A Strong Bond - The Indian and Myanmar relationship

30 October 2018
A Strong Bond - The Indian and Myanmar relationship

As the India Embassy begins its 150th Celebrations of Gandhi’s birth, Mizzima’s Myo Thant sat down with the Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, H.E Mr Vikram Misri, to discuss the relationship between Myanmar and India.

Q: Thank you so much for giving this interview, so let me ask the first questions. Over the last year, there has been a lot of development taking place. Why do you think this is happening?

A: Well with regard to the larger ASEAN Region the last year was a very special year in the India ASEAN relationship because we celebrated the silver jubilee of this relationship 25 years of dialogue partnership which we commemorated with a very special summit in New Delhi that was held. All the ten heads of state and heads of government of ASEAN member states gathered in New Delhi in January this year on the occasion of our republic day and it was a wonderful opportunity for our leadership to get together with them, to compare notes on the journey that we have had so far together and the new frontiers towards which we want to move in cooperation in the coming years. As a run-up to this very special anniversary, there was a very large number of events that were held. Meetings, seminars, workshops, visits, conclaves. If I recall correctly there were more than a hundred events that were done by us in India and in many of the ASEAN member states themselves. So, it was a very special year for our relationship and that’s why I think you saw a much higher level of activity in the relationship in the bilateral relationship with Myanmar I would say that you know there has been a lot of activity because there is so much to do, so many things that we still have to do. We are two countries with a very old relationship but in many areas, there are lots of threads to be picked up again, lots of old linkages to be rediscovered and I think that the high levels of activity that you would have seen in the last two years are basically pointing towards an effort to quickly pick up those lost threads and find those linkages once again.

Q: Thank you, so the second question is how do you see the India Myanmar relationship developing in terms of the look East policy?

A: I would as I said earlier, there’s a very large number of areas in which we can cooperate and coordinate and I would group them under what I like to call the three Cs and these three Cs are the Cs of connectivity, culture and commerce. Under connectivity, of course, it is not just physical connectivity in the terms of the infrastructure programme that we have of building in Myanmar and connecting India and Myanmar. We are building roads, the Trilateral highway, for instance, ports, the Sittwe port, the Paletwa Inland Water Terminal, for instance, bridges, 69 of them in the Damu Kalewa section in the north. So, it’s not just hard infrastructure but also soft infrastructure in terms of the arrangements we put in place between our two countries such as the land border crossing agreement which came into effect in August this year, we hope very soon to start work on a motor vehicles agreement between our two countries so that people can drive across the border and trade and commerce and passenger, tourist traffic can pick up. Culture obviously is a very, very important area for our bilateral cooperation we are linked by 2,500 years of the heritage of Buddhism, but not just Buddhism, not just religious traditions, but also popular things like art and films and dance and drama and theatre. There are so many things that we share, Myanmar used to be such a vibrant place for film in South Asia and India today is the world’s largest film producer and that offers us a very good opportunity to start that kind of cooperation going once again. So, there is a lot of scope in the cultural field and commerce, lastly I would say business linkages are the ones where there is the maximum slack to take up I think there’s enormous possibility there for Indian and Myanmar businesses to work together India is not only one of the largest markets in the world for Myanmar’s products, but it can also be a very important source of goods and services, also of investment and technology and this may, as I like to say, may not be the most flash technology in the world but it will be for Myanmar’s purposes probably the most relevant technology in the world. That is large because we deal with the same kind of environment, the same kind of challenges and I think some of the solutions we have found could be relevant here. There is a lot of scope for business entities in the two countries to exchange notes, exchange experiences and find ways to work together.

Q: So the opening of the international gateway to Myanmar last month was important, so please can you tell me please about this.

A: This is something that we had been working on for a very long time and I am very grateful for the cooperation from all the branches of the government of Myanmar for making this possible. India and Myanmar share a 1,630 plus kilometres long border and it’s a border that in some respects is unique in the sense that people who live within 16 kilometres of the border on either side don’t need passports or visas to go across, we have something called the Free Movement Regime there. It is also a border which in a sense divides people of the same ethnicity, of the same cultural or religious or another kind of background. People of very similar ethnicities inhabit the border and they are very closely located along the border. At the same time for our northeast this border is kind of a gateway to the rest of South East Asia and for a long time, because of the lack of international entry-exit checkpoints along this border this border was inaccessible to everybody except for those who lived along that border. With the opening with effect from the 8th of August this year of Tamu and Moray in Sagaing and Manipur regions and Ricotar and Zocotar in the Chin and Mizoram states as international entry-exit checkpoints anybody living in India or Myanmar in any part of the country with a valid passport and a valid visa can now cross at these two checkpoints and I think that this is of course significant from the point of view of people to people contact, of bringing people closer together, but also from the perspective of developing economic relations, of developing business relations between the two countries enhancing cultural exchanges between people of the two sides and especially I think from the perspective of the northeast in India and the northwestern corner of Myanmar which is also very far away from the urban centres in the south and the ports in the south. I think this opening represents a very, very important avenue for enhancing their linkages with each other.

