The two-day conference on "India-Myanmar Relations: The Way Forward", jointly organised by the Calcutta-based Institute of Social and Cultural Studies (ISCS) and Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS) with Mizzima Media Group as media partner, began at the Pan Pacific Yangon Hotel in Yangon on Friday, 10 November 2017.
In the inaugural session, Indian ambassador to Myanmar Vikram Misri pitched for "very close cooperation" between the security forces of India and Myanmar to meet emerging threats in the region. "Our security forces must work closely to deny any space to extremist groups who threaten our nations," Mr Misri said at the opening of the conference on "India-Myanmar Relations: The Way Forward". Mr Misri said India is ready to help Myanmar in “all possible ways" in areas of peace-making, national reconciliation and economic development. "It is very important for Myanmar to make a success of its peace processes and in that, there are a few lessons India has to offer, because we resolved quite a few of our ethnic insurgencies, especially in the Northeast which borders on Myanmar," he said.
Later, addressing the inaugural session, the Chief Minister of India's Manipur state Mr N Biren Singh pitched for closer relations with Myanmar.
"In my state, they say we will be prosperous if our eastern gates open. The eastern gates of Manipur can only open to India," Mr Biren Singh, who belongs to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party, said. He detailed the considerable resources base of Northeast India and the neighbouring regions of Myanmar. "But these resources can only be utilised if our road infrastructure is developed and market centres are set up in important places on the Myanmar-India border," the chief minister said.
"Barter trade on our border has been abolished, but we need a boost to border trade, for which the Moreh-Tamu corridor can be utilised. However, the infrastructure there should be modernised, and a new township created near Moreh," Mr Biren Singh said. For boosting bilateral trade, he suggested setting up quality testing labs and banking infrastructure on the border and visa-on-arrival facilities for traders and medical patients.
Mr Biren Singh asked for easing regulations to facilitate cross-border investments between border regions of India and Myanmar. Myanmar’s Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs has said the country's relations with India is "constantly improving".
Myanmar foreign ministry's permanent secretary U Kyaw Zeya said bilateral trade has gone up several times from 323 million US dollars in 1998 to 2.65 billion US dollars last year. "This has scope to improve more once more items are brought into the list and once border trade improves," U Kyaw Zeya said. He noted the rise in scholarships offered by India to students from Myanmar which have now gone up to more than 500. "Nothing pleases me more than to see Myanmar students go to India, which is great," he said. U Kyaw Zeya stressed the importance of "peace on our borders", emphasizing the need for cooperation on security issues between the two countries.
Indian Buddhism scholar Suchandra Ghosh said on Friday the flow of populations between India and Myanmar is linked to the shared Buddhist culture prevalent in its border regions. Prof Ghosh said: " The study of Buddhism in this region is not just a look back to the past but holds the key to developing people-to-people contacts between the two countries."
She said the Buddhism of the Harikela region stretches to Lower Myanmar and Arakan (now Rakhine) links to what is now Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar region and Tripiura, where the Pilak stupa holds testimony to the civilisation of that period. "The potential for people-to-people contact now is linked to our shared historical heritage of Buddhism," she said.
Later, Indian Buddhism scholar Mrinal Kanti Chakma said India-Myanmar Buddhist contact is as old as the Buddha. "Buddhism represents a two-way wave of cultural communications between India and Myanmar," Prof Chakma, himself a Buddhist from Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, said.
"The exchange in the post-colonial era has been substantial, like Vipassana got transmitted to India, the place of its origin, back from Myanmar," said Mr Chakma. "Now not only India but the West has taken to meditation in a big way."
He said millions of Buddhist pilgrims from ASEAN countries including Myanmar visit Indian Buddhist sites and some contribute to temples and facilities in these sites like Bodh Gaya . "But since foreigners cannot create trusts in India, they have to go through locals, some of whom undermine the interests of the donors," Mr Chakma said, adding that the Indian government must look into the problems of these pilgrims at Indian Buddhist sites," he said. "These problems are not huge and can be solved with some effort, but they must be solved before they become a problem," he said.
Mr Chakma insisted that foreign Buddhist organisations must be allowed to form trusts to build and maintain temples in Bodh Gaya and other places in India which hold significance for Buddhism. "Some Buddhist trusts have been heavily taxed, but this is awful because they are not profit-making organisations," Mr Chakma said, adding that many Buddhists from Southeast Asia including Myanmar want to create a peace and harmony village at Buddhist sites in India . "I appeal to the Indian government to help create such a village and also set up a directorate of Buddhist sites to handle such facilities."
Former Minister and peace negotiator U Aung Min stressed the need to contain trans-border insurgencies. He said both India and Myanmar have a common interest in restoring peace in their border region so that they no longer remain zones of conflict but become areas of development. "We have to contain their insurgencies not only for us but also for India," he said.
Former President U Ko Ko Hlaing detailed the arms and drugs smuggling networks active on the India-Myanmar border and stressed the need for a joint effort to tackle them. He also said that the roaring contraband trade between the two countries not only harms the national interest because of loss to government revenues but also because rebels and terrorists use the contraband trade profits for arming themselves.
India's former secretary (R) of cabinet secretariat Rajinder Khanna detailed the Pakistani involvement in the latest phase of insurgency in Rakhine spearheaded by the so-called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). "We have monitored the slow rise of this insurgency under the active sponsorship of Pakistan's ISI military intelligence agency and this calls for joint efforts to tackle this new jihad in the Rakhine," he said. Khanna and later Indian journalist Subir Bhaumik called for real-time intelligence sharing to tackle ARSA.
In the last session, scholars discussed ways to develop people-to-people contact between the two countries.
The speakers of the last session included Dr Chaw Chaw Sein, professor and head of department, international relations department of Yangon University, Ms Keka Banerjee Adhikari, curator from The Asiatic Society, Kolkata and they recommended closer and regular exchange programmes between academics and researchers between the two countries, active cooperation in restoring and maintaining the historical records and cultural and linguistic events of both countries.