As India-Myanmar relations continue to improve, Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint sat down with Indian Ambassador Vikram Misri to discuss relations, the improvement and challenges in trade, and the geopolitical changes in the region.
The interview was made for publication online, in print and on Mizzima TV.
I would like to start with India’s Act East Policy. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been seeking to promote this policy. How is this going?
Well, as you pointed out, the Prime Minister has placed a lot of emphasis on the Act East Policy. It was he in fact who in a sense sought to infuse new spirit and dynamism into what was until then known as the Look East Policy and I think it is not just a renaming that he has done, I think he has brought a lot of personal energy and just the amount of attention he has managed to focus on this in a government-wide kind of initiative is impressive. It has energized all of us to redouble our efforts in building up our Act East Policy, which of course comprises the individual relationships with the 10 ASEAN countries and our relationship with the ASEAN as an organization.
What you will have seen and I can speak much more directly to is the relationship with Myanmar itself and in the short time that I have been here, I have seen the increased levels of attention and focus that are being given to developing this relationship. You would be aware that there are a number of projects in infrastructure and in other areas that are part of our partnership with Myanmar. For various reasons, these had encountered difficulties in terms of execution over the recent years, but in the last few years we have seen that through a lot of energy and application that has been brought by the Act East Policy, many of the obstacles that were being encountered earlier are being removed and systems within our own government are being reformed in order to pursue the policy more effectively.
One very important factor in making a success out of our Act East Policy is for us to focus a lot more on our own northeast because the northeast is our window, or our doorway in a sense to Myanmar, which is the only ASEAN country with whom we share a land border and therefore is a key partner in the Act East Policy. Prime Minister Modi has brought a lot of attention and a lot of focus on developing the northeast. The number of policies that have been announced and the amount of investment that has actually now been put on the ground in developing infrastructure throughout the northeast is an indicator of how important he thinks the development of the northeast is to developing our relationship with the ASEAN countries. So I think that is another way in which the Act East Policy has been developing and of course there is a happy coincidence that with the political and economic transition underway in Myanmar, this will only add greater dynamism to the Act East Policy and this has already been reflected in the multiple high level visits that have taken place in the last couple of years between the two countries where the further development of our Act East Policy has been discussed.
You mentioned about the challenges that were there in the past. How open is the Myanmar government to engagement with India in tackling such challenges?
Oh, they’re very open. I have received excellent cooperation from all agencies and all arms of the government of Myanmar. Most of the work that we do is with the Ministry of Construction, as also from time to time with the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Planning and Finance, Labour, Immigration and Population, but most of it, the bulk I should say, is with the Ministry of Construction because of the various construction projects that we are undertaking and I have received very, very good cooperation from the leaders of this ministry, both from the previous minister and the new minister who has taken office.
We have, right now, a number of projects that are underway simultaneously in different parts of the country. Construction work or mobilization work is underway on three separate projects, on the Kaladan Project Road from Paletwa to Zorinpui, on the Tamu-Kalewa-Kyigone sector bridges – there are 69 bridges that we are rebuilding - and on the Kalewa-Yargyi section. There are three different companies that are working on this. It involves an enormous amount of coordination across various agencies of the government because there are at least 15 or 20 different branches of government that are involved in it at the union level, then at the state level also, both in Chin as well as in Sagaing. These state governments and state authorities are also at work. And I am very grateful in fact to the Minister of Construction for agreeing to a mechanism whereby at regular intervals, at monthly intervals if necessary, we hold a coordination meeting where everyone brings their issues to the table and we try and find solutions.
I must add that executing these projects is challenging not because of the attitude of people involved. I think it is partly challenging on account of the difficult terrain in which we are doing the work and some of the factors beyond our immediate control that operate in that terrain but also I would say to a certain extent the very fact that this is still a government in transition. In many ways, the leadership of the government has not been - I am talking at the ministerial level – all too familiar with the kind of work that we have been doing in all cases. In some cases, at the level of officials too, people aren’t familiar with full details of the projects we are doing. So sometimes we have to expend a certain amount of effort in convincing the leadership about the value of a particular project and the manner in which we are going about it.
But I think once that is done, we have made good progress and we are now well on our way to executing these projects and I think that a certain relationship has been built between all the agencies on the Myanmar side and the executing and consulting agencies on the Indian side where they are able to talk to each other and resolve their issues. So I am very, very hopeful that we will be able to complete all these projects within the estimated date of construction.