Q: In Rakhine State. Can you tell us about the MoU and what India is hoping will come out of it?

A: Well we recognize the special and unique challenges that people in Rakhine face, Rakhine is economically one of the most underdeveloped states and regions in the country and I think that we recognise that challenge and we have worked together with the government of Myanmar to devote special attention to the needs of people in Rakhine State. We recently signed two MoUs with the Rakhine State government which are intended, aimed at the area of capacity-building and economic growth. One proposal deals with the supply of computers and their associated peripherals to the Sittway Computer University so that youth can be trained on computer software and hopefully be given the skills to join the large and growing information technology sector in Asia, in the world, but also in Myanmar as well. The other MoU deals with the supply of a number of tractors and harvesters to the state’s agricultural department through the Peasant Union of Rakhine and is again intended at helping people with certain assets to allow them to carry on with their agricultural activities. But besides this we have signed with the government of Myanmar a Rakhine State development program MoU, a memorandum of understanding with them which is a five-year rolling program with an endowment of 25 million dollars over a period of five years and we intend to carry out a number of projects related to economic development, skill development,  capacity building in Rakhine State and all over Rakhine State and it is intended to be aimed equitably to all the communities that inhabit Rakhine State one of the first projects that are being done under this program is a pilot project on housing in northern Rakhine and we have just received from the ministry of social welfare another list of projects that they intend to be taken up in the coming year and we look forward to working together with them.

Q: Another question is how does India view the Myanmar government’s handling of the Rakhine crisis?

A: Well I don't think that it's for me to comment on a sovereign government’s handling of an issue that is obviously a difficult issue. There is no doubt that there is a serious challenge in Rakhine State the challenge has different aspects there is the issue of security that sometimes tends to get brushed under the carpet we don't devote enough attention to it but that is important there is no doubt the humanitarian and human rights-related aspect to it and we have worked both with the government of Myanmar and with the government of Bangladesh because it has also faced the brunt of the difficulties that have come about in the state over the last year or so, but we also feel that there is a very important aspect related to development and I think equal attention is required for all of these aspects and the government of Myanmar is, in the end, the best judge of how to resolve these problems because these are not problems that were created yesterday, they are of long-standing and despite the fact that they are urgent problems at the end of the day it is up to the people and the government of Myanmar to find the solutions to these problems.

Q: So how does India view the international condemnation of the Myanmar government military and Aung San Suu Kyi over their handling of this Rakhine crisis?

A: Well I am not sure that condemnation is ever a reasonable or forward-looking way of handling these kinds of situation. Personally, speaking I'm not quite sure of what condemnation can achieve if our attention is to adopt a problem-solving approach and to help people to move forward from the difficult situations that they face currently. As I said earlier there is no doubt that there is difficult situation in Rakhine State and there has been the whole region in a sense has faced a humanitarian tragedy and has created difficulties for a number of people and yes one can say that the International Community has a right to express itself on what has happened in the state or what it sees as having happened in the state but I would be persuaded to say that it equally has a responsibility to then also be constructive in proposing solutions in going forward and I think the best solutions and the most pragmatic solutions can be delivered only in a spirit of constructive cooperation. So, I don't think that condemnation is going to help a great deal instead I think cooperation with all the actors involved principally with the government of Myanmar is important and is necessary and to my mind, this represents the only way forward. Again this is not to deny that or to say that this will be easy or uncomplicated but I think we have to respect also sovereignty, territorial integrity and the right of countries to devise solutions to their problems and as a neighbour we obviously have intense interest in seeing that this issue is resolved and we are a neighbour to both Myanmar and Bangladesh. We have a great interest in the safety, security and stability of both of our very important neighbours and I hope that mechanisms can be found by the International Community in working with all of these countries both the countries in trying to find the way forward.

