A wide-ranging interview with Ambassador of India to Myanmar Mr. Vikram Misri by the Global New Light of Myanmar and MRTV touched upon democratic and economic reform, peace process and bilateral relations between Myanmar and India.
Q: What would you say is the main priority in bilateral relations between India and Burma?
A: We are currently in an interesting time in the bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar. Our priorities are to see the strengthening of democracy in this country. We were very glad that the transition that took place following the elections in 2015 was a very peaceful, smooth and stable transition. I think that all the stakeholders deserve credit including the political parties, civil society institutions and the military authorities as well because they all played a role. And I think we are seeing today a young democracy take its first steps into the world. There is a tradition of democracy in this country and it now has to rediscover some of those traditions and in that process, we stand ready to extend a helping hand. As the largest democracy in the world and with some very important achievements to our own credit in the field of strengthening democracy not just in our country but in many other regions around the world, we feel that there are contributions we can make to strengthen democracy. Our second priority would be to participate through any assistance or investment in the economic growth and regeneration of this country. Myanmar has been isolated from the mainstream of the economic world for a very long time and as it reintegrates with the mainstream of the international economy, India as the world’s fastest-growing major economy is in a good place to assist and contribute from our own experiences of what we have learnt in our own process of moving through the different phases of our own economy. And thirdly I would say our priority is to strengthen security. This country has been witness to a very long civil war. A war that is still actively going on in some parts of the country unfortunately, and for which the government has embarked on the peace process and we are deeply invested in the success of that. Because we feel that a peaceful, stable and prosperous Myanmar is in the interest of not only the people of Myanmar but also all of its neighbors. So a very big and important priority for us is to see security strengthened in Myanmar and therefore to see the success of the peace process.
Q: We have a new government who has taken state responsibility for over a year, so I would like to know y our perspective on the overall democratic transition of Myanmar.
A: We are very happy in India to see the results of the elections in 2015 and the ascension of a democratically elected government. The Myanmar government has now completed one year in office with the country transitioning to a multi-party democratic form of government. There have been some good developments and there have been some challenges. But I don’t think anyone would say that a democratic system of government is a walk in the park especially when you have to manage government with high expectations from people. And to do so with an open society, listening to all sides and being open to criticism is challenging and I don’t think that even the State Counsellor would have thought that this was going to be easy. What is impressive is the way in which these challenges have been faced by the government. Democracy is like a log raft, it is always going up and down on the waves but it is constantly six inches above water. The logs make up all the stakeholders in a society like the people, all the political parties, civil society, nongovernment organisations, and the military. The ropes that hold the logs together are the institutions, the rule of law, independent judiciary, a free media. These are what hold all the stakeholders together and make the raft it unsinkable. And I think that takes time and we can’t expect everything to be perfect overnight. I think the people of Myanmar are doing a good job in facing these challenges on multiple fronts and there will no doubt be more challenges going into the future. But I think it’s important that they face these challenges and have the resources to face them. From our perspective it’s up to the people of Myanmar and their elected representatives to decide how to face up to these challenges, but as an outsider, we can assist in facing up to the challenges and we will always be there shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Myanmar.
Q: What will be the many challenges for the government in the transition during the peace process?
A: The peace process has been a very important priority for the Myanmar government. When we talk about building a new nation, we talk about the need for peace and the need for development and these are two sides of the same coin. I think the State Counsellor has been right to focus on the peace process because this is something that has occupied the people of Myanmar for more than 70 years. India was a witness to the signing of the nationwide ceasefire agreement, so we are very heavily invested in the success of the peace process. We have been as distressed as anybody else to see the repeated outbreak of fighting on the eastern and northern borders and we hope that these hostilities will cease and that everybody will come back to the dialogue table. At the end of the day, there is no recourse in finding a solution to these issues other than through the process of peaceful dialogue, sitting around a table and thrashing these issues out. I’m sure the will exists among all the stakeholders to sort these things out. I very much hope that everybody will find it possible to agree to terms and come around to dialogue. We would be very happy to see the success of this peace process. With India, Myanmar shares perhaps its most peaceful border and that is a good thing. It doesn’t have to worry about a threat from across our border. From our side, we have some concerns because there are still Indian insurgent groups that seek shelter and sanctuary on the Myanmar side and use that territory as a staging area for attacks on the Indian side, but we have good mechanisms in place with the authorities in Myanmar to address these situations and we welcome the assurances given to us by Myanmar authorities that they will not permit these activities on their soil. I hope that the peace process encompasses groups situated all along the periphery of Myanmar. We are going to see the second session in a few days’ time and I hope we see some progress there so that the people of Myanmar can see a future that is marked by peace.
Q: There could be more interest from Indian investors so I want to touch on trade and business. In the last 3 or 4 years there have been more contacts between private to private businesses and private companies in Myanmar and private companies in India, so is this correct? I would like to know how important it is for our private to private contacts and what kind of business is India interested in in Myanmar.