What are your hopes in terms of India and Myanmar business and trade in the coming years? Where is there room for improvement?
I think there is enormous scope for India Myanmar business and trade relations to pick up. Let me begin with the challenges that I see right now. First is the fact that the trade basket on either side, particularly so on the Myanmar side, is not a very diversified basket. That leaves the Myanmar economy open to systemic shocks that might come from time to time. So one thing that we need to do is to diversify the basket and if there are issues within Myanmar in terms of developing capacity in a particular manufacturing sector, we are ready to help with that. One example that I can give you is the textile sector, which is a sector that has a lot of potential in Myanmar and we have certain important parts of the textile value chain that emanate in India and there could be a lot of investment from India in Myanmar in the textile sector. The problem of capacity is being addressed by the fact that we have just made some proposals to the government of Myanmar in capacity building in the textile sector. So that is one sector in which we can invest and if there is a challenge of capacity, we can address that.
I think the other challenge is the systems that are still in operation in Myanmar which are not fully in line with modern up to date internationally used systems in the banking arena, in the finance arena, in the insurance arena. I think that as the system starts getting used to that, as Myanmar adopts more modern methods of business, these challenges will slowly start getting addressed and more business will be possible.
A third set of challenges is associated with infrastructure issues. In so far as trade across our land borders is concerned, it is not just the basic infrastructure that is necessary in terms of roads and bridges and ports, etc., but also border infrastructure in terms of warehouses, logistics, integrated check posts, customs, immigration, quarantine, cold-storage, etc. All these facilities being available and services being available under one roof is important. This is still a challenge. In terms of connectivity, I think the big problem is still the unsatisfactory level of connectivity in the aviation sector. So if we are able to address some of these challenges, I think the potential is enormous. I say this because there is a natural linkage between our two countries and our two peoples. There are a lot of demands within Myanmar today which can be fulfilled by Indian providers of services as well as goods and I think our systems are complementary enough for many of the capacity shortages in Myanmar to be addressed with technical assistance from India. We are seeing this for example in the two industrial training centres that we have already set up here. They have proved their worth and the government of Myanmar has asked us to build more industrial training centres of the same kind. So we have two industrial training centres already functioning in Pakokku and Myingyan and we have now been asked to set up two more in Monywa and Thaton and we are very close to signing agreements to build those industrial training centres. So we have critical capacities in certain key sectors that are required in Myanmar and I think we can contribute and that in turn will lead to more business opportunities being created.
In terms of sectors where there is promise, I would say that certainly the agriculture, agro-processing, agricultural technology sector is a very promising one. We have an enormous amount of experience in this sector and I think Myanmar has great potential. It was of course at one time a superpower in rice and I think it has the potential and its farmers and people have the genius to regain that position of becoming a superpower not just in the rice sector but in the broader agricultural sector as a whole and here again we are trying to assist through the setting up of institutions such as the Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education that has been set up in Nay Pyi Taw.
Beyond this, I think IT, in which our skills and capacities are well known, education, pharmaceuticals and healthcare are important sectors. In healthcare, we can deliver world class services to people in Myanmar at a fraction of the cost that it would take to access these services in other parts of the world or even in other ASEAN countries, almost by a factor of two or three.
One last sector in which I would say there is enormous potential is infrastructure, power and energy because we have been dueling with these problems for a very long time and we have now gained an enormous amount of experience and expertise in handling these. Given the fact that our two situations are not very different - Myanmar is at a stage where we were maybe 20 or 30 years ago - and therefore many problems are the same and by cooperating and working together with us, I think Myanmar can avoid a lot of the mistakes others made and can leapfrog stages of technology and we would be very happy to work with it.
A few days ago, there was the India Education Fair 2018 in Yangon. How did this go and how much interest are Myanmar students showing in getting educated in India?
