The recent two-day joint visit to Myanmar by India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla and Army Chief General M.M. Naravane, was the first time that an Indian delegation to the neighbouring country included both officials. Their meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials in Myanmar at the Foreign Ministry in Naypyitaw, assumes immense significance considering the fact that Myanmar goes to the polls on the 8th of November, 2020; and, given the uncertainties that the nation’s political scenario still continue to grapple with, the outcome of the upcoming elections cannot be said to be guaranteed. It comes as an opportune moment for India to tackle key issues ranging from national security to connectivity with the Southeast Asian countries.
Some of the important issues that were taken up during the meeting were the full-fledged operationalisation of Myanmar’s Sittwe port as a part of the Kaladan transit transport project in order to boost connectivity with India’s Northeast, enhanced cooperation on the security front to counter the activities of militant groups, especially along the borders of Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland. A number of anti-India insurgents are based across the Moreh border in Manipur and across Vijaynagar in Arunachal Pradesh.
Only a safe and secure Northeast can ensure a peaceful and secure Bharat; hence, joint India-Myanmar operations are a must if India’s national security concerns are to be addressed from a long-term perspective.
It is a much well-established fact that the Indo-Myanmar border is used to smuggle synthetic drugs and heroin. There have been frequent instances of drug trafficking through Myanmar and it is imperative that the security agencies of both the countries work in a coordinated manner to deal with this menace with a heavy hand. Earlier, narcotic substances were smuggled into India from Myanmar and brought to Guwahati via Dimapur and then sent to different destinations. After several such consignments were caught, those involved in drug trafficking have started to use other routes and according to internal reports, several consignments were sent to Bangladesh via Mizoram and Tripura.
The need of the hour is to come to an agreement between both the sides so as to strengthen security ties by making the India-Myanmar border impenetrable to drug smugglers. Meanwhile, the police forces of the Northeastern states and Central agencies too, have decided to work in a coordinated manner to deal with the problem of drug trafficking, which was also discussed in the recently-concluded meeting of the strategy group called Unified Command. Senior police officers of Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Arunachal Pradesh had also attended the meeting as special invitees so that the issue can be discussed in detail.
From the point of view of national security, it is indeed a positive development that Harsh Shringla, on behalf of India, has requested the Government of Myanmar to sign an extradition treaty, and an agreement on the transfer of sentenced persons. This is aimed at facilitating the smooth handing over of criminals and anti-India elements nabbed in the neighbouring country. Since insurgent groups of Northeast India have been using the territory of Myanmar to launch anti-India offensives for a long time now, the signing of an extradition treaty between the two countries is expected to be especially helpful for India to deal with members of the militant outfits and their ‘Breaking-India’ supporters within India.
In the recent times, there has been a considerable improvement in the relations between India and Myanmar, which has immensely helped in ensuring law-and-order stability in India’s Northeast. Efforts need to be made to further improve the relations since Myanmar holds the key for the successful implementation of the much-talked-about India’s ‘Act East Policy’, the importance of which cannot be overlooked for the overall economic growth and development of the Northeast.
The ‘Look East Policy’ of the Government of India, which was later rechristened as the ‘Act East Policy’ acknowledges the fact that since time immemorial, cultural and commercial links had been flourishing between the Northeast and Southeast Asia. Its goal is to open up this strategically sensitive region of India to markets in Southeast Asia by establishing land, water and air connectivity, an integral component of which includes a 1,360-km Trilateral Highway Project that starts from Moreh in India’s Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand through Myanmar and continues onwards to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It’s completion is expected to boost trade, investment, commercial and employment opportunities in the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area, and as well as within the rest of SE Asia, besides heralding the dawn of a fresh change in the economic scenario of the Northeastern states.
The coastal shipping agreement that will allow Indian ships to reach Mizoram via the Sittwe port on the Bay of Bengal and through the Kaladan river multi-modal link has also been in a limbo for several years. Its resolution as early as possible would be an icing on the cake for India-Myanmar relations, helping to boost ties between the two countries by the opening of a sea route to connect the Northeast with the rest of the world. The Sittwe port is a part of the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project, which is crucial to India’s plans for the landlocked northeastern states to access the Bay of Bengal through Mizoram, and also to provide an alternative connectivity link to Kolkata without having to use the circuitous Siliguri corridor.
It was not so long ago that India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had informed in a letter to Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) MP Birendra Prasad Baishya from Assam in the Rajya Sabha that India will continue to make full efforts for the completion of all pending projects under the Trilateral Highway. He further said that India has undertaken two projects in Myanmar under the Trilateral Highway, these being the construction of the 120-km Kalewa-Yagi road sections to highway standard and the upgradation of 69 bridges and approach roads on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa (TKK) road section of 150km. The Kalewa-Yagi road section is among the most challenging of the stretches of the Trilateral Highway with steep gradients and sharp curves. Construction of this road is underway and around one-fourth of it has been completed. The minister also revealed that work on the 69 bridges, including approach roads, in the TKK section was held up after the contractor was terminated in December 2018 due to unsatisfactory performance, but is being resumed now.
Improving relations with the Southeast Asian countries is what matters the most for the success of India’s ‘Act East Policy’. Hence, the Government of India has started providing assistance, both technical and financial, to its neighbours including Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, etc. to help repair and restore ancient archaeological sites. As a part of the initiatives, experts of the neighbouring countries are also being trained up in India. Experts from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have been pressed into service for the purpose, while India is also providing funds for the same.
