India’s ambassador for Myanmar, Shri Saurabh Kumar, exuded confidence on ‘enhancing bilateral relations between both the countries to new heights’ as the deeper engagements of recent years between both the countries has already started yielding results.
Addressing a gathering at Myanmar’s premier foreign policy think tank, Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, (MISIS) on Tuesday, the Ambassador pointed out, “ In the coming years, with India’s ambitious ‘Act East’ foreign policy, there is going to be a qualitative enhancement of relations between India and Myanmar. This would be realized not only through government to government efforts, but also through a sustained people’s awareness, promotion of investment and partnerships with the private sector, businesses and people; both countries need to work together and learn about each other.
Delivering an invited talk to the august gathering of policy analysts, former diplomats and faculty of MISIS, Shri Saurabh Kumar provided an exhaustive presentation on the contemporary situation on relations between both the countries, issues and challenges and the future perspective.
With over 1,600 KMs of shared border, Myanmar is the first stop for India’s Act East Policy as well as its neighbourhood first policy. India’s focus on Indo-Pacific, as recently articulated by its foreign Minister is also seen as ‘logical step of further exploration, beyond Look and Act East policy and break out from the confines of South Asia’.
It is from this vantage that there is a growing realization at New Delhi level to accord significant focus on Indo-Myanmar relations. This has also been reflected in the fact that there have been Heads of Government level visits between both countries almost every year during the past few years, expanding the areas of cooperation between the two countries. People to people and political party visits also reflect the growing all-round interest in both countries.
India’s Ambassador during the talk provided an exhaustive account of India-Myanmar relations touching upon a wide range of issues starting from a bilateral diplomatic relationship, trade and commerce, development cooperation, defence cooperation, cultural linkages and people to people contact.
Highlighting the importance of connectivity, he pointed out that ‘it symbolizes the core of the relationship between the two countries. Outlining the current projects in terms of improving road connectivity, Ambassador acknowledged the delays in execution of some of the projects and implementation of agreements due to various extraneous reasons and pointed out that both countries have to work towards resolving them and putting in place a robust mechanism of speedy execution of connectivity projects. Improving air connectivity is also on the horizon as private airlines from India are exploring services to Yangon and both the government are also working on developing air connectivity between the North Eastern States of India and Myanmar.
Identifying sub-optimal performance vis a vis trade and investment, he pointed out that there is tremendous potential to expand the same. On this front again, there is a need to ease the regulation, especially on operational ease for the Indian Banking system to work more intensely in Myanmar so that investments from India can go up. Currently, some of the Indian companies are using the Singapore route to channelize investments into Myanmar, and they do not figure as Indian investment. India’s Ministry of Commerce is working on identifying sectors and ways of enhancing trade between the two countries. He also stressed that Myanmar can do more in terms of attracting Indian investments from the private sector by organizing investment promotion events in different cities of India showcasing the policies, incentives and potential for investment in Myanmar. The LDC status of Myanmar can also be an advantage for Indian companies to benefit from, by having manufacturing base in Myanmar. Identifying the potential of the nascent India-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce as a networking body that can forge partnerships between Indian and Myanmar private sector players, he pointed out that more interactions with various ministries of Myanmar Government would help in understanding the policy regime, schemes and incentives proposed by the government. Indian companies have presence currently in sectors like pharma, agro machinery, IT and there is potential for investment in tourism, hydrocarbons and electricity sectors, which can generate significant employment in Myanmar.
Outlining an exhaustive account of development cooperation support of India to Myanmar, the Ambassador pointed out that the current assistance can be complimented with private sector investment as well as concessional borrowings so that Myanmar can improve human and social development of its people. India’s line of credit offer to Myanmar can be used by the government in a more effective way. There are several development projects being implemented with the support of India and they are going to provide significant growth to the local economy of different states and regions. The border area development projects in Sagaing and Chin states are of particular importance as they enhance border trade as well. While acknowledging the slow progress of some of the projects, the Ambassador pointed out that efforts are on to work more closely with the relevant union level ministries of the Myanmar government to ease the difficulties in implementation. India’s support to government of Myanmar in addressing Rakhine crisis and repatriation process also important as it is the commitment of India to see that a meaningful resolution is reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Outlining various social development projects, Ambassador especially highlighted India’s contribution in terms of improving human resource capacities as well as support in sectors like IT, industrial training, finance, language development and scholarships for higher education in India. Training and capacity building of various government functionaries, judicial service personnel, police, election commission, parliamentarians are some of the areas that India identified as a significant support to Myanmar. Various initiatives have been taken in these areas. Similarly, special focus is also on Defence cooperation between India and Myanmar with recent signing of MoU on it and various initiatives like training support, equipment supply (purchase) and capacity building of personnel have been undertaken in recent years.
The historical connectivity of India and Myanmar through cultural linkages and diaspora have been touched upon by the Ambassador during his talk. He pointed out the scope for further collaboration in terms of restoration of Buddhist heritage in Myanmar. India Cultural Centre is going to be opened in Yangon soon which would undertake various outreach initiatives to promote Indian culture, art forms and Yoga so that citizens of Myanmar would be able to appreciate and take part in Indian cultural programs. Similarly easing people to people movement in terms of visa facilitation, air and road connectivity, academic exchanges, would also be areas to be addressed more concertedly in the coming years.
Identifying way forward, for deepening the relationship between two countries, Ambassador Shri Saurabh Kumar pointed out the need for enhancing cooperation in infrastructure, connectivity, awareness about opportunities in each country and greater engagement of businesses as key areas to work on. Disaster risk reduction and early warning system is another potential area that India can provide significant support to Myanmar. India has invited Myanmar formally join as a founding member of Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), which aims to combat the effects of climate change and resulting disasters, which will be formally established at the UN Climate Summit on 23 Sept 2019. CDRI is an initiative of India, with the global partnership of national governments, UN agencies, multilateral development banks, the private sector and academic institutions that aim to promote resilience of infrastructure systems to climate change and disaster risks.
Innovative ways of working and speedy completion of ongoing road connectivity projects are important so that benefits can be reaped by the border regions. Awareness about opportunities in both the countries to their respective citizens is important and this can be done through media and other forms of outreach. Given the paucity of coverage of news about India in Myanmar and vice versa, there has to be a concerted effort in bringing out development news, government policies, trade, tourism and other opportunities so that it would enhance awareness among the public and also investment and trade opportunities. Both governments, citizens and media can take steps in this direction.
Following the presentation of Ambassador Shri Saurabh Kumar, there was a lively discussion and suggestions on how to improve relations between India and Myanmar. Participants recalled the historically close relationship between the leadership of India and Myanmar dating back to 1970s, the need for a more humane and people-centric approach to the diplomatic relationship as a way forward. Similarly, there are other interesting areas of cooperation identified in terms of promoting traditional medicine, Ayurveda, Indian food, Indian movies, art forms, reviving textile heritage like ‘Pulicat Lungyi’ and etc.
As an influential foreign policy think tank, MISIS is at a strategic position to contribute to this agenda of strengthening the relationship between India and Myanmar, which would bring all-round development to Myanmar society.