Mizzima editor and producer Myo Thant recently interviewed the new Indian Ambassador to Myanmar H.E. Mr Saurabh Kumar. In light of the recent re-election of Indian PM Narendra Modi, we took the opportunity to take a look at Myanmar-India relations.
How do you view the current state of India-Myanmar relations?
First of all, let me thank Mizzima TV channel for giving me the opportunity to speak to it. India-Myanmar relations in the last couple of years have seen an upward movement. I think the relationship today is very good and it is at a new high.
How do you think India’s Act East Policy has helped improve relations?
Myanmar is the only country where India’s Act East Policy and Neighbourhood First policy intersect. As a consequence of the Act East Policy and the Neighbourhood First policy, the relationship between our two countries have grown. The high level contacts between our two countries in the last several years have contributed to the growth in our relationship. When I called on His Excellency the President of Myanmar after presenting our credentials, he directed me that this good momentum which the India-Myanmar relationship is seen should be maintained and the high level contacts that out two countries have seen in recent years, that momentum should be maintained.
I know that you are the new ambassador to Myanmar. What is your main objective here?
Well, again I would go back to my meeting with His Excellency the President of Myanmar. He told me that Myanmar looks upon itself as a land bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. So connectivity is a very important part of our relationship and when I say connectivity, it is not only a reference to physical connectivity but connectivity in the broadest possible sense, which includes physical connectivity, it includes trade and the economic relationship, it includes cultural contacts between our two countries, and most importantly people-to-people contacts between our countries. So I think all these elements of our relationship are very, very important and the Government of India looks upon building up these elements of relationship to strengthen our relationship and to take our friendship to a new height.
What would you say our India’s core interests in Myanmar?
The core interests as I just mentioned it is to build a very strong bilateral relationship between our two countries, which would be based on the elements I have just pointed out to you.
One exciting development is the opening up of communication on the India-Myanmar border and the moves to reduce travel restrictions. Can you tell us more about it?
This was a very major development which took place – Tamu-Moreh and the Sagaing and Manipur land border points between Myanmar and India, which means that anybody with a valid passport and a valid visa can move from Myanmar to India or vice versa. These are also places where trade can take place between the two countries. And when I refer to trade I am not referring to border trade but formal trade between the two countries. And, apart from this, it is important to note that our two countries for historical reasons, because we have people of the same ethnic groups staying on both sides of the boundary has what is called the “free movement regime” – so people who live within 16 kilometres of the boundary on either side are free to move across and the Government of India, as well as the Government of Myanmar, are putting in place some systems, some mechanisms to see that this movement of people is done in an orderly and organized manner.
We are likely to see an increase in trade on the border. How do you see this being rolled out?
Well, our trade has increased, in fact our trade is in the vicinity close to $2 billion, but the big challenge is both sides need to diversify this trade. The opening of the border points is important and we look forward to the growing use of these border points. We also look forward to trade moving from being informal trade, as it is just now, to being more formal trade and both our countries have to work towards this direction and infrastructure at these border crossing points has to be built up so that we could move in this direction.
What infrastructure are you going to build?
Well, on Tamu-Moreh border crossing point, an integrated checkpost has already been built by India but this is work in progress. The road connectivity and fibre optic connectivity still has to be completed. Similarly, we look forward to an integrated check which is being built on the Myanmar side also and we would be very happy to discuss and collaborate with the Myanmar side as far as this is concerned.
Similarly, I recently visited the Sagaing border crossing point and whilst trade is taking place there the infrastructure out there needs to be improved and we look forward to improving it on our side and talking to the Government of Myanmar so that we can collaborate for the improvement of infrastructure but on your side also.
So when you talk with our government, what is their response?
Well, your government is always very positive. There is, I think, a political understanding on both sides that we have to take these initiatives ahead, deepen our friendship and cooperation, maintain the momentum of high-level exchanges and work on these specific areas, which would further strengthen our ties.
How do you view the progress of the National League for Democracy-led government in Myanmar?
Well, as a diplomat, I would not comment on the performance of a government but let me say that Myanmar is doing very well. If you look at your growth figures, they have been very impressive, the projected growth figures are also very impressive, and a number of initiatives have been taken on the economic and commercial front to make the environment more easy and friendly for people in business but I also understand that a lot needs to be done and we wish the Myanmar government all the very best in the good work it is doing.
If you had the chance to offer advice to the Myanmar government, what would you like to advise in terms of the peace process?
I am not going to advise your government at all. I think the Myanmar government is intelligent enough to take steps and measures which are in the benefit of your country and I am sure your government would do that.
There has been criticism made about the Myanmar government has handled the Rakhine crisis. How do you view that?
Well, it is the job of critics to air their views. But governments take action, keeping in mind their national interests. And Rakhine, of course, is a complex issue. It has several dimensions, that is the security dimension, there is the development dimension, there is the human rights dimension, and I do hope that this process would move ahead in the right direction so that it is beneficial for all the players who are involved.
What is the Indian government’s policy on Rakhine refugees residing in India. What is your policy on this issue?
India has traditionally accepted people who have gone to India and have made India a home. So as far as the Rakhine issue is concerned, or the refugees, or rather let me not use the word refugees, people from this region who are there in India, have been staying out there, what we require of them is that they stay in India and do not fall on the wrong side of the Indian law during their stay in India. There have been cases, certain cases were brought against certain individuals for violating Indian law and these cases when to the judicial system in India and we have abided by what the highest court of the land conveyed to the government and we were very happy that we got cooperation and collaboration from the Myanmar Government as far as implementation of this decision was concerned.
I know that your government is helping in Rakhine State. Can you tell us about what you are doing to help in this state?
