External Affairs Minister SushmaSwaraj will travel to Nay Pyi Taw on May 1. The visit will be India’s first high-level engagement with Myanmar since the National League for Democracy (NLD) government officially took office on April 1. The minister will meet both President HtinKyaw and the State Counsellor Aung San SuuKyi, who also holds the post of foreign minister.
The larger goal of the mission is to strengthen Prime Minister NarendraModi’s vision of India’s Act East Policy, which was initially introduced by the Congress government as Look East Policy.
As the largest democracy and an immediate neighbor, many had expected the visit to have happened sooner. Swaraj’s visit comes three weeks after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the first foreign dignitary to visit Myanmar after regime change, who met SuuKyi and Kyaw on April 5 and 6 respectively.
In recent years, India and Myanmar have improved their bilateral ties on several fronts. And now the three specific areas where India needs to improve are the education sector, democratic institution building, and people-to-people relation.
In the education sector, the Indian government has taken up some initiatives, including the establishment of Language Laboratories and Resource Centre, Myanmar Institute of Information Technology, Agricultural Research and Educational Centre, and the enhancement of India-Myanmar Centre for Enhancement of IT Skills.
While the dividends of these initiatives may come slowly, the Indian government and educational institutions across India should attract students from Myanmar, perhaps by offering scholarships or through exchange programs. At the moment, the number of students studying in Indian universities is almost non-existent. In addition, civil society groups and other private sectors should engage in providing vocational trainings that could generate concrete results in the short-term.
The second area is democratic institution building which can be done in a number of ways. First, the Indian government should invite Myanmar politicians, who are new to democratic institutions and its practices, to give them a first-hand experience as to how democracy works in a diverse and pluralistic society.
Such program could be organized under different settings. One possibility is that Myanmar politicians should be allowed to observe parliament proceedings when all parliamentarians across India are present. The other possibility is for the Indian universities and think tanks to organize intensive courses on theory and practices of democracy and on other important issues, both in India and Myanmar. The geographical proximity of the two countries is an advantage point in this regard.
People-to-people relation is another essential element crucial for improving bilateral relations. Not only do India and Myanmar have a shared border, but also the two countries are home to millions of people from the same ethnic community, separated during the creation of India and Myanmar in 1947 and 1948. Examples are the Kachins, the Kukis, the Nagas and the Shans, who live side by side along the India-Myanmar border region.
The two countries also share about 1,624 kilometers boundary in four Northeast Indian states – Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, which are geographically contiguous to Myanmar.
Despite the geographical proximity, there is not much people-to-people contacts at the level of the common people. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Myanmar in 2014, India agreed to construct 71 bridges along the road where the Indian buses would ply.
Bus service between Imphal and Mandalay, a distance of about 580 kilometers, which initially was planned to start in 2012-13, was only able to see its first trial run on December 9, 2015, which was flagged off by Manipur Chief Minister OkramIbobi Singh. But the service has not continued.
Similarly, the first flight service between Myanmar and Manipur was introduced in November 2013 but it did not continue either, due to immigration rules for incoming passengers, among others.
Though weekly direct Air India flight on the Delhi-Gaya-Yangon route and Golden Myanma charter flights to India were launched in November 2014, the connectivity between the two countries still remain very poor.
Reliable road connectivity between the two countries, such as bus and train services, introduction of visa-on-arrival facility at the border areas, regular flight services, and improvement of people-to-people relation are also essential for the success of India’s broader Act East Policy as Myanmar is the gateway.
While China is India’s natural competitor in Myanmar, the degree of influence India can have on Myanmar and the region largely depends on how she maintains people-to-people relation and its investment in education sector. This is, however, not to downplay the importance of other sectors, including economic and security cooperation.
On its part, Myanmar should not only cooperate with India but also needs to implement measures and policies that would enhance bilateral ties. Among others, the NLD government, particularly its Foreign Minister Aung San SuuKyi, should advise the Burmese diplomats in New Delhi to be more open and accessible to people outside of the embassy staff.
Dr.NehginpaoKipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of three books, including ‘Democratisation of Myanmar’.