I myself had another commitment so I was not able to attend the fair but I saw a report about it and I was told that it was very successful and a large number of people attended the fair. This is the fifth time that this fair has been held in Yangon and that itself testifies to the fact that there is a lot of interest in the idea of India being an education service provider in Myanmar. Again, I think because of our cultural complementarities and our social complementarities, education is an area that is full of promise for cooperation between our two countries. I think what stands in the way of probably more enhanced and expanded education cooperation is the disconnect between our two education systems right now whereby in Myanmar you only have KG plus 10 years of formal schooling before you are ready to join an undergraduate course at university, whereas in India you need to have KG plus 12 before you can join an undergraduate course. The private universities in India are able to work around this system by planning for bridge courses and certain intermediate course and then admit the students, but the public universities are not yet able to do this. If our public universities are to offer more opportunities to Myanmar students, then the systems will have to come in line, because what would happen then is that an enormous amount of scholarships that are offered by the Government of India to students from friendly countries and from partner countries would then open up to Myanmar as well and I am talking about hundreds of scholarships, not just tens and twenties but hundreds of scholarships that can be offered at the undergraduate level.
I would hope and I am very happy to learn that Myanmar is actually going forward in the direction of a 10 plus 2 system and I think once that happens, we will be able at a government to government level to offer a large number of undergraduate level scholarships too. But even outside of that, I think in the technical education sector, there are, as well as the health education sector, enormous opportunities for people to learn in India. We have some of the best technical training and medical training institutes in the region and I think even if a person has to pay for joining these, it is well worth the investment. Going forward, I see education as one of the most promising sectors for cooperation. I also point to the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology, which has been set up in Mandalay and which is easily one of the most outstanding IT universities in the country and is making its presence felt in that sector.
I would like to touch on some of the regional issues. There has been a great deal of discussion about China’s One Belt One Road or Belt and Road Initiative. Where does New Delhi stand on this?
Well, our position on the Initiative has been stated publicly by our spokespersons in the past. Broadly speaking, we have maintained that initiatives such as these, which are broad ranging with impact that is going to be felt not just five or 10 years but 40 to 50 years hence need to be consultative and inclusive initiatives. They cannot be unilateral, they cannot be unidirectional or one-sided kind of initiatives. All the affected parties must form part of the discussions from day one rather than have some kind of prepared or precooked blueprint imposed on them according to which they have to then take steps.
We also feel that when it comes to such development projects – and I am not making a comment on how others do this kind of infrastructure development but we do have our own philosophy with regard to development projects, because we are also a not inconsiderable supplier and provider of infrastructure facilities to countries in our neighbourhood and beyond in places like Africa – we feel that infrastructure development must be first of all aligned with the priorities of the receiving country. It must serve the priorities of the people of that country, it must be transparent in terms of its governance principles and it must respect rule of law. For example, in things like procurement, people must be clear as to how the numbers around a project have been arrived at. It must also be sensitive to the environmental and social impact of these projects. Such projects must also result in transfers of skills and technologies to the local communities and they must not be done on a purely extractive basis. Most importantly, projects such as these should not constitute eventually an unsustainable financial burden on the people or government of that country. So we would want to be part of any initiative that reflects these principles and I think we would have wanted to have a discussion about the initiative that you mentioned but I don’t think that we have been able to have that discussion.
One last point that I should underline for the benefit of your viewers and this is something that we made clear in our public statement as well with regard to One Belt One Road is that certain aspects, certain components of One Belt One Road which are located in other countries also happen to pass through Indian territory that is under illegal occupation of a third country and I don’t think any country would look very calmly at being engaged in a project that does not respect its own sovereignty. So I think these are issues that are in our mind around this initiative. I would say again for the benefit of your viewers that there are alternative multi-country initiatives that have been taken. Take something like BCIM for example. It is also a four country mechanism but what sets it apart is that the four countries concerned are participating in it as equal partners and there is a consultative process. Right now, it has not risen to the level of formal inter-governmental negotiations because there are expert groups and track 2 and track 1.5 dialogues that are being conducted by each country on different aspects of this programme but fundamentally it is a consultative process. Nobody has a veto, nobody is coming and imposing their will and saying this is how this project will be done and how it will be financed. We are all going to sit around a table eventually at some point in the future and decide how we are going to do these projects. That I think is an example of the manner in which these kinds of projects should be carried out.
It is not a “Great Game” but there does appear to be a struggle for influence in Myanmar that involves China, India and the United States. How do you view this?
