Indian ambassador talks trade, connectivity, and the ‘dignity’ of the Myanmar election

26 January 2016
Indian ambassador talks trade, connectivity, and the ‘dignity’ of the Myanmar election
Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

Today, 26 January, is the 67th Republic Day of India. H.E. Mr. Gautam Mukhopadhaya, Ambassador of India to Myanmar, talked to Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint about a range of issues including Indian-Myanmar relations, the Act East Policy, the potential for improved trade and investment between the two countries and his positive view of the Myanmar elections.
Mizzima: I would like to start with a question about PM Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy. What does this mean for India’s neighbours, particularly Myanmar?
The foundations for Look East and Act East are the same, in the sense of the priority and importance that we give to our relations with East Asia, including Southeast Asia, in terms of culture and economy, and other related areas. But the primary difference between the two, is one of action and implementation. It is about implementation of projects which we have already committed to in an efficient manner. And secondly, in terms of energy. Prime Minister Modi has displayed an extraordinary energy in conducting his Act East Policy. During the last one and a half years, we have seen visits, high level visits, state-level visits, between China and Japan, and the Prime Minister has visited Mongolia, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, two East Asia-ASEAN summits including one in Myanmar and one recently in Kuala Lumpur. And, at another level, interactions within ASEAN mechanisms as a dialogue partner have been going on.
Our Foreign Minister has also been active visiting several countries. The leaders of Vietnam, Australia, many countries, have also visited India. So, we are seeing a lot of energy and action in our Act East Policy and I think that is the primary difference [between Look East and Act East].
As far as what it means for Myanmar. Myanmar lies at the intersection of two of the Prime Minister’s policy directives. One is our Neighbourhood First Policy as a neighbour, and as neighbours that have slightly forgotten each for some decades now. With the Neighbourhood First Policy, the basic idea is that the countries of the region and India will prosper together. If India has a growing economy, neighbouring countries should also prosper. And the prosperity of our neighbours cannot be separated from our own prosperity. If our neighbours are not doing well, it is not possible for us to do well, so they are essentially correlated.
The second feature, of course, is that Myanmar is virtually the gateway and I would say the launching pad of our Act East Policy. Myanmar is important forus in itself as a neighbour, as a big neighbour, as an important country historically for India, geographically and politically, but also because it is our transit point to the rest of the Greater Mekong Region. And this is both from the landward side as well as from the seaward side. Some of the ports of Myanmar could also be a launching point for the Greater Mekong Region.
In terms of Indian investors, when Myanmar opened up in 2010-2011, what are the barriers or hurdles for Indian investors coming to Myanmar?
I think in terms of concerns, I would not go so far as to say there are concerns. I think the basic factor you need to take into account is starting in the 1960s when Myanmar nationalised, a lot of Indian business was forced to leave, and a little bit of the memory of that is there. But I think there are three big impediments. First is the information gap. There is lack of information about the Indian economy and Indian business in Myanmar. And likewise there is a lack of information about the opportunities for investment and business in Myanmar in India. That includes both the real situation as well as misconceptions including the status of [international] sanctions, which to some extent still impact. The second is banking, and in a way banking is related to the point I just mentioned. Lack of banking channels do inhibit to some extent our investment, both in trade financing and investment financing.
The third I would say is a lack of air connectivity. I think with greater air connectivity, with greater familiarity, a lot of these gaps would be addressed.
The last point I would mention is that the opening up we are talking about is only over the last three to five years, under the present government. Given this background that I have mentioned, unlike with other countries that have been closely engaged with Myanmar even during this period, other neighbours of Myanmar, we were slightly disengaged.
So now we are at the bottom of the curve, and what we can expect to see in the next ten years is a very sharp upward movement both in our trade and investment. So I would not be pessimistic and [the fact that] current levels of trade and investment are not amongst the highest does not worry me. As we see a lot of our connectivity projects come through, we will see a very sharp growth in our trade and investment, and also our economy is also growing at a fast rate. We are the fastest growing large economy in the world. The ripple effects will also be felt in its immediate neighbourhood like Myanmar.
 When you mentioned low connectivity, what about the connectivity across the border and the sea route? Because I think there are issues concerning this connectivity, especially between Myanmar and India?
One problem with connectivity is that the logistical lines between the main industrial or economically dynamic regions of India and Myanmar are a bit distant. They are not as close as many other neighbours. But, as you know, we have been working for several years, and once again under Prime Minister Modi this has got a new impetus and momentum. We are working to improve the connectivity in the northeast and between the northeast and Myanmar.