Q: It is clear that there is a problem with Myanmar transition to democracy for example like peace process and like the Rakhine crisis this is very challenging for our government, so how do you view this Myanmar democratic transition?

A: Well it's not easy is it it's democracy, transition to democracy is not easy I say that as a representative of the largest democracy in the world, but you know those that have studied history will also realize that when we became independent we already had nearly more than half a century old experience of a party that was working with democratic mechanisms and a political system that was familiar with democratic mechanisms. The Indian National Congress was founded as far back as 1885 so we already had a 62-year-old party when it came to our independence and the way in which our independence struggle was led created a Democratic spirit amongst the people. Myanmar is going through the transition in a very different context today and there are unique challenges that it faces there is, it is obvious that there cannot be any set templates that one can offer Myanmar and tell them that, you know, if you follow these rules you will succeed and tomorrow you will wake up in the perfect democracy, I don't think it's like that. I had the opportunity earlier  this month to participate in two public events on issues related to federalism and democracy in Myanmar itself one of the events was in Yangon and the other was in Naypyitaw and at both I had the opportunity to share our experiences, India's experiences, in building a federal union and in making a constitution work for our unique situation and I was gratified to see the enormous amount of Interest amongst the people who were attending the two events I think that there is a lot that we can share with Myanmar as it goes through this transition. There are lots of lessons to be learned, lots of experiences to be shared and we would be very happy and ready to share these experiences going forward we have a lot of exchanges at the level of the parties, the parliamentarians, parliamentary staff, etc. I don't discount the difficulties that Myanmar faces and I think the difficulties are compounded by the fact that you also are dealing with the vestiges of a civil war of a peace process in a conflict situation, this makes the task all the more difficult, but we have gone through very similar experiences in certain parts of our country and we have found solutions and I think there is a lot to be gained by exchanging experiences in these areas so we certainly wish the government and the people of Myanmar very well and we stand ready to offer our assistance in whatever area is required.

Q: Thank you so many critics have attacked Aung San Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rakhine crisis how do you view this criticism?

A: No I think again that you know it's difficult for me from the outside to put myself in her situation and to try and you know, offer prescriptions on what the government of Myanmar or what the State Counsellor ought to have done differently because I am not in that situation and I am not fully informed of the challenges that she faces internally and therefore I would not hasten to judgment on how she has handled this. At the end of the day, this is, as I said earlier as well, an issue that is primarily for the people of Myanmar to resolve. No solution to the Rakhine crisis is going to be sustainable over a longer period of time unless that solution is grounded in Myanmar and is grounded in the ethos of the people of Myanmar no solution can be imposed from the outside and it may work for a short period of time but it will not be sustainable and therefore I think it is best to best for us to demonstrate that we stand ready to cooperate, to assist in any way that we can, with the leaders of the country, with people in the country but at the end of the day it is the people and the leadership of the country that effectively have to lead the solutions.

Q: One of the concerns in Myanmar today is freedom of the press. Two journalists jailed were jailed how do you see this?

A: Well of course freedom of the press is a sine qua non of a democracy, it is a democracy would be incomplete without the freedom of the press and there is no doubt the media face challenges in many countries of the world. But, I think that if you want to develop a sustainable democracy a real democracy because it is important to have freedom of the press there can be no getting away from that. An informed public is the key to a democracy unless you can hold your leadership accountable unless you can demand answers from your leadership it is difficult to fully enjoy the fruits of democracy and I think therefore that there are no two opinions about the need for freedom of the press. Having said that wherever they might be specific cases that involve media persons etc we obviously have to look at the law of the land and you can take issue with the law whether a law is a good law or a bad law but of course the solution lies in people and the government in that country coming to a judgment about the need for a particular law or the shape of a particular law and then to see whether that law needs a change. Legal processes people can have issues about, I from the outside cannot comment on the legal process but I think there are avenues available to people who go through the legal process and I am sure those avenues remain available in Myanmar as well.

Q: You have signed two MoUs for Rakhine State what about other places like Chin or Shan?

A: We already actually have a MoU in place which is more than 5 years old, which is called the Border areas development program that is aimed at Chin and Sagaing divisions, which are also economically depressed areas and we have just as there is a 5 million dollar per year program for 5 years, that we have set up with Rakhine state there is a similar 5 million dollar per year program for Chin and Sagaing states as well under this. We do that through the Ministry of Border Affairs of the Union Government and provide that as budgetary support and they execute various civil works related to the building of roads, bridges, rehabilitating clinics, schools etc in these two areas.

