Thursday, May 24, 2012

Indian and Myanmar: A Forgotten Relationship

Indian PM Dr. Mohan Singh.
Dr Manmohan Singh will be the first Indian Prime Minister in last 25 years to visit one of our most important neighbouring countries, Myanmar. The visit is scheduled to commence from 27th May. He leads a big delegation comprising of National Security, economic and foreign affairs experts.

As is the past practice, Indian foreign office is always late in following up the policies, which would benefit the country immensely. This time around too is no different because US Secretary of State, Chinese Premier, British PM, Japanese PM, South Korean President have all completed their visits.

But the visit is anyway being talked about as one of the most important ones undertaken by Mr Singh considering the geostrategic significance of Myanmar, a resource rich country, where China alone accounted for more than 70% of FDI in the hydrocarbon sector.

It is under this backdrop that I made my second visit to Myanmar recently. The signs of changes are clearly visible these days. The presence of military in Business capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is non-existent. The resource rich country, deprived of the modern engines of growth is now craving for them and in quick time.

The sanctions have been lifted and very soon the World Bank is opening its office in the country. The cell phone and Internet, which were non-existent during my visit last year, are now most popular tools with the younger generation of the country. The mistrust for Indians, however, remains at same level mainly because no effort has been made by big brother so far to improve its image.

India and Myanmar have shared common heritage for many centuries. Burma was an integral part of Indian polity for centuries. The spread of Buddhism during Ashoka's time, the precious stones that the Mughal traders regularly brought from there and the importance of this land to the British empire are facts which bound Indian and Burmese societies for centuries.

Last Indian Emperor.
Britain made Burma a province of India in 1886 with the capital at Rangoon. The last Mughal emperor Bhahdur Shah Zafar was exiled to Rangoon (now Yangon) by the British and last King of Burma was exiled to Kolkotta.

Burma gained importance to the world trade with the opening of the Suez Canal in 19th century which increased the demand for Burmese rice in Europe and altered the cultivation culture to meet this. The locals were not considered good enough and trustworthy for this work.

So Chettiars from India were brought in by British as moneylenders who would expedite and facilitate enhancement in cultivation for exports. The interests charged by Chettiars were exorbitant and the methods of foreclosure and eviction of farmers by them became common. Most of the jobs also went to indentured Indian labourers, while the Burmese economy grew exponentially, all the power and wealth remained in the hands of several British firms, a few Anglo-Burmese and the migrants from India.

The civil service was largely staffed by the Anglo-Burmese community and Indians. Burmese were excluded almost entirely from military service. Though the country prospered, the Burmese people failed to reap the rewards. This Anglo-Burmese-Indian domination bred deep resentment amongst the people especially against Indian community.

Both India and Myanmar got their Independence in 1947. The democratic experience in Myanmar was short lived and in 1962; the military took over the reins and rule till date. Indians in 1962 were asked to leave Burma and relationship between the 2 countries soured.

Indian Chettiars (Chittys).
My first visit to Myanmar was in 2010. It is one of the most peaceful countries one would visit these days, democracy or no democracy. I found that with all the official hostility towards India, the people still have loads of goodwill for Indians. The predominantly Buddhist population here is always looking for an opportunity to visit Bodh Gaya and other Buddhist shrines in India. Many Myanmar students (including Aung San Syu Ki) studied in India.

Many Burmese of older generation still remember fondly the popular Hindi song - MERE PIYA GAYE RANGOON. Many of them asked me to send them CDs of movies such as 'PYAR KA MAUSAM'. The tomb of last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar is a popular destination in Rangoon (now Yangon) for Indian visitors.

Many Burmese conveyed to me that they would have preferred to deal with India but had to opt for china only because they felt Indian foreign policy towards them is flawed and Beijing was more reliable and trustworthy than New Delhi.

We also share common internal security concerns. The Nagas on both sides of the border have been challenging Indian and Myanmar authorities for decades. The Kachin rebels in Myanmar have found able allies in Nagas. Therefore it is only logical that we work closely with Myanmar authorities to combat this problem more effectively.

Today Myanmar for us is:

1. A neighbour with 1600 kms border, a number of ports facing each other across Bay of Bengal and 4 traditional roads connecting 2 countries.
2. A nation with shared common heritage of many centuries.
3. A gateway to ASEAN.
4. Largest exporter of rice and pulses to India.
5. 4th largest trading partner of India. The trade stands at $1.5 billion a year.
6. The demand for Indian goods such as pharmaceuticals, electronic goods, office automation products, air conditioning equipment and vehicles etc is high.
7. Myanmar's Oil reserves stands at 600 million barrels. This is next door to us.
8. Gas reserves stands at 88 trillion cubic feet- again, next door to us.
9. China building 2389 kms pipeline from Kyakphu to Yunnan and will import 400 million cubic feet of gas a day from Myanmar's offshore fields, through a direct pipeline by 2013, meeting 8% of its energy needs. India is nowhere near tapping this vital source of energy.

Why then are we not able to occupy our place of primacy with that country? The Indian approach to Myanmar so far can at best be described as one step forward and one step backwards. Indian has so far not made a move, which would help removing mistrust of 150 years.

While Mr Narsimha Rao and Mr Vajpayee did try to cultivate Myanmar through a slow process of engagement, Mr George Fernandes sheltered Burmese students (who were anti government) in his official residence. The lacklustre Indian response to 2007 anti government protests negated all previous efforts made to normalize relations. While it earned no allies for the country, it actually diluted our foreign policy credentials in the eyes of western world.

I sincerely hope that during the visit our PM will be able to achieve the following;

1. MFN Status for India for trade.
2. Rupee-Kyat trade regime.
3. Opening up of border road trade through Moreh, Churachandpur and Mizoram routes.
4. Set up SEZ in Moreh for mutual trading.
5. Commencement of direct flights between 2 countries.
6. The draft FDI policy being framed by Myanmar divides FDI into traditional and non-traditional with India falling under non -traditional category. This will make FDI from India more difficult as compared to Japan, Singapore, China, South Korea and Thailand. PM will do well to get India into "traditional" bracket to the immense benefit for both countries.

Myanmar is in the process of democratizing the society. A new constitution is in place and regulations are being framed. These will cover issues such as banking, trading, FDI, civil aviation etc. This process is now being fast tracked. But just as Myanmar is too important for our economy, India too is equally important to Myanmar economy.

We need them for energy security and they need us for fast tracking their economic growth and developing democratic institutions. Any trade concessions gained by the PM during this visit will be hailed as significant achievement towards arresting the economic slide that India is now going through.

The visit must signify a substantial shift in two countries policies towards each other or else it will go down in the history as a golden opportunity deliberately wasted.