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Ideas and Action for a Better India

OBOR - Mr. Ranjit Barthakur

India’s perspectives on China’s ambitious plan for infrastructural connectivity in Asia, Africa and Europe

Opening remarks by Ranjit Barthakur – 21st April 2017 – Regional Dynamics of Belt & Road Initiative: BCIM – Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation, CPEC – China–Pakistan Economic Corridor BIMSTEC – Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, IORA – Indian-Ocean Rim Association.

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen, I am indeed grateful to Observer Research Foundation and Mr. Sudheendra Kulkarni for giving me the opportunity to speak at the plenary session on Regional Dynamics of Belt & Road Initiative.

I would also like to welcome my co-speakers Dr. Ren Jia from China, Dr. Abid Q Suleri from Pakistan, Dr. Sreeradha Datta from India and my friend, Ambassador Tariq Karim from Bangladesh.

Executive Summary
China’s Belt and Road Initiative also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), is one of President Xi’s most ambitious foreign and economic policies. It aims to strengthen Beijing’s economic leadership through a vast program of building infrastructure throughout China’s neighbouring regions. Many foreign policy analysts view this initiative largely through a geopolitical lens, seeing it as Beijing’s attempt to gain political leverage over its neighbours. There is no doubt that this is part of Beijing’s strategic calculation. However, this analysis argues that some of the key drivers behind OBOR are largely motivated by China’s pressing economic concerns.

All levels of the Chinese Government, from the national economic planning agency to provincial universities, are scrambling to get involved in OBOR. Nearly every province in China has developed its own plan to complement the national blueprint. Major state-owned policy and commercial banks have announced generous funding plans to fulfill President Xi’s ambitious vision.

Xi launched this at a time when Chinese foreign policy has become more assertive. This plan seems to have geopolitical undercurrents to it than a purely economic interest.

Admittedly, analysists are of the view that China’s industrial policy shall be impacted by obscuring economic means to geopolitical concerns.

  • This will encourage and aid in the process of regional economic integration, speed up the process of building up infrastructure and connectivity.
  • China will assert its regional leadership through a holistic program of economic integration.
  • It is likely that Chinese domestic components in projects will be built before any overseas components for the simple reason that Beijing can enforce its plans much more effectively within its own jurisdiction.
  • Beijing is keen on engaging with different ways to reinvigorate under-performing provinces and OBOR has been touted as one of the key solutions to achieve this.
  • China is not just trying to export high end goods through OBOR but is interested in elevating the acceptance of Chinese standards.
  • Apart from the high speed rail sector, the Chinese Government is also using OBOR to advance Chinese standards in other sectors such as energy and telecommunications.
  • We want companies to move excess production capacity through direct foreign investment to ASEAN countries which require infrastructural support.
  • We need to get some model projects done and show some early signs of success and let these countries feel the positive benefits of our initiative.


OBOR Benefits

OBOR - Route Map vis-a-vis Indian interests
OBOR – Route Map vis-a-vis Indian interests

Before the 18th Party Congress in 2013, there were heated debates among Chinese policymakers and scholars about the strategic direction of the country’s foreign policy, especially in its neighbourhood. In October 2013 Beijing convened an important work conference on ‘peripheral diplomacy’. It was reportedly the first major foreign policy meeting since 2006 and the first-ever meeting on policy towards neighbouring countries since the founding of the People’s Republic. It was attended by most of the important players in the Chinese foreign policymaking process, including the entire Standing Committee of the politburo.

OBOR and its relationship with BCIM – Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation, CPEC – China–Pakistan Economic Corridor BIMSTEC – Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation and IORA – Indian-Ocean Rim Association are linked: Three coordinating government agencies – The National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce issued the first official blueprint, ‘Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’, just two years later in March 2015. However, there has been slow progress in terms of implementation of projects outside China.

The well-known geopolitical theorist, Halford Mackinder, postulated drainage and impenetrable by sea power was destined to be the “Pivot Area” of world politics. It was his view that the rule over the heart of the world’s greatest landmass would become the basis for world domination, owing to the superiority of rail over ships in terms of time and reach. Russia and China, if they came together, he predicted, could outflank the maritime world. Of course, the course of the First World War led him in later years to modify his initial perspective. In looking at the shape of the post-World War II order, he foresaw a world geopolitically balanced between a combination of the North Atlantic, or what he termed as Midland Ocean and the Asian heartland powers. In effect, he conceded that geopolitical dominance required both a continental as well as a maritime dimension. The later geopolitical theorist, Alfred Mahan, too had a Eurasian centred global perspective, but his emphasis was on maritime power, mediating between a twofold global framework, a Western and an Oriental system.

