Myanmar and India’s Northeast: Border Cooperation, Better Connectivity and Economic Integration
Nowhere in the media, apart from those circulating in India’s Northeast, do the periodic military operations carried out by Myanmar against Indian insurgents receive frontline coverage. The fascination of the region with Myanmar’s military endeavours is obvious, for bases in Myanmar remain one of the crucial factors for survival of insurgency in the region. It is largely opined that, but for the insurgency, the Northeast region’s economic integration with Myanmar would have been complete. How true is that assessment? The commentary examines the future prospects of the economic integration between India’s Northeast and Myanmar.
India-Myanmar Security Cooperation
India appears to have set up a comprehensive and functional security cooperation mechanism with Myanmar. Over the years, the drastic reduction in insurgency related violence in Manipur and Nagaland – states sharing borders with Myanmar- has allowed New Delhi and Naypidaw to explore policy options to seal the gains. These include a generous supply of arms and capacity building equipments by India to Myanmar, and setting up forums for the continuous exchange of ideas between the two countries.
In the last week of 2012, India and Myanmar reached an agreement to open the fourth Border Liaison Office (BLO) in the Nagaland sector. Three BLOs are already in operation in the Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram sectors. BLOs have served as mechanisms to promote cooperation between the law enforcement agencies of both countries. The BLO forum has been a product of a high-level meeting between the two countries in May 2012. Officers posted at the BLOs discuss and sort out issues relating to local security and crime, to strengthen bilateral cooperation on border issues.
Perceptibly, New Delhi has followed a different approach to the Indo-Myanmar border. While fencing dominates its strategy along the Indo-Pak and Indo-Bangladesh borders, security along the Indo-Myanmar border is sought to be protected by establishing a cooperation mechanism between the border guarding forces. Since January 2012, both sides have attempted to maintain close interaction between the nodal points, as well as the commanding officers of the two countries’ respective border guarding forces for sharing intelligence in real-time. Another mechanism through which Myanmar has started sharing, albeit sporadically, the interrogation reports of arms smugglers arrested by Myanmar security forces has also been established.
From Border Cooperation to Better Connectivity
The impact of these measures will be seen in the coming months. However, such strides to establish a security regime will continue to be thwarted by the prevalence of a sub-optimal connectivity regime.
In several official documents, the importance of connectivity is a well-recognised factor. The 12th Five Year plan for example, like many preceding plan documents, identified connectivity- both between the States and with Myanmar and Bangladesh- as crucial to the Northeast.
With specific reference to the road building projects with Myanmar, the draft document indicates, “We are working on a multi-modal connection through Ashuganj in Bangladesh to Tripura and the Sithwe–Kaladan River Project to Lunglei in Mizoram. We need to energise the re-conditioning and re-connections of the other road networks through Moreh (Manipur) and Ledo (Assam) to Myanmar. This can then further link up to Thailand and to the road network system in Southeast Asia.”
Reducing the Space between Promises and Performance
While the plan document underlines New Delhi’s future priorities, India’s past performance in completing infrastructure projects in Myanmar has remained lacklustre. The sole project completed is the 160km cross-border project of the Moreh-Kalewa Road into Chin State on Myanmar’s western border. This was completed way back in 2001. Ambitious projects such as the Kaladan multi-modal highway and the Sittwe port development to improve land/water communication links still remain incomplete years after their conception and planning.
Similarly, road networks within the Northeast remain another problem area. The draft 12th plan document notes, “Enhanced connectivity of the Northeast should be a high priority.” However, according to official data, achievements have fallen significantly below the modest targets. During the last six years (2006-2012) for instance, under the Special Accelerated Road Development Programme in the Northeast (SARDP-NE), an 892km road was constructed by various agencies. The original target was 1283km; however, delays in land acquisition, shifting of utilities and forest clearances were identified as hindrances to the completion of the project.
Overcoming Internal Problems in the Northeast
In spite of the popular focus on insurgency and the role of insurgents as spoilers, a scan through newspapers in recent times indicates that even community-based organisations within the Northeast have posed a great roadblock in the idea of free traffic movement on roads connecting the region to Myanmar. Whereas the regular blockades imposed by the influential Naga organisations to cut off Manipur from the rest of India are rather well known, comparatively miniscule tribal bodies too have demonstrated such disruptive abilities. In December 2012, the ASEAN-India car rally faced blockades imposed by Manipur’s Kuki State Demand Committee (KSDC), which demands a separate Kuki state. It required Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh’s personal intervention to avoid the rally participants getting stuck on National Highway No.2 after entering India through the border town of Moreh.
Reforms presently underway in Myanmar have opened up enormous economic opportunities for several countries. It is now up to New Delhi to prioritise the implementation of identified projects, so that the goal of economically integrating its Northeast with Myanmar does not simply remain a pipedre
Bibhu Prasad Routray
Visiting Fellow, IPCS