In a significant development on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held extensive talks with Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw. It is India’s first top level engagement with the recently-elected National League for Democracy government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar has undertaken a new path of democracy after decades of military rule and India has promised support in “every step” of its journey. Following bilateral talks on Monday, both sides signed four key agreements: construction of 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa section of the trilateral highway connecting India, Myanmar, and Thailand, upgrading the Kalewa-Yargi section of the trilateral highway, cooperation in the field of renewable energy and cooperation in the field of traditional medicine. Earlier this month, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Myanmar in the first high-level visit from India after the civilian government assumed office. Myanmar’s leadership had assured Swaraj that no insurgent group will be allowed to use its territory to attack India. The construction of the trilateral highway is very crucial to India’s trade interests, especially for the states located in the Northeast region. As part of its “Act East Policy”, the NDA government has pursued a sustained policy of strengthening trade ties with both its eastern neighbors and countries situated in South East Asia.
The trilateral highway will connect Moreh, located in the Chandel district of Manipur, to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. It was first proposed during the previous NDA regime in 2002. But construction of the trilateral highway only began in 2012. It is a real shame that this prestigious project still remains incomplete. The NDA government’s new-found impetus for the project may prove to be a boon for the long-neglected Northeastern region, which could become a crucial trade hub in the future. This project could play a key role in opening up employment opportunities to millions in the region. However, trade and commerce do not cover the entire spectrum of strategic ties. As mentioned earlier, there is a crucial security angle too. The neighboring country shares a 1,640 km-long border with a number of Northeastern states including militancy-ridden Nagaland and Manipur. In the past, India has raised the issue of several North East militant outfits having training camps in that country. As a sign of close cooperation between the two states in tackling insurgency along the shared border, Indian troops recently crossed into Myanmar territory to target a National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) military camp. The NSCN (K) had unilaterally withdrawn from the ceasefire agreement with the Government of India last year. Since the ceasefire broke down, the militant group has been involved in numerous attacks on the Indian armed forces.
In the larger scheme of things, however, New Delhi seeks to challenge China’s growing influence in the region. Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to visit China before India had raised some concerns in New Delhi. During the visit, both nations had decided to establish closer ties as “blood brothers” and enhance trade. But the main sticking point between the two nations has been the lack of progress on the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project after widespread environmental protests. Meanwhile, India has always advocated better ties with Myanmar. New Delhi was earlier a critic of the previous military regime and gave serious recognition to the struggle for democracy led by Suu Kyi. But it all changed in the mid-1990s after China began to vigorously leave its imprint on Myanmar with comprehensive energy, trade and defence ties. Further concerns were raised in New Delhi by the growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Since the change in policy, India remained opposed to western sanctions against Myanmar. Moreover, India’s relief efforts in the country following the Nargis cyclone in 2008 evoked much goodwill from the military-ruled Myanmar. But the dynamics have now changed significantly with a new civilian government in power.