A: It is a fact that there is an increase in interest in the private sector in India to increase their footprint and engagement in Myanmar. When the State Counsellor visited India in October last year, she met with some of the captains of Indian industry at an event that was organized in New Delhi for her. I was recently in India and spoke to representatives of two of the leading chambers of commerce in India where there was keen interest in Myanmar. I very keenly promoted Myanmar as an investment destination and was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of interest in coming to Myanmar. The reason for that is obvious. Myanmar is a largely unexplored territory with a considerably large market and I think businesses can expect fast growth, at least in the initial years. There are certain obstacles, primarily in the infrastructure and the unavailability of energy, for example, and I very much hope that the Myanmar government can put the policy and regulatory measures in place quickly to get businesses interested even further. But the interest is already there and it’s already manifested itself on the ground. You already see factories for pharmaceuticals and the blending of fertilizers being built in the Thilawa Special Economic Zone by Indian investors. There are Indian companies that have been in intense trading relationships for a very long time with this country and I, personally, am trying to encourage a lot of these companies to move from the trading phase to the investment phase and to generate jobs in the country. Some of that is linked to the investment climate in the country and the specific situation in each particular sector. Some of the sectors that we could assist enormously for mutual benefit are energy, transport, health, education, skill building, and vocational training. We have done some work in some of these areas, like energy for example. We have enormous achievement in renewable energy in India. Myanmar has one of the highest UV radiations in the world, so it’s literally sitting on a gold mine so far as solar energy is concerned. I hope that a framework can be put in place whereby solar energy can be developed in the country, given the fact that nearly two-thirds of the country is not connected to the electricity grid. Solar energy can be the answer for people living in far-off rural areas. Similarly in energy trade, there have been possibilities and plans discussed between the two sides for cooperation. Health and education are areas where we have some world-class companies and institutions in India that will be happy to share their experiences and bring those achievements over here. Also skill building and vocational training, especially in fields like information technology and English. In both areas, we have setup institutions in Myanmar and are willing to take them forward. Myanmar needs a lot of infrastructure and we would be keen to engage with the government in building the next generation of infrastructure projects. I think all of these will help bring in Indian investors and businesses.
Q: So what would you say is the biggest challenge is in the relationship between the two countries? For example, in terms of border security, crimes, illegal migrants, or something like that.
A: If you look at challenges along the border, and we share a very long border, 1,600 km, the problem of drug and human trafficking and illegal border crossing are certainly there. What is good is that we have mechanisms in place to handle these and there’s good cooperation between the border guard forces on both sides. We also have agreements in some areas in terms of laying down the procedures to handle these issues when they occur. I would say that these are things one would expect along a very long border such as this but it is not something that we would regard as an existential crisis for us. I said earlier that this is probably Myanmar’s most peaceful border and some of these activities I referred to do take place from time to time and both sides should exert to make sure that they are controlled and they are prevented. But in terms of talking about challenges, I would point to another challenge between India and Myanmar, and that is really to rediscover each other. We are two countries that are so close to each other and share so much of history, geography, literature, religion, tradition, culture, food and in the modern era, our collective experience with colonialism and the fight and struggle for independence. For some reason, particularly the long phase of isolation that Myanmar went through, I think we have lost some kind of contact with each other. We need to rediscover that contact and find again how close we really are and I think that can be done by intensifying people to people contact and trying to expand the areas of contact between stakeholders of our societies. I think if we are able to do that then all of the other challenges will become easier to address.
Q: Does the Indian government have a particular plan for bilateral relations between the two countries and how can the Indian government contribute to Myanmar’s transition process?
A: In terms of bilateral relations, our relationship with Myanmar has always had a strong development partnership content to it. It’s probably not a very well-known fact but our exposure in terms of development assistance to Myanmar is nearly US$ 1.75 billion. This is both by way of projects that are funded through grant assistance and projects financed through very generous lines of credit. There are a number of significant development projects that we are doing in Myanmar, such as the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, whose first two stages are complete with the port in Sittway built and the inland water terminal in Paletwa having been finished. We have just awarded the contract for the final stage which is the road to be built from Paletwa to a point called Zorinpui which is on the border with Mizoram. I think the creation of this transport corridor, once it is fully functioning, has the potential to transform the economic landscape in the States through which it goes, Rakhine and Chin. Perhaps it a coincidence but these are two of the most underdeveloped states in Myanmar so I think that the potential in development that this transport corridor will develop is immense because this will generate both direct and indirect jobs. But more importantly it provides some of these states such as Sagaing, Chin and Rakhine an alternative outlet for their export because from Sittway, Calcutta port is only 540 kilometers. I think this is one of the most significant projects that we are doing. We are also working on the trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand to contribute to the Asian Highway, and on that there are projects that are underway. We are repairing 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kalay road and also constructing the Kalaywa-Yagyi section of the highway. In Chin State which borders Mizoram in India, we are constructing a road that will connect Rhi on the border to the town of Tiddim. We are also appraising a number of other projects and I hope we can take them up. Under the lines of credit assistance, We are assisting two roads, one of which is built in Kachin State and another one in Rakhine State. We are also assisting agriculture, telecommunications, railways and other projects. In terms of bilateral relations, we are also trying to contribute to skill development in Myanmar. We have set up the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology in Mandalay and it is currently running both a diploma program as well as a five-year bachelor of engineering degree in IT. If it is professionally managed, I dare say it is an institute Myanmar would be proud of, not just as a national institution, but as an institution that can hold its own against the best of this entire region. There are institutes in the field of English instruction, IT and entrepreneurship that we have promoted and there are a number of other projects that we are taking up. So there is a very broad program of assistance to Myanmar that forms part of our bilateral relations program. We hope that by intervening in key areas such as the provision of health services, where there is a deficit to make up, and provision of education services, and intervening in the energy space, we can plug some of the gaps in this country and assist the economic transition that is underway in Myanmar.
Q: How optimistic are you now about the future of Myanmar?
A: I am very optimistic, I think that this country, one that is so rich not only in natural resources but especially in terms of human resources, has the possibility of starting in a sense from a clean slate and has the genius to benefit from its diversity and to resolve the difficulties that it currently has. I think the sky’s the limit for a country like this. I don’t discount the challenges but equally I think that the leadership of the country is aware of these challenges. Given the right amount of time and space, they will be able to surmount these challenges and take the country to join its rightful place in the comity of nations, as it deserves to.