We have two major projects, and two smaller projects linked with the major projects, on surface connectivity. You probably know there is the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Transit Project and the Trilateral Highway where we are contributing together with Thailand and Myanmar building road connectivity between the northeast of India and Thailand and beyond Thailand to the rest of the Greater Mekong Region.
Now the Kaladan project is fairly advanced. By the middle of the year, both the Sittwe Port will have been upgraded for capacity, and the navigational channel up to Paletwa will be ready, a state-of-the art jetty in will be ready in Paletwa. This will augment the economic potential and the trade potential, and the shipping potential. The road component of the project will also commence within this year.
We will also commence construction work on the Trilateral Highway within the course of this year. We will begin implementing the project, but that also includes two smaller projects, the upgradation of 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kalay-Kaleywaroad which we have already constructed in 2001. That will start hopefully before the middle of this year, or immediately after the rains, in case that comes in the way. And the Rhi-Tiddim Road which we also expect to have approved in the course of the year. The Rhi-Tiddim road as well as the bridges will contribute to the Trilateral Highway. And in the Trilateral Highway, we will be upgrading a very difficult section on the Kalewa-Yargyi road. By the end of it, India will have built the road from Tamu all the way from Kalay-Kalewato Yargyi, and the section after that will be built by Myanmar.
Side by side, we are also working on an India-Myanmar-Thailand Motor Vehicles Agreement. This will enable motor vehicle movement between Indian andThailand and vice versa. So we will see all the impact of this in about three years when these connectivity projects are mature. Then we will see a big impact on our trade as well.
I wish to touch on the issue of China in the region. Once, some years ago, one of the Indian leaders said India’s number one concern was China but we have noticed a growing relationship between China and India under Prime Minister Modi. What do you think of India’s relationship with China vis-a-vis offsetting the influence of China in Myanmar?
I think before I come to that question I just want to address one left over section of the last question. On shipping, for example, the government of India actually subsidized the shipping services. But particularly as we see that our trade starts balancing we expect that this will become commercially sustainable. So efforts are underway in the shipping sector as well.
On your question on China, I think too much is made of the so-called offsetting India, offsetting China or any kind of rivalry. I think these are mostly figments of people’s imagination. Actually, if you see, neither China not India are competing with each other in Myanmar. Maybe other countries are, but not China and India. We have actually cooperated in the exploitation and commercialisation of the Shwe Gas field, where we also have a stake. We do not see our relations with Myanmar through a prism of China at all. We have an old and historic relationship that was there from ancient times, as well as during colonial times, and post-colonial times. We have deep cultural ties, we have geographical proximity. The welfare of our northeast depends a lot on trade with Southeast Asia through Myanmar and with Myanmar. So we are interested in our relations with Myanmar for Myanmar itself is an immediate neighbour and a gateway for the northeast. It is Myanmar’s choice in terms of who it wants as an economic partner and we have no problem with China being an active partner of China as well. Why should we? We don’t have such a problem with any other country. And we don’t see our relations with Myanmar in competitive terms with any other country.
As a diplomat, you have been to countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. How do you view the conflicts and continued fighting in Myanmar?
Firstly, I think there is almost no comparison between Myanmar and the countries you mentioned. Myanmar in a way inherited these sorts of insurgencies from its colonial experience and it has not been able to adequately address them in its post-independence period. In the last two or three years we have seen a very good faith effort by the present government to make progress and give it a high priority in the reforms that President Thein Sein had embarked upon. We have seen progress including the signing of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and we know that this process is continuing with the Union Peace Conference held very recently, and the intentions of the new government that is going to come. So I think there is a very strong peace process underway.
It is also very distinct in other ways. This is what we call low level insurgencies. They are not really serious secessionist movements and certainly they are not terrorist movements or terrorist problems as we see with the fundamentalist terrorist problems in Syria and which we also see in different ways in different degrees in Afghanistan. Also, there are many other differences. By and large, the insurgency or the conflict we have seen here is a limited conflict, between the armed forces and armed insurgents. It is not in any way a civil war. It does not involve civilians and innocents. Of course, some people are affected as IDPs, or in cross-fire, or occasional incidents and I do not want to belittle them. But by and large, it is an armed insurgency fighting an armed force, not a terrorist conflict or a fundamentalist problem, or a wider civil conflict. So, there is a big difference.
Is India in any way involved in the peace process in Myanmar that has been taking place over the last four or five years?