Both the Road and the Belt include regional loops and branches which extend the reach of the emerging transportation networks but also serve to tie the Road to the Belt at critical points. Thus the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is significant precisely because the port of Gwadar is one of the points where the Road and the Belt intersect. Of interest to India is the branch constituted by the BCIM corridor, which proposes to connect Yunnan in southern China with Myanmar, Bangladesh and eastern India.

OBOR-The Route, Region and the countries involved
OBOR-The Route, Region and the countries involved

The problem with narrow geostrategic interpretations of OBOR is not that they are wrong but that they are incomplete. Many analysts tend to overstate geostrategic dimensions of the project, while under appreciating the economic agenda of OBOR. The two goals are not, in fact, contradictory. China is using OBOR to assert its regional leadership through a vast program of economic integration. Its aim is to create a regional production chain, within which China would be a centre of advanced manufacturing and innovation, and the standard setter.

“A systematic project which should be jointly built through consultation to meet the interests of all and effort should be made to integrate the development strategies of the countries along the Belt and the Road.”

  • Enhancing policy coordination across the Asian continent
  • Trade liberalization
  • Financial integration, and
  • Connectivity including people to people links.

OBOR - Mr. Ranjit Barthakur

China has taken advantage of the Greek economic crisis to establish itself at the strategic port of Piraeus. The Chinese Shipping Company, COSCO, has a 35-year concession to expand the port by adding 2 modern container terminals. It is likely to bid for the 67% Greek government stake in the port when it is fully privatized. Greek shipping tonnage is one of the largest in the world and most ships for Greek Shipping lines are built in China, which has the world’s largest ship building industry. Piraeus will thus serve as a major logistics hub for Chinese trade with Europe. China is planning a Land Sea Express which will link Piraeus with points on the European mainland. A US $2.5 billion project is envisaged to build a key high speed rail link from Piraeus to Western Europe.

This aspect is important because it could and it probably already has weakened the trans-Atlantic alliance which has been a stable and predictable feature of geopolitics since the end of the Cold War. The U.K. rush to join the AIIB followed by several other European powers, against U.S. opposition, was a clear indication of this emerging trend. The longer it takes for the T-TIP to be actualized, the greater the chances of China’s Eurasian project succeeding. Interestingly, Cohen foresaw a time when India, like China, could carve out a fourth geostrategic realm also continental and maritime in nature. This it would do by dominating the eastern and western reaches of the Indian Ocean and the sub-continental landmass, south of Eurasia but linked to it. If this were indeed possible then India would have an opportunity to deal with the challenge of the Chinese geo-strategic realm on its doorstep with greater room for manoeuvre. I have argued before and wish to restate again: If there is one country which has the potential to catch up with China and even overtake it, it is only India. The current asymmetry is not written in stone. What will it take India to achieve this long-term goal is well-known and I will not repeat it.

OBOR - Map

Currently, India has neither the resources nor the political and economic weight to put in place competitive and alternative connectivity networks on a global scale. Therefore, for the time being it may be worthwhile to carefully evaluate those components which may, in fact, improve India’s own connectivity to major markets and resource supplies and become participants in them just as we have chosen to do with the AIIB and the NDB. For example, building a road or rail link to Central Asia through Iran using the port of Chahbahar could then use Chinese built routes to access Central Asian and Russian destinations as well as Europe. It may be more important to deploy our limited resources to build the Indian Ocean network of ports, with connecting highways and rail routes such as exemplified by the planned Mekong-Ganga corridor and the Sittwe- Mizoram multi-modal transport corridor. There have been longstanding plans to develop the deep water port on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast, Trincomalee, as a major energy and transport hub and yet despite the warning message in the shape of Chinese building the Hambantota port in southern Sri Lanka, and expanding the Colombo port, virtually no work has been undertaken since Indian Oil acquired the tank farm located at the port. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie at the very centre of the Bay of Bengal and could be developed to serve as a regional shipping hub for the littoral states and beyond. And yet, these islands continue to be treated as a distant outpost rather leveraging their unique location at the very centre of one of the most strategic stretches of ocean space.