We would like, our approach is a forward looking approach where we would like the people who have moved from Myanmar to Bangladesh to return to Myanmar as per the bilateral agreement reached between Bangladesh and Myanmar. As far as India is concerned, we have taken several measures in northern Rakhine, as you are aware. We have built several hundred houses so that when this community comes back to Myanmar there is a place for stay for them. I know several other countries have also taken such measures. We have also been associating ourselves with the Rakhine government. We have provided tractors and agricultural equipment to the farming community. Certain computers and IT equipment has been provided to the IT university in Sittwe so the people can be trained and gainfully employed. We have undertaken some work for the upgradation of the general and the children’s hospital in Sittwe and our broad framework is that we have something like the Rakhine area development plan in which certain money has been put and they would be very happy to take more developmental cooperation programmes within the framework of this Memorandum of Understanding, which has been signed and new projects the Myanmar government wants for the betterment of the people of this region.
In know India is a diverse country. What would you like to see in terms of Myanmar’s diversity?
Myanmar itself is a very diverse country and we have had similar historical experience in the sense that British ruled us. And what I do feel is there is a lot for both of us to learn from each other and in terms of experience sharing. So some cooperation of this form has already started and we look forward to more dialogue, more exchange of views in the nature of experience sharing between our two countries.
Please explain to us what other projects you are involved in around our region.
We have a lot of good programmes and I say it is good because your government has been appreciative of this program which is for area development. We signed an MoU with the government of Myanmar and what we have done is in Chin State, in the border regions of Sagaing State particularly in the Naga Self-Administered area in both these region over fifty projects have been undertaken, fifty each in both these areas these are project which help the communities so there are construction of school building, roads, bridges and undertaking such activities local communities benefit.
In fact, when I visited Chin State recently I went to some of these projects particularly school buildings and bridges and I was told when I visited one of these bridges which I inaugurated along with officials from the Ministry of Border Affairs that construction of the bridge improved transportation to an extent that the price of rice which was very high in the region came down substantially. So, these are the kind of projects we are doing in the border area.
Apart from that as you know we are taking on some big infrastructure projects the Kaladan project strengthening of bridges. We have collaborated with your country in the IT sector in the setting up of training institutes which have been established and plan to establish and we have extended lines of credit in the agricultural sector in the railway and locomotive sector.
The agricultural sector I think is very important; one of the major developments has been that in Yezin Agricultural University (YAU), together we have developed a centre called the Advance Centre for Agriculture Research and Education (ACARE) and this is a state-of-the-art centre which could help Myanmar substantially as far as the agriculture sector is concerned.
Like your country, India is primarily an agrarian economy and if we can do well for our agricultural sector it will benefit our people as well as our country.
How do you view providing Myanmar students with education in India?
As far as the education sector is concerned, we are very happy to receive Myanmar students who have completed their undergraduate education and go to India for their post-graduate studies, but as far as undergraduate studies are concerned that is a problem because your schooling system and Indian schooling system are not compatible. I understand that the Myanmar side is working to reform and make you schooling system 10+2 once that is done there will be compatibility in our schooling system and it will help to take in more student from Myanmar to pursue undergraduate studies in India. But apart from that, we have something called the Hi-Tech programme under which a number of Myanmar officials go to India to enhance their capabilities in the work they are doing. Training in English, training in the IT sector, training in various technical institutes, financing etc., are some of the programmes we are running and we are very happy that a lot of our friends from Myanmar, from your different ministries are using this program and visiting India.
What are you doing to help Myanmar in the IT sector?
IT is an important sector and we have undertaken to have a specific project, in Mandalay we have the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology (MIIT).
I recommend you visit it, you could do a programme. This a state-of-the-art Institute with the latest equipment and programmes. Many students are joining the institute and benefitting from it. The setting up of the institute is still a work in progress but student are already benefitting.
Separately, in Yangon, some time ago, we established an institute called India-Myanmar Center for Enhancement of Information Technology Skills (IMCEITS) which is running very well.
Another institute was planned in Myitkyina for which we are waiting for the building and then we will be bringing in the equipment so that IT training can start there.
But apart from this, a lot of friends from Myanmar are going to India for training in the IT sector. In IMCEITS Institute I have an idea which has been discussed it is a good institute I think and apart from the students studying out there the Myanmar side could consider send people from other institutes like Myanmar Institute of Information Technology at Mandalay to improve their skills.
The institute has the capacity and has professors from both Myanmar and India and we should try to think of ideas as to how most effectively we can use the institute because the potential of this institute is tremendous.
Are there any scholarship programmes available to study in Indian universities?
Yes, we have what we call the ICCR scholarships. The program is utilised at the post-graduate level not at the undergraduate level.
How do you view the future of India-Myanmar relations?
Well I am an optimist and historically our two countries have been very close. We have civilization ties, movement of people between our two countries. Every friend I meet in your country says they want to go to Bodhgaya and I think the border crossing will make it easier for people to go Bodhgaya. So, I am very positive and optimistic about our relationship. As I said the Government of India is committed to further strengthening, deepening our relationship and friendship and Myanmar is the only country where two of our major foreign policy initiatives which is Neighbourhood First and Act East Policy needs and I look forward to our relationship growing and blooming in the future.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Well keep coming and interviewing me and I look forward to a very friendly relationship with Mizzima and with the press and media in Myanmar in general. The press of course plays a very important role in any country. It is through you that we are able to communicate with the people at large. I have been here for four months in your beautiful country. I think the most remarkable thing about your country is the bond and friendship of you people and their smiling appearance it is so wonderful one feels very welcome and I look forward to having a nice stay in your country.