|#1264||11354||October 05, 2014||By Sanjay Thakur|
Myanmar’s transition to democracy and initiation of political and economic reforms in 2011 has brought India and Myanmar closer resulting in high level visits and signing of agreements on bilateral cooperation. Both countries have set a target to push the bilateral trade to $3 billion by 2015 from $1.6 billion in 2012. It is in this backdrop that India has extended line of credit worth $300 million for infrastructure development to Myanmar. Healthy economic engagement between India and Myanmar, which is India’s gateway to ASEAN, reflects positively on India’s Look East Policy (LEP) and augurs well for the growth of North East region.
The scope of this article restricts to analyzing the linkages and initiatives launched by the two countries for development of the border regions.
Being neighbors, India-Myanmar relations are rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties. As the land of Lord Buddha, India is a country of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar (89% population in Myanmar follow Buddhism). A large population of Indian origin (estimated about 2.9 million) lives in Myanmar. India shares a 1643 km long border with Myanmar in four north-eastern states namely, Arunachal (520 km), Nagaland (215 km), Manipur (398 km) and Mizoram (510 km) with Myanmar’s Sagaing Region and Chin State. Sagaing Region bordering with Nagaland and Manipur has Bamar, Chin, Shan and Naga population practicing Buddhism and Christianity. Chin State located in Western Myanmar shares boundaries with Manipur in north and Mizoram in the west. It is sparsely populated and remains one of the least developed areas of Myanmar with a high rate of unemployment. Chin is the major ethnic group and Christianity is the major religion. Chins and Manipuris have long ethnic linkages since feudal era as parts of Chin Hills were under the suzerainty of Manipur and vice-versa. Hence, people on both sides of the border have ethnic, religious and cultural ties since centuries. This factor is being exploited by some of the ethnic militant groups in North East India (PREPAK and PLA in Manipur to name a few) to seek shelter in Chin State and Sagaing Region for their anti-India activities. Due to historic ethnic linkages, people in border villages own land/property and have socio-economic interests across the borders. Their interests are protected by Indo-Burma treaty of 1952 on Border Affairs which allows free movement of the local ethnic tribals on both sides for the purpose of carrying on local trade and social visits.
India’s Initiatives for Development of Border Region
The border region on both sides (North East India and Chin State/Sagaing Region in Myanmar) is hilly, forested and sparsely populated. Population is divided on ethnic, lingual and religious lines. These factors coupled with the existence of armed insurgent groups have resulted in lack of connectivity, miniscule industrial growth and lack of employment opportunities in the region. Therefore, both the countries are now focused towards capacity building and development of infrastructure in the region. India is offering assistance to Myanmar in some of the infrastructure projects in the border region listed below
India commenced work on erecting of border security fence in 2003 but the same stalled, especially in Manipur, due to genuine protests raised by the local Tangkhul, Kuki, and Naga communities. According to them, a huge stretch of land would become Burma’s territory and foment unrest among people living on both sides of the border as the fence would divide many ethnic communities, including the Lushei, Nagas, Chins, and Kukis whose lands straddle the regions of both the countries. It is thus a highly sensitive issue. Unlike other borders between countries, Indo –Myanmar border, due to ethnic linkages and historical factors, is peaceful and devoid of hostilities. Moreover, the 1952 Border Agreement provides free access to ethnic people to move within 16 kms of border without visa restrictions for socio-economic reasons and hence both countries may well do away with any border fencing and encourage peaceful coexistence. Erecting a border fence is a costly exercise as it would entail earmarking troops for manning and surveillance, creation of infrastructure including road network and towers etc which both countries can ill afford at this juncture.
Good neighborly relations with Myanmar and prosperity amongst people living in border areas on both sides augurs well for the security of India and is in its national interests. Hence various infrastructure development projects being undertaken in Myanmar should be executed and made functional in the laid down time frame by tackling various security and politico-bureaucratic hurdles. The Government of India should also make provisions to provide economic aids for specific projects to governments of bordering Sagaing Region and Chan State to foster close links and gain cooperation on various border issues. Simultaneously, within North East region, work must continue to develop infrastructure including connectivity (road, rail, air, inland waterways) for an overall development of the region as an economic hub to further India’s Look East Policy objectives.