It is fair to say that China, in deploying the OBOR initiative, has demonstrated a level of ambition and imagination, which is mostly absent in India’s national discourse. It is my earnest hope that the presentations that are made today will help both scholars and practitioners to think and act strategically on issues such as OBOR which will have a significant impact on India’s vital interests.

OBOR is President Xi’s most ambitious foreign and economic policy initiative. Much of the recent discussion has concerned the geopolitical aspects of the initiative. There is little doubt that the overarching objective of the initiative is helping China to achieve geopolitical goals by economically binding China’s neighbouring countries more closely to Beijing. But there are many more concrete and economic objectives behind OBOR that should not be obscured
by a focus on strategy.

The most achievable of OBOR’s goals and social influence will be its contribution to upgrading China’s manufacturing capabilities. Given Beijing’s ability to finance projects and its leverage over recipients of these loans, China’s high-end industrial goods such as high-speed rail, power generation equipment, and telecommunications equipment are likely to be used widely in OBOR countries. More questionable, however, is whether China’s neighbours will be willing to absorb its excess industrial capacity. The lack of political trust between China and some of our countries, as well as instability and security threats in others, are considerable obstacles.

Chinese bankers are likely to play a key role in determining the success of OBOR. Though they have expressed their public support for President Xi’s grand vision, some have urged caution both publicly and in private.

Their appetite to fund projects and ability to handle the complex investment environment beyond China’s border will shape the speed and the scale of OBOR. There is a general recognition that this initiative will be a decade-long undertaking and many are treading carefully.

The distinguished speakers of my panel from China, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, I am sure, will highlight the plenary session with detailed up scaling and possible down scaling even more specifically.

This speech has been delivered by Mr. Ranjit Barthakur – Founder and Trustee, Balipara Foundation, Chairman – Amalgamated Plantation and Advisor – Tata Consultancy Services.This speech includes references to the document and article written by Mr. Shyam Saran, Former Foreign Secretary,Government of India and Mr. Peter Cai, Fellow, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia.

OBOR - Mr. Ranjit Barthakur

Assam • India

Registered Office: Balipara Tract & Frontier Foundation, House No. 5, B.P. Baruah Road, 1st Bye Lane, Narikalbari, Guwahati – 781024, Assam, India. • Society Registration No. KAM/240/A8/473 (Kamrup, Assam, India) Field Office: Balipara Tract & Frontier Foundation, c\o Wild Mahseer, Addabarie Tea Estate, P.O. Lokra, Sonitpur – 784 102, Assam, India. Mumbai Office: 201/202 Windfall, Sahar Plaza Complex, MathuradasVasanji Road, Near Hotel Kohinoor continental, J. B. Nagar, Andheri (E), Mumbai 400059. India.
Page 11 of 11

Ranjit Barthakur
Founding Chairman
Myanmar Matters

Myanmar Homes


There are few large towns or cities in Myanmar with the exception of Yangon, the largest city and port and former capital. The next largest cities are Mandalay and Moulmein. Towns and cities are usually found in or along rivers, which indicates they began as both irrigation and transport centers.

There are over 65,000 villages in Myanmar. The fall into three main types: 1) villages surrounded by palisades and fences with a village gate and sometimes guards; 2) villages without fences and no regular plan and with no public buildings in the village itself; and 3) villages strung out along a road or waterway. The second kind of villages usually often has a monastery outside the villages, fields within walking distance of the village and houses set among trees and fruit crops. Most villages have a monastery and cemetery, and sometimes a school. Clinics and hospitals are usually in the nearest town.

Homes in Myanmar

The traditional Burmese urban home is raised on four posts and has a concrete base. There are two or three rooms partitioned with plywood sheets that have curtains instead of doors. The main room is reached by the front door which sits at the top of a small flight of stairs. There are many rooms in the Bamar traditional house. Firstly. you will get to the living room at the entrance of the house. There, traditional Bamar food and drink, betel boxes, pickled tea leaves, cheroot and green tea pot are displayed. There is sometimes a well, granary and bullock cart in the courtyard.

According to the Joshua Project: Various types of houses can be found in the Burmese villages. The wealthier people often live in sturdy, mahogany homes that are raised off the ground and have plank floors and tile roofs. Those with lower incomes may live in thatched roof, bamboo houses that have dirt floors. All activities take place on the dirt floors, including eating and sleeping. Therefore, it is extremely impolite to enter a Burmese house wearing shoes.