A number of dilapidated Buddhist pagodas, stupas, and paintings that suffered massive damages due to a severe earthquake a few years back, are being repaired under the project. Located in the ancient city of Bagan which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ASI has taken up the renovation work of 12 pagodas in the first phase of the project which is fully funded by the Ministry of External Affairs under its diplomatic outreach initiative. There are over 2,200 pagodas, temples, monasteries and other historical structures built between the 11th-13th centuries in the spectacular plains of Bagan.
The ASI has also taken up the conservation work of the historical Ananda temple, a prominent Buddhist pilgrimage centre and a masterpiece of Mon architecture built in the 12th century. The structure had suffered damages in an earthquake in 1975, and the restoration work was started in May, 2012. The conservation and restoration of the Ananda temple was completed in 2018 at a cost of Rs. 11.54 crore. PM Narendra Modi had also visited this historic temple and offered prayers during his trip to Myanmar in 2017.
Since India shares a deep bond of cultural connect with the Southeast Asian countries, it carries out restoration and conservation work at temples overseas from time to time under the aegis of the ASI. Some of these include Angkor in Cambodia, Cham Monuments in Vietnam, Thiruketee-Swaram temple in Sri Lanka, Wat Phou temple complex in Laos, and Pashupatinath temple in Nepal.
Coming to the security front, the Government of Myanmar has, in the recent times, started launching offensives against the militants of the Northeast. E.g. the headquarters of the United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent (ULFA-I) in the Taga area of Myanmar was taken over by the Myanmar army last year, which reduced the strength and effectiveness of the outfit to a great extent. However, the Government of Myanmar has not yet divulged the details of the damage suffered by the ultras in the operations, while handing over only a handful of the militants to India. This has continued to raise suspicions on whether the militants of the ULFA (I) are still hiding somewhere in the thick and dense jungles of Myanmar. India is also aware of the fact that the camps of a few Manipur-based militant groups were demolished during the counter-terror operations.
It is important that the Government of India remains persistent in exerting the requisite diplomatic pressure on Myanmar to launch another operation directed at flushing out militants who may be seeking shelter in the jungles of the neighbouring country in the interest of complete restoration of peace and order in the Northeast. It is also reported that the horns of rhinos killed by poachers in the world-famous Kaziranga National Park and other parks and sanctuaries in Assam for lucrative money, are taken to China via Myanmar. It demands a well thought-out cooperation and coordination plan between the security forces of both the countries to deal with this monstrous problem. On its part, the Government of India will have to augment security measures along the international border with Myanmar so as to restrict the movement of militants and criminal elements into Indian territory.
Recently, it was reported that the ULFA (I) had started taking active interest in the latest political developments of Assam, especially with the formation of new regional parties in the run-up to the Assam Legislative Assembly elections due next year. As per inputs available with the security agencies, ULFA (I) commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, who is now supposed to be hiding somewhere in Ruili in the Yunnan province of China, has been advocating the need for unification of the new regional forces to overthrow the ruling BJP government in the state. According to reports available with the security agencies, Paresh Baruah has not visited Myanmar to meet the cadres of the outfit since the counter-terror operations undertaken by the Government of Myanmar last year.
Although the activities of the ULFA (I) have been quite low and no major incident of violence has taken place for sometime, yet there are much apprehensions that the outfit would try as best as it can to make its presence felt before the state assembly elections scheduled for April-May, 2021. In fact, there have been intelligence reports regarding the movement of small groups of militants in the areas bordering Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, where their presence is active in the business of extortion and loot. It is extremely important on the part of the security agencies to ensure that the militants cannot re-group; or else, they may again incite violence in the state in the name of CAA or whatsoever.
New Delhi has been working steadily to boost ties with all countries in the neighbourhood barring Pakistan, and has announced a slew of initiatives ranging from currency swaps, budgetary support and connectivity projects with the objective of helping other states in the region to overcome the economic impact of COVID-19. However, India still has a long way to go! It has still not been able to take full advantage of the changed political scenario in Myanmar, after Aung San Suu Kyi had returned to the front-stage as Myanmar’s State Counsellor at the expense of the military junta in the last general elections. Key issues remain unresolved, while Bangladesh continues to exert pressure on India to take up the Rohingya refugee crisis with Myanmar. Bangladesh’s foreign ministry had expressed the hope that India, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council during 2021-22, will play a “more meaningful role for a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis, including their early repatriation to Myanmar in a safe and sustainable manner”.
Agreements on exigent issues are definitely one of the most important, but what is equally important is the diplomatic angle too. In this context, the timing of the visit of India’s Foreign Secretary together with the Army Chief is an important angle to be noted from the point of view of diplomacy, because India has assured Myanmar of continued assistance in these pandemic times. This was also symbolised by the fact that, as a part of India’s efforts to help Myanmar fight the COVID-19 pandemic, the delegation handed over a consignment of 3,000 vials of the drug Remdesivir to Suu Kyi. India’s assistance to Myanmar currently stands at $1.4 billion, and New Delhi will provide debt service relief under the G20 debt service suspension initiative to Myanmar from May-December to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- ULFA(I) bid to influence political process in state. The Assam Tribune. October 5, 2020. pp.1-3.
- India helping SE Asian countries to repair, restore archaeological sites. The Assam Tribune. October 8, 2020. pp.1-4.
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