Not directly. We are always ready to offer our experience. To some extent, the Myanmar Peace Centre, and the people who have been interested in the peace process have also tapped experts from India. Our expertise has been mostly in the form of technical assistance. Our experience - in many ways Myanmar and India have the same problems at the time of Independence - to some extent, we have been more successful in addressing ethnic aspirations in India within a democratic system. To some extent, we still have some minor problems that are continuing. But our experience is available and it really depends upon peacemakers and peace negotiators in Myanmar to see how our experiences are relevant to Myanmar. There are several: political, administrative and financial arrangements to accommodate ethnic aspirations, and the application of the principle of self-determination within the context of the Union. And we would be absolutely willing to contribute in any way.
You have witnessed the election here. I think you have observed the election. What are your expectations from the new government led by the National League for Democracy? And what do you think of Myanmar-India relations under the new government, especially as Aung San Suu Kyi is no stranger to India? She even studied in India. What kind of relationship do you foresee with the new government in Myanmar?
I think firstly we must admire the conduct of the elections, in terms of the organization as well as the conduct. Most of all the voters. It was an extraordinary experience. Our Embassy covered it very widely, in fact we had a presence in every state barring two. In some places, we had more than one person. And so we were able to witness a really extraordinary effort in democratic electoral participation. I think the results are very well known and by and large they match the expectations of the people. We, luckily, we are in a good position, we have good relations with the present government and we expect to have good relations with the incoming government, because our relationship is a relationship from people to people and from country to country. They are not predicated or dependent on individuals or parties. Whichever party is in power, we will have good relations with whichever party is in power in India. So I think it is something fundamental and we don’t have any problems with each other.
In terms of expectations from the new government, I think it is the same, we expect every Myanmar government to be patriotic and primarily keep its national interests in mind. Aung San Suu Kyi may have lived in India, and she may have some sentimental association with India, but in statecraft and national interest, we don’t expect her to, nobody would expect anyone to, deviate from that fundamental principle. She will work on that principle and we have no reason to think any other way but to deal with her on the same basis, the same understanding, in terms of national interest.
Since Myanmar started these reforms from 2010-11, I am aware that there are some programmes that India is working with Myanmar in terms of providing support for the reforms process. Can you tell me what are the types of reforms you would like to do more for strengthening the reform process in Myanmar?
You see our primary thrust has been on development and currently few people know that we have a development partnership commitment, not all of it fulfilled but in the process of being fulfilled, of about US$ 2 billion. Out of that $2 billion, $1.2 billion in terms of directly funded connectivity projects, and about $750 million is in terms of softlines of credit, which have not all been disbursed. The second is what we have done in terms of capacity building - the connectivity infrastructure and capacity building. Third, is in the area of political reform, which is probably what you really wanted to know. In political reform, our parliament has been very active in promoting education in parliamentary practice, democracy building, in running elections. And these programmes will continue. Even with a change in parliament, we will expect them to continue, because I think India as a neighbouring country, with its 60-plus years of democratic experience, multi-religious, multi-linguistic, pluralistic society, has a lot to offer the entire region.
 At the same time, we leave it to the people of the country and the government of the day and the parliament of the day to take the initiative to seek the kind of assistance that they would like. A fourth area, which comes back to an earlier question, a fourth area where I would like to see much greater Indian effort is in investment. As I said, there was a hiatus in this respect because of Myanmar’s self-imposed isolation as well as externally imposed sanctions. Those have opened up and I think with the new government we can expect to see even more opening up. We would like economic players of both countries to develop a kind of strategic kind of partnership with each other for the benefit, development and progress of both countries, especially in the context of our Neighbourhood First Policy. These opportunities were highlighted at a recent CLMV Business Conclave near Chennai where Myanmar was well represented, but we hope we can do something exclusive, in Myanmar, in a few months from now to showcase Myanmar as an investment destination for Indian industry.
You have been serving here for the last two and a half years. What would you say are the most memorable events during this period?
Thank you. That is a very nice question. You know I think there are two primarily. First is the citizens, the civic response to the floods in 2015 was something remarkable, something the whole world should know, and the whole world could benefit from. There you saw every part of society stepping in to help those affected by the floods.
The second, undoubtedly, was the experience of the Myanmar elections in November 2015. The discipline and dignity in which it was conducted was something very special.
 But I can’t help adding a third. I have been privileged to have traveled around a fair part of Myanmar, a fair bit by road, see the landscape, the people, and the culture. Again, the simplicity, the dignity of the people is something that has had an impact on me very strongly.