Millennium Post

Man power in Myanmar

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's current visit to Myanmar is in continuation of India's efforts to deepen and widen her ties with her immediate eastern neighbour. India cooled off to Myanmar after the army captured power and set up a highly authoritarian and anti-democratic regime.

Wedded as India was to the cause of democracy, it took time for her to resolve the conflict between her commitment to support the movement for restoration of democracy and the realpolitik need to deal with those who were actually wielding power in Myanmar. Rajiv Gandhi was the last Indian Prime Minister to visit Myanmar in 1987. Dr Singh's visit comes after a quarter of a century.

India began befriending Myanmar, from the mid-1990s as part of its 'Look East' policy. By then much time had been lost and taking advantage of India's unwillingness to interact with the military rulers and register a presence in Myanmar, China had stepped in in a big way by offering economic assistance for development and also political support for the ruling junta. The elections held in Myanmar in 2010 marked the beginning of a change. Though the polls were not free and fair and it is the generals who came back to power in civilian garb, there is no doubt that democratic reforms started taking place. Leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, has since been freed from house internment. She has been elected to Parliament through a bye-election and taken her oath as a law-maker. Dr Singh is expected to meet her.

Myanmar's geo-strategic importance for India arises from several factors. It is the second largest littoral State in the Bay of Bengal. It is also second largest of India's neighbours in the eastern flank. It has a long northern border with China contiguous to India's north-east and acts as a buffer between north-east India and the southern province of China. ULFA's anti-talk faction leader Paresh Barua is believed to be hiding somewhere in the Sino-Myanmar border and making trips to China.

From the economic point of view also, Myanmar presents a wide field of cooperation between the two countries. It has proven reserves of 115 million barrels of onshore and 100 million barrels of offshore oil. Its gas reserves are estimated at 400 billion cubic feet onshore and 16 trillion cubic feet offshore. For an energy hungry India, developing these oil and gas fields will prove immensely beneficial to both countries. ONGC Videsh is already working on some oil blocks in Myanmar.

Another important Indo-Myanmar joint endeavour is the Rs 1700 crore Kalaldan multi-model project. It seeks to establish connectivity between the Indian sea ports on the eastern coast and the Sittwe port in Myanmar. Once the project is completed, goods will be shipped from Kolkata port to Sittwe port – a sea distance of 540 km. In the next phase, there will be an inland waterway route from Sittwe to Satpyitpyin and from there to Indo-Myanmar border by a 62-km road that will be built to carry cargo. Finally, from the border a 100 km road will be built to join National Highway 54 at Lawnttalai in Mizoram. This project is expected to be completed by 2014.

Changes in the security environment have forced India to accelerate the pace of developing road connectivity with her eastern neighbours. Work is going on for the completion of the ambitious 1360 km long India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway by 2016. Preparations for starting a weekly bus service from Manipur's capital Imphal to Mandalaya in Myanmar, a distance of 700 kms is almost complete and it is likely to be inaugurated soon.

Post-2010 elections, a perceptible change has come about in Sino-Myanmar relations. Yielding to strong public demand, supported by Suu Kyi, the Government of President Thein Sein last September announced suspension of work on the Chinese-aided Myitsone Dam Project on the Irrawaddy in Kachin State in north Myanmar. The main objection was that the 3600 MW hydel project being built at a cost of $3.6 billion would have submerged dozens of villages and displaced thousands of people and caused extensive ecological damage. But the power generated would have benefited the southern Chinese province of Yunan more than Myanmar.

The Irrawaddy reported on February 17 that the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI), the major investor in the project, had been distributing pamphlets in the Aung Myaytha and Myali Yang villages of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. The paper reported that 'the decision to abort the multi-million dollar hydro-power project angered the Chinese Government'. The CPI has dismissed Suu Kyi's objections, saying 'she is not a professional' and so 'cannot accurately evaluate the advantages and disadvantages' of hydro-power projects and dams.

If India extends her hand of cooperation to Myanmar, it will become less dependent on Chinese help. India is already accelerating its investment in infrastructure development in Myanmar to compete with China. This has been welcomed. During Prime Minister Singh's visit a number of agreements are expected to be signed. India is also likely to extend more credit for development projects.
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