Q: Let me ask another question you already answered. I would like to ask in more detail about trade conditions between Myanmar and the Indian government.

A: We are I think Myanmar's fourth largest trading partner; our bilateral trade is between 1.5 to 2 billion dollars per year. The good thing is that the trade is largely balanced between our two countries, we think we are probably the 10th or 11th investor in Myanmar, much of our investment, however, is concentrated in the natural resource field and primarily in the oil and gas sector where we have invested in the offshore fields in Myanmar. But, we are very keenly looking forward to the new developments as a result of the enactment of the Myanmar investment law, the new companies’ law, reforms that have been enacted in the Banking and Financial sector, we hope there will be more also in the wholesale and Retail trading sector and I think all of these will be of great interest to people in India. I think also that our businesses need to engage much more intensively with each other and while India looks East I have for, during the time I have been here, also advocated that it is perhaps time for Myanmar to look West and to see that there is a very large market available for its products for its goods and services, but that there is also a very large source available not just for goods and services but also for investment and Technology. So, we are trying to take this forward and in December this year we will be hosting the 5th Enterprise India show in Yangon which will be the largest collection of Indian trade and Industry in quite some time in Myanmar and we hope the focus is going to be on small and medium Industries and we hope that businesses from both the sides will find the opportunities to work together in many areas.

Q: There is a 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi what does it entail?

A: Well we have big plans. In fact, we are going to be celebrating it on a very big scale in India and also overseas. All of our embassies, high commissions and diplomatic missions around the world will be coordinating activities. There is a national committee that has been set up in India and it is chaired by the president of India and there's a large number of activities, a very large menu of activities that have been drawn up. Normally these kinds of important anniversaries are celebrated over the course of a year but this anniversary is especially special for us and therefore this will be a two-year celebration and we will start on the 2nd of October, in a few days’ time from now and go up to the 2nd of October 2019 when we expect a very major international event to be held and then we will celebrate it for another one year till the 2nd of October 2020. A lot of commemorative activities and a lot of activities related to remembering Mahatma Gandhi and the kind of man he was and his life's work.

Q: So, will there be any celebrations here in Myanmar?

A: Of course, of course. I think Mahatma Gandhi was very close to Myanmar he had very close relations and contact with leaders of Myanmar, such as General Aung San himself, for instance, and I remember the sorrow he expressed on General Aung San's untimely death. He visited Myanmar on a number of occasions and therefore we will be organizing an event on the 2nd of October here in Yangon where there will be some unique activities that will be conducted. We will, for instance, remember his favourite song that he used to encourage everybody to recite. We have taken the opportunity to translate perhaps his most famous work ‘My Experiments with Truth’ into Myanmar and we will be releasing the Myanmar edition of this book on that occasion. There will be stamps, a special edition of stamps that will be released on the occasion, but the highlight of the celebrations will be a very special lecture by Dr Thant Myint U who is perhaps Myanmar's most eminent historian and somebody who can speak with great experience about the history of the region and certainly about the impact that Mahatma Gandhi had on India and on the region as well.

Q: So how important is it for India and Myanmar?

A: Oh, I don't think we have enough time to discuss the enormity of the importance of Mahatma Gandhi to India and to this region and indeed to the world. I think as long as there exists conflict, violence or deprivation or injustice in the world the ideas and thoughts and the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi will continue to be relevant and I think these thoughts and ideas are as relevant today, or even more relevant today than they have ever been given the kinds of conflicts, the kinds of injustices that you see in the world today and I think of particular importance is Mahatma Gandhi's message about the importance not only of peace but also of how you obtain that peace because in Gandhi's worldview means were as important as ends and I think sometimes today we lose sight of that fact because you find modern society targeted single-mindedly on ends without worrying about the means. So, I think that his philosophy is particularly important in including in helping us face contemporary challenges, contemporary challenges such as environmental degradation, climate change. Mahatma Gandhi's emphasis on simple living and on sustainable living is a very potent and powerful message for people today and I think we should heed that message if we are not to face greater difficulties going forward. I think his importance cannot be overstated he led what is perhaps the most or the biggest non-violent revolution in modern human history and for that alone, he will be remembered for all time to come.