ASEAN nations.
During Modi’s visit to Myanmar, 11 agreements were signed between the two countries ranging from maritime security cooperation and white shipping information to cooperation between election commissions of the two countries and in areas of health, culture, training of police women and information technology. It was also announced that tourist visas for citizens of Myanmar will be provided gratis besides the release of 40 prisoners of the country who are serving sentence in Indian prisons.
The Rohingya issue emerged as a significant subject of discussion between the two sides particularly in the meeting between Modi and DASSK. Myanmar looks upon the Rohingyas as stateless citizens. They are not recognised as a separate ethnic minority. Rohingyas have been fighting and demanding a separate ethnic identity in the country. In Myanmar it is forbidden to use the word Rohingya. These people are known as Bengalis who belong to Bangladesh. They were brought in by the British and have continued to live and work in Myanmar. In recent weeks, more than 200,000 Rohingyas have fled the northwestern Rakhine province because of alleged torture and oppression by Myanmar’s security forces. On the contrary, Myanmar contends that terrorist elements particularly from the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and others have infiltrated the community. They are carrying out terrorist attacks against the security forces and ordinary Myanmar people.
The Arakan Rohnigya Salvation Army (ARSA) has emerged as a potent militant force, which killed large numbers of Myanmar security forces on 25 August, 2017. This action was severely condemned by India just before Modi's visit. About 40,000 Rohingyas are in India. India has declared them as illegal immigrants and said that they will be deported as per international humanitarian procedures. Modi commended DASSK's leadership and extended full support to her in resolving this problem. DASSK has been at the receiving end of international criticism. Many world leaders have termed her action as genocide. Even the UN has termed her treatment of the Rohingyas as near genocide. DASSK has on the other hand termed the international reporting on the Rohingyas as a ''huge iceberg of misinformation”. Under these circumstances, the understanding and support of India, the largest democracy, came as a breath of fresh air for DASSK. She thanked Modi profusely for India's position on the issue.
On completion of his productive, fruitful, three city, three day sojourn, Prime Minister Modi tweeted that his “visit had covered significant ground in providing a much needed impetus to India-Myanmar relations and deepening bilateral cooperation.’’ To reap full advantage of all initiatives and possibilities identified during the visit, it will be essential to enhance the focus on expanding and deepening ties between the two countries.
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