According to Countries and Their Cultures: “The traditional house is made largely of bamboo. Flattened pieces of bamboo made into large plaited sections are used to make the walls. The floors are made of bamboo planks or wood. The frame of the house is made of wood, with hard and durable wood being used for the house posts. Roof coverings are made of a variety of materials, including thatch made from broad-leafed grass or palm fronds. Roofs may be covered with tiles, wooden shingles, or zinc sheets. Some old houses use whole tree trunks for pillars and have splendid teak paneling. The front of the house usually has a veranda that is raised a few feet off the ground. This is the public area where guests are entertained. The center of the house is the living area for the family. Behind it is a covered cooking area where rice is stored. Especially in urban areas, these houses are being replaced by more generic ones made from cement. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures ]

In the Irrawaddy Delta area natural materials such as thatch from the palm trees and shrubs that grow across the delta provided cheap, rainproof, and relatively cool roofing. In the old days houses in rural areas were mostly built of bamboo, thatch or palm leaves and rattan was used instead of iron nail for tying the structure together. Rattan is a wild creeper which grows profusely in many forests of Myanmar. It is a very resilient fiberous gift of nature which Myanmar people have been using for various purposes since time immemorial.

Some ethnic minorities have distinctive styles of houses.Many Palaung traditionally lived in multiple-family houses. Today, these structures are very rare, and most Palaung live in single-family houses. See Individual Ethnic Groups

Describing the inside of a Kachin house, Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “Their house was a modest structure of concrete and wood but the sitting room was decorated with an impressive collection of posters. Among them was a concert shot of the Scorpions and, next to that, a classic of Bruce Lee that I hadn’t seen since my youth: the scene from Enter the Dragon in which Bruce is sporting two dramatic claw marks across his chest, his mouth wide open mid-caterwaul. High up on the opposite wall was a shelflike shrine supporting the images of Jesus, Mary and the Buddha. Though I have spent the better part of two decades in Southeast Asia, this was the first time I had seen Christ and the Buddha share the same household altar. I was admiring the shrine when Myo Aung entered the room. “My father was Burman and my mother was Kachin. Burmans are always Buddhist but many Kachin are Christians.” [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002]

Possessions in Myanmar

In main room of the house is the family alter with a Buddha image surrounded by flowers and offerings, there is often a coffee-style table and set of wooden or plastic chairs. The walls and shelves tend be decorated with calendars, pictures of deceased relatives and plastic flowers. The kitchens tend to be small or separated from the house. The refrigerator is kept in the dining room. Traditional musical instruments include harps and xylophones. The kitchen is in separate part of the house. Household utensils are placed in the kitchen. Traditionally a loom was kept under the house where traditional clothes were weaved.

Homes of the poor often have woven bamboo and thatch wall which are relatively cool in hot weather. Woven mats are also placed on the ground. Bucket baths are raised above the ground on timbers.

Many Burmese thatch homes are decorated with family photographs and movie posters from India, Japan and the United States. Windows have fire-hardened bamboo bars and if there is electricity it comes from an exposed bulb. Most people sit on the floor and if there are seats they are usually offered to old people. [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

In villages many music players, home karaoke machines and televisions are operated by car batteries. You often see people walking around with car batteries. Candles are often on hand in case the electricity goes out.

People tend to sleep on the sheets of a bed rather than under them. If people are chilly they use a blanket. Many people wash their feet before going to bed.

Myanmar Mats

Mats are essential items in a Myanmar household. They are woven from thin strips of the thin reed, which grows in swampy areas of the Irrawaddy Delta region and Taninthayi Division of Lower Myanmar. The traditional mat weaving industry flourishes in Pantanaw, Danubyu, Laymyetnha, Hinthada and Maubin Townships in Ayeyawady Division. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

It takes at least about twelve days to weave a mat. The reeds are systematically processed after being cut by being sunned, soaked in water and peeled into strips before being woven into a mat. The thin straps are often dyed and used to make colorful patterns. Most mats have two layers. A mat which only has the upper layer woven in decorative designs is called “one smooth side” mat. When both of the two layers are woven in patterns the mat is called “two smooth sides”.

Mat weaving is a lucrative home industry. The mat goes in suits Myanmar’s culture as well as its hot weather. A traditional mat in a Myanmar house adds auspiciousness to its interior.