No, I would not go so far as to call it a great game. I think that any country has the right to, keeping in mind its own national interests, to engage international partners on issues of interest to it and similarly any country, whether it is in the region or beyond the region has I think the right but also the responsibility to engage with another country keeping in mind the principles of mutual benefit and cooperation. I think the countries that you have named can have different kinds of interests when it comes to Myanmar, but it is equally important to focus on the fact that they can also have common interests. And I think in our engagement of Myanmar, we would benefit by focusing on these common interests and those common interests are peace, prosperity and stability in the country. Whatever our narrow interests may be, I do not think anybody can disagree that these are not in the interest of Myanmar. Peace is in the interest of Myanmar, prosperity is in the interest of Myanmar, stability is in the interest of Myanmar and anything that China, the United States, India, the European Union, Australia, anything that any of these actors can do towards these should be done and we should work, to the extent that it is possible, together in helping Myanmar to emerge from the current phase that it is going through, which is a difficult and challenging phase in its political transition, its economic transition, its security transition, and try and see that its people can look forward to a better future.
There will always be competition on certain grounds, there may be commercial competition, there may be other kinds of competition, but I think the balance has to be found in the interests of the country concerned. I don’t think that any of us can go home happy saying that we have gained our interests in Myanmar. If the overall health of the Myanmar nation suffers in the process, I don’t think that is acceptable, at least from our perspective.
India has been supporting Myanmar’s democracy for many years, State Councillor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself lived and studied in India and has many friends and supporters in India. How do you view the current stage of Myanmar’s democratization which is currently under the government led by the National League for Democracy?
Well, as I have said earlier, we greatly welcomed the holding of elections in 2015 and the emergence of the NLD government under the leadership of Her Excellency Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. We have been looking forward to this for many years. It is also clear that these kinds of processes are very often very challenging and they would have been challenging even without the other complications that have taken place in the last two years that the government has been in power. So I don’t think we underestimate the complexity and the difficulty that is inherent in the task of moving forward with a democratic form of government after 50 years of spending life in a very different set-up. So this would have been very difficult from the beginning and we’re seeing the manifestations of these difficulties in different ways. However, I don’t think the answer is in backsliding. The answer to problems of democracy or less democracy is more democracy and I think the leadership of the party, not only the NLD but the other political parties also, has to keep their faith with democracy and democratic means of governance. That is the only way in which the full talents of all the people of Myanmar can be deployed in the service of the country.
We don’t discount or we don’t underestimate the problems that are still there in Myanmar. The peace process is something that is a very big political issue for the leadership of the country and for democracy to really flower in this country. It is important that peace reigns in all parts of the country and I think that is something on which we need to support the government. We are doing everything that we can in our power to support the NLD government in that process. Economic success plays its own role in sustaining the government and there as well everything that we can do we are ready to do in helping the government come out of the state-controlled method of running the economy towards a more free market orientation of its economy. I think that the problems that are being faced by the government right now are also in many senses legacy problems. They will not go away overnight and anyone who thought that this would be smooth sailing from day one does not know the first thing about how to run a government, much less a democratic government. But I think that the only answer is to remain faithful to the basic precepts of democratic governance, to rule of law, to transparency, to pluralism, to respect for institutions such as the judiciary, free media, civil society organisations. I think if that is there, I have no doubt that despite the difficulties that Myanmar is facing at the moment, it will stay on its path and emerge as a successful democratic country.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you and also the embassy for your support to the Memorandum of Understanding that Mizzima TV will sign in the near future with Prasar Bharati. I think this will be the first concrete cooperation between the broadcasters in the two countries. Is there anything you would like to say on this?
I would only like to add that I am myself am very happy that the Mizzima Group is going to be moving forward with this initiative. I think that the opportunity it provides for technical cooperation and an exchange of experiences and expertise is going to be very, very worthwhile and let me also take this opportunity to congratulate you personally on the launch of Mizzima TV. It is a wonderful initiative and you fully deserve this success. In many ways, you are amongst the deans of free media in Myanmar. You have a long, long record and history and background of promoting free media when it was under attack and it didn’t have the freedoms that it has today. So congratulations for keeping the faith, keeping the flame alive, and best of luck with all your new endeavours, especially with Mizzima TV.
Is there anything you would like to say to our viewers?
Well, just that, as perhaps some of the viewers have been able to hear, this appears to be the first day of the monsoon and we are all looking forward to the water festival. I would like to wish all of your viewers a very, very happy New Year and Water Festival. I hope that the New Year is full of joy and peace and prosperity for all of you and for all the people of Myanmar, whether they are living here or living overseas.
As India-Myanmar relations continue to improve, Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint sat down with Indian Ambassador Vikram Misri to discuss relations, the improvement and challenges in trade, and the geopolitical changes in the region.