The importance of Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw’s recent visit to Delhi and his formal meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi goes far beyond the signing of a number of MoUs on Indo-Myanmar cooperation in various fields, and should be seen in its wider context.
The MoUs relate to road connectivity, renewable energy, medicine, agriculture, and power. There was the usual commitment of the two countries to fighting terrorism and insurgency. Its importance lies in the fact that a number of Assamese, Naga, and Manipuri rebel organisations operate against India from the sanctuaries they have set up along the Indo-Myanmar border.
The real significance of Myanmar President’s visit lies in its geopolitical significance. Taking advantage of India’s long years of treating the military junta-led Myanmar as a virtual pariah, helped China to spread its influence in Myanmar by extending development assistance and setting up projects. It is only toward the end of the UPA regime that India got over its traditional inhibitions about an army-ruled country. Indo-Myanmar relations started to improve.
India extended its hand of cooperation to Myanmar and offered financial and technical assistance for a number of projects. These were hailed by the Myanmar people. For the first time, the Chinese had to contend with the presence of India in Myanmar – a country where Beijing had virtually a walk-over in extending its political and economic influence.
As this was happening, the Myanmar people were getting disillusioned about the nature of Chinese “assistance”. Here is a typical example. China was very much keen to build a hydro-electric power project called the Myitsone Dam Project at the confluence of the Mali and N’mai rivers near the source of the Irrawaddy river. It would have flooded huge areas and destroyed ecology. The project cost was $6.3 billion. The power to be generated was 6000 MW. But there was a rub: 90 percent of the power would be transmitted to the Yunnan Province in China.
This angered the people. Their reaction was: you evict us from our villages to build the dam, you destroy our ecology and then you take almost the entire power back home. How does it benefit us in any way? People’s resistance to the project was so strong that Myanmar’s military rulers were forced to “suspend” the project in September 2011 till 2015. But the project has been in the limbo since then, despite the Chinese consortium’s insistence that it has not been abandoned but work would begin soon.
The opposition has also grown to another Chinese power project on the Salween river. The 1200 MW project, lying between the towns of Lashio and Hopang in the Shan State in north Myanmar is being opposed by the Shans, an ethnic community which has been fighting the Myanmar government for decades. As recently as August 23, the Shan groups held a press conference in Bangkok (Thailand), calling for a suspension of work on the dam on the Salween, being built by the Chinese State-owned Hydrochina Corporation and a local consortium.
The Shans have pointed out that the project was located “in one of Shan State’s most contested areas, where there is ongoing fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups...and a tenuous ceasefire with the heavily armed United Wa State Army to the east.” They say that recently, even without the dam, there have been floods in Hopang. The building of the bridge would only send many more villages under water.
The present situation offers India a great opportunity to assure the Myanmar people that India will help them in a way conducive to their welfare, without destroying ecology or damaging the environment. No project would be undertaken without the consent and cooperation of the people. And unlike the Chinese, India is not going to be the beneficiary of any the projects. India’s interest is in progressing together, expanding fields of cooperation and gaining better access to South Asia and increasing multilateral trade substantially.
It is to be noted that the MoUs signed between the two sides on the occasion of the Myanmar President’s visit lay stress on the construction of 69 bridges in the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa section of the Asian Trilateral Highway and upgradation of the Kalewa-Yagyi road section.
From the middle of the UPA-I regime, Indo-Myanmar bilateral trade started showing an upward swing: from $921.19 million in 2006-07 to $2.052 billion in 2015. What India has to be careful about is that bilateral trade should be balanced and not tilted overwhelmingly in favour of India. India has to deal with Myanmar with sensitivity, lying as it does, like Nepal, between two giant
neighbours – India and China. New Delhi will have to be imaginative in its dealing with Myanmar, keeping China in mind. The advantage India has today should be further consolidated, not frittered away by overplaying its hand. IPA
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)