Neighbourhood challenge - India.

Following an infructuous spell of looking east, India’s Act East Policy (AEP) is hobbled by snags in connectivity, continuing insurgencies, agitations, blockades and extortion in the North-east and replication of some of these very problems, especially insurgencies and snarls, in decision-making in Myanmar, the launchpad and fulcrum of AEP. Last month, the visit of Myanmar President, U Win Myint, to India reminded us of AEP anew.

The open-door policy is intended to usher in development in the North-east, which could in turn facilitate the closure of insurgencies. For the Look East Policy to work, it was necessary to press the “pause” button on democracy and, instead, support the ruling military junta. Reversion to democracy, albeit partial, has been achieved as I discovered last month in Yangon through a joint civil military leadership, with the Army having the last word.


At the core of AEP is connectivity — by road, rail, sea, inland waterways and air. The strategic geography in the North-east channelises this outreach through the narrow and sensitive Siliguri corridor, the vulnerable chicken’s neck of the region. Choices for bypassing the Siliguri constriction were to transit through Bangladesh and/or use the sea route to reach insurgency-free Mizoram on the Myanmar border — from Kolkata to Sittwe Port in Myanmar and upto Mizoram.

Earlier, Bangladesh had rejected Indian requests to connect Myanmar through the Port of Chittagong upto Agartala and thence to the Myanmar border. What is being operationalised now is the costly and delayed Kaladan multi-modal access from Sittwe to Myanmar/Mizoram through Rakhine and Chin States, currently beset with insurgencies by the Arakam Army. Therefore, instead of working this project south-north, it has been reversed, starting from Mizoram to Sittwe, which will have a 1,000 km special economic zone (SEZ) and a gas land pipeline from its gasfields to Gaya in Bihar. A number of roads to and through Myanmar to the east are under construction and completion, thus enhancing the AEP connectivity grid.

Unique to Myanmar is the civil-Army joint leadership arrangement under an Army-dictated constitution of 2011, which ensures that 25 per cent of the elected seats in Parliament is reserved for the Army. As the Constitution forbids Myanmar’s popular leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League of Democracy (NLD) from holding office, she is a State Councillor in the improvised system, which allows her the number three position in the State hierarchy after the President and Vice President; whereas the “C” in C Senior General Aung Hlaing, who calls the shots, is at number five. The Constitution reserves the posts of defence, home and border affairs Ministers for the Army.

The NLD wants to change the Constitution, which requires an unachievable two-thirds majority in Parliament. Last week, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi unsuccessfully tried to pass the Constitutional amendment. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is in his second term, which will end in April 2021, and efforts are on to accommodate him as the Vice President. This may introduce a modicum of civilian control over the military. While the Army is popular in the countryside, it is disliked by the urban elite. It disapproves of the overwhelming Chinese presence and meddling in Myanmar’s internal affairs. But others don’t mind them as they have the money to invest and develop the country.

Another historical challenge facing Myanmar is its myriad insurgencies, which like the cluster on the Indian side, is a hurdle for AEP. At the time of independence, many States in the erstwhile Burma had sought self-determination and separation but the Panglong Agreement of 1947 promised to settle Centre-State relations even as the Communists and Karens favoured independence. Today, there are more than two dozen active and dormant insurgencies, the active ones in border States like Shan, Kachin, Chin and Rakhine. The world’s most complex but elaborate peace process is in Myanmar and it consists of unilateral, bilateral and a nationwide cease fire agreements, prone to violations and formal and informal dialogues backed by the international community, prominently by China.

The year 2019 was bad for the peace process. The 21st century Panglong Union Peace Conference with 10 nation-wide ceasefire signatories and the high-level Joint Implementation Coordination Meeting could not be held, though the Union Peace Dialogue took place in July. Both the failed meetings are likely to be held after the national elections later this year, which the Lady — reference to NLD leader Daw Suu Kyi — is expected to win but with a reduced majority. For various reasons, her popularity has waned but there is no alternative leader.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar this January and signed 33 agreements, of which the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (like the economic corridors with Pakistan and Nepal) was the centre piece. All three strategic corridors seek access to markets but two have an eye on warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Surpassing India’s port potential at Sittwe is Kyakpyu, the deep-water port coupled with SEZ and ultimately road, rail, oil and gas pipelines radiating through Myanmar north of China’s Yunnan province. China’s footprint is enormous: There are hordes of Chinese in the north. Though the controversial $3.6 billion hydel dam at Myitsone has been put on hold, bilateral trade stands at $17 billion and China holds 40 per cent of Myanmar’s foreign debt of $5 billion. Xi signed separate agreements with the Senior General and State Councillor while hailing the new blueprint for comprehensive strategic cooperation and the new 2+2 strategic dialogue, Myanmar’s first with any country.

India, though with good intentions and now sizeable civil and defence cooperation, is no match for China’s deep pockets and outreach to play the role of a regional equaliser. Still, its impressive infrastructure and capacity-building programmes have been appreciated.

Japan will team up in improving quality and quick delivery of projects. While the two million, mostly Indian Tamil, diaspora is no asset, the Buddhism connect has not been tested even as Indian tourists are thronging Myanmar. India has transferred a Russian kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarine and may soon sell Brahmos missiles against the $1.5 billion line of credit, of which $300 million is left. Border trade — within 16 km — is a paltry $25 million, though overall trade is around $2.5 billion, far below potential.

The flowering of bilateral relations is stalled in part by the complexity of joint leadership and the unstoppable rise of China. While Beijing has cast a string of pearls along India’s periphery, it has placed in Myanmar, an arrestor wire system of an aircraft carrier to blunt the take-off of AEP towards Asean, where China is also the dominant influencer. Myanmar’s full transition to democracy depends on progress in ethnic reconciliation and resolving civil-military tensions through Constitutional reform. Till then, AEP will remain constrained.

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