Myanmar Fans

Although a fan or umbrella are not included in the prescribed articles of donation for use of Buddhist monks, they are necessities in a tropical country like Myanmar. They are therefore always added to the list of articles donated to monks during Buddhist religious holidays. A large fan or umbrella helps to shade the bare-shaved head of the monk who goes barefooted when he goes round village or town under the hot morning sun to accept offerings of food. They are also protects him if there is a drizzle. The fans made for monks are large and are usually made of palm leaves. Nowadays they are covered with velvet fabric and have the donors’ names printed on it. When the monks preach sermons they generally screen their faces with the fans, close their eyes and concentrate on their sermons. This traditional method of giving sermons is called “Yet-htaung taya” (“preaching with the fan put right in front of the preaching monk”). But there are times when the monks do not screen their faces and preach sermons face to face with the audience in sonorous voice. This style of preaching is called “Yat-hle.” [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Included in the paraphernalia of the Myanmar royalty was a fan called “Daung-taung yat”. made of peacock tail feathers with a long handle. Palace pages gently fanned the royals with this fan during the hot season. When the British conquered Myanmar and ruled the country, they introduced ceiling fans which they brought from India. These were originally large fans made from cloth fastened to a long rod and attached to the ceiling. The rod tied to a rope was pulled by an office boy. This contraption was called a”punkha” (fan) and boy that operated it was “a punkha wallah.” When electricity punkhas in the rooms in office buildings were connected together with pulleys and ropes and run by a single big electric motor. Such a network of ceiling fans was used in Yangon Gereral Hospital until the outbreak of World War II.

Paper fans are widely used in Myanmar. Traditional Burmese ones are made of small thin slats of bamboo pasted on both sides with paper and usually trimmed to form a circular or oval shape. The paper fans were a must in the old days when electric fans were not yet imported. At weddings and religious ceremonies, where attendees were crowded and when the atmosphere was very close, these “portable air conditioners” were in great demand. Distributed at the marriage ceremonies they carried the names of the brides and bridegrooms. Those given away at religious ceremonies such as novitiation ceremonies had the names of the noviatiates and their parents and the date of the ceremony printed on them. With the introduction of electric ceiling fans and air conditioners, the custom of distributing fans on these occasions faded away.

However, paper fans are still distributed at funerals. The name of the deceased. his or her parents names are printed on one side of the fan and the other side carries extracts from Buddhist teachings. The fan also doubles as an invitation card because it invites the members of the cortege to a morning reception where monks are fed in memory of the dead and then the invitees are treated to a breakfast.

Parasol from Pathein

The umbrella industry of Pathein, the capital of the Ayeyarwady Division of Myanmar’s delta region, is well known and was established in Pathein over a hundred years ago. The first umbrellas were made of paper, but through experience the makers became innovative and began to produce umbrellas with canopies of cotton, silk and satin with attractive floral designs. These newly fashioned umbrellas gained popularity with the ladies and sales expanded across the country. They also caught the attention of visiting foreigners who purchased them as souvenirs, interior decoration on walls and for use as unique lampshades. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The production of the Pathein umbrella is more or less a family industry, with several divisions of labour used in the making of a single umbrella. Each worker is assigned a different task: with one responsible for making the framework of ribs and another the shaft, and others still making the canopy, the grip, the hub which holds the ribs together, and even the wedge or switch for opening and closing the umbrella. Each person works separately and is a specialist so to speak in his own line of work.

The shaft and ribs of the umbrella are made of bamboo and the hub and grip from a softwood known locally as “Ma-U Thit”. The raw materials of bamboo and wood are obtained from the lower hill slopes of the Rakhine Yoma Mountain Range near Chaungthar, which is close to Pathein.

When all the different parts made by different craftsmen are ready they are put together to make an umbrella. The canopy—dyed in pastel shades of mauve, pink, green and blue to deflect the sunlight—are attached to the frame. Sometimes a few darker shades too, such as black, dark blue and bottle green, are added. When the canopy has been fixed to the rib frame, small flowers of varying shapes and colors are painted on the background.

It is a wonder that so many different parts made by different hands all fit so snugly together, and one is able to open and close the umbrella smoothly without a hitch. Once the umbrella is folded then a small bamboo ring—wrapped in colored wool thread and attached with the same thread to an indentation on the grip— is slipped on to the folded umbrella to keep it tightly closed.

Everyday Life in Myanmar

In many ways the Myanmar of today is little changed from the Burma that emerged after World War II. Some visitors say traveling to the country is like going back in history. You can still find wind up cars and trucks. Much of the farming is still done by hand and animals without machines. In villages television and even electricity can be a rare sight. Many people favor traditional clothes. But now that Myanmar is finally reforming things are changing—and they are changing very fast, in the words of the World Bank: at “warp speed.”

Problems in everyday life include water shortages, cut off electricity, insects in the toilets, flooding and termite damage.

According to the Joshua Project: “The thickly forested mountains provide valuable lumber, while the fertile valleys support intense rice cultivation. Rice cultivation is their main occupation and basic means of economic support; it is grown for both personal consumption and trade. Although the Burmese ideally grow rice in irrigated fields, they also resort to slash and burn cultivation. With this process, the fields are cut and burned before any new crops are planted. To help in the fields, cattle and buffalo are raised to draw heavy wooden plows. It is a daily task for a whole Burmese family to go out into the fields to work. Mothers work with their babies, while the older children accompany their grandparents. [Source: Joshua Project]

Many tools used in everyday life are made of bamboo and wood and to a lesser degree of metal. Modern technology is represented most prominently in the form of sewing machines, loudspeakers, battery-run transistor radios, some guns, and occasional vehicles. A surprising number of machines and vehicles date back to the World War II era.

The traditional Burmese units of measurement are still in everyday use in Burma. According to the CIA Factbook, Burma is one of three countries that have not adopted the International System of Units (SI) metric system as their official system of weights and measures. However, in June 2011, the Burmese government’s Ministry of Commerce began discussing proposals to reform the measurement system in Burma and adopt the metric system used by most of its trading partners.

Citizens and permanent residents are required to carry government-issued National Registration Cards (NRCs), also known as Citizenship Scrutiny Cards, which permit holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards often indicate religious affiliation and ethnicity. There appeared to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person’s religion was indicated on the card. Citizens also are required to indicate their religion on certain official application forms for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of many ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, faced problems obtaining NRCs. [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011]

Economic Daily Life in Myanmar

In August 2008, the Washington Post reported: “Today, the average household spends up to 70 percent of its budget on food. At tea shops or grocery stalls, people pull out bricks of local bills to pay for basics in an economy that the International Monetary Fund estimates suffered inflation of 40 percent in 2007. Fuel rationing and price controls have insulated the country from much of the recent shocks to the world economy. Nonetheless, black market prices for gasoline and diesel fuel have continued to spiral upward in recent months, residents say. [Source: Washington Post, August 16, 2008]

Analysts and Burmese residents say unemployment — and underemployment — is on the rise. Salaries that were already inadequate have failed to keep pace with inflation. To make up the shortfall, professionals such as government geologists double as taxi drivers, professors sell exam scores, civil servants demand bribes to process paperwork and prison guards run elaborate operations allowing the smuggling of money to inmates, in return for a 20 percent cut, local residents and former detainees said. Teachers sometimes sell lunch to their students. “Can you imagine asking your students for money? I couldn’t do it,” said a 26-year-old former elementary school teacher who switched to being a tour guide. So many people engage in corruption that the Berlin-based watchdog group Transparency International rated Burma in 2007 as tied with Somalia as the most corrupt country in the world.

For a long time purchased articles and food were placed in leaves, sometimes wrapped in string, rather than plastic bags or paper, in part because of a shortage of plastic. The effect on the environment was positive as people in Myanmar tend to litter a long and leaves quickly decompose while plastic does not.

Myanmar’s Backwardness

Myanmar missed many technological advances during 50 years of being shut off from the world by the military junta and has been struggling to catch up since an elected government came to power in 2011. Few people in Myanmar know, for example, that a man walked on the moon.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “Even by the standards of authoritarian regimes, Burma lives in an epoch unto itself, a relic of the prosperous country that was once the world’s largest exporter of rice. Rangoon—or Yangon, as it is now known—which was so alive with diversity and immigration that it had a Jewish mayor in the nineteen-thirties, is today a place of deprivation and haunting beauty. The banyan trees reach out from the moldering remains of villas and colonial offices. Ancient buses, cast off by Japan, and now absurdly overloaded, wheeze through canyons on the broken macadam. Outside the law courts, men in crisp white shirts and longyis, Burma’s traditional ankle-length sarong, hunch over ancient typewriters, feeding the maw of the bureaucracy. Gaping sinkholes in the sidewalk reveal the sewer beneath, exhaling into the tropical air. Book venders, not far from where Pablo Neruda lived in the nineteen-twenties, display on their blankets books with such titles as “Essentials of Selling,” “Radio and Line Transmission,” and the I.M.F.’s “Seventh Annual Report: Exchange Restrictions, 1956.” [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

“In the countryside, Burma lives by candlelight. Three-quarters of the population get no electricity, though the nation has abundant oil, gas, and hydropower resources. The number of cell phones per capita is the lowest in the world, behind North Korea. Less than one per cent of the population is connected to the Web. In eastern Shan state, where I chatted with a woman who had never heard the name of the sitting President, cars are vastly outnumbered by horse-drawn carts.

Cost of Living in Myanmar

Takashi Shiraishi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Myanmar’s per capita income is far below that of Laos and Cambodia in terms of market-based foreign exchange rates to the dollar. However, the quality of people’s diets in Myanmar is no different from that in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as far as consumption of oils and fats, seafood, fruit, eggs and drinks are concerned. The only difference seems to be that people in Myanmar eat a little less meat than Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese. [Source: Takashi Shiraishi, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 10, 2008 +]

“Consumer spending by the upper 20 per cent of Myanmar’s households is about four times the comparable amount spent by the lowest 20 per cent. Despite such a big disparity, there is almost no difference between the two groups in terms of the ratio of food expenses, thereby challenging Engel’s Law, which states that as income rises, the proportion of income spent on food tends to go down. In other words, the income gap mostly translates into differences in the choice of foods and the fact that the rich are eating better. +

“These findings reflect the insufficient state of the country’s infrastructure, such as electricity, tap water and housing. People are not buying TVs, refrigerators and other household electrical appliances because electricity is supplied to less than 20 per cent of the country’s farming villages. In sum, everyone is eating every day even though they are poor, and the rich-poor divide has not resulted in major visible differences in lifestyles. Under such circumstances, a popular uprising may have difficulty catching fire.”

Myanmar, Tradition, Repression and Modernity

Describing Myanmar in 2005, Richard Paddock wrote in Los Angeles Times, Myanmar “is mostly isolated from the outside world. There are none of the McDonald’s, Starbucks or KFC outlets here that have become ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cities. Instead, workers crowd into dilapidated buses carrying shiny, metal cylinder lunch boxes with separate trays for their rice, curry and vegetables. Women commonly walk down the streets of central Yangon carrying goods on their heads. [Source: Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2005 *]

“Secret police and a network of informers watch over the populace. Listening to overseas radio broadcasts or watching foreign shows on satellite television can result in seven years in prison. Foreign journalists are rarely allowed to visit. Dissidents are arrested in the middle of the night and vanish into the prison system. There are more than 1,300 political detainees, rights groups say, including other leaders of Suu Kyi’s party. Members of the public interviewed for this article asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety. *

“Myanmar’s isolation from the West has kept the country in a kind of time warp where many traditions remain intact. Most men wear a longyi, a sarong-like garment that reaches nearly to the ankles. Women and children wear a striking yellow sunscreen that is made from the bark of the thanaka tree. Women spread thanaka on their cheeks in circles, rectangles or swirls, sometimes to stunning effect. In central Yangon, life spills onto the streets. Families set up little kitchens in the roadway. Women sit in busy avenues selling vegetables. On the sidewalks, craftsmen make signs and mend clothes or umbrellas. Some shopkeepers run generators on the sidewalk to cope with power outages. Others set up small tables with telephones, charging 10 cents a call. Children claiming to be orphans beg for money.*

Corruption has reportedly invaded nearly every aspect of commerce. At the post office, people mailing a letter tip the clerk so she will mark the stamp instead of peeling it off and selling it. At hospitals, patients pay orderlies so they can see a doctor. “Even if blood is pumping from your artery, unless you tip the gurney operator, you will die on the stretcher,” a diplomat said. *

More overtly, the regime maintains control through countless restrictions. Anyone who allows guests to stay overnight must report their names to the police.Access to Internet sites is limited and e-mail is delayed so government minders have time to read it. There are few cellphones, and foreign publications are censored. Some people get around it, including Internet users who have become expert at accessing restricted websites. Others listen to the BBC and Voice of America on radio despite the ban. Illegal satellite dishes have sprouted from rooftops, allowing millions to watch overseas broadcasts. Security in Yangon has been tighter than ever since May 7, when bombs exploded minutes apart at two shopping malls and a trade show. By official count, 23 people were killed and more than 160 were injured. The government has blamed the blasts on pro-democracy activists, the CIA and the Thai government. No suspects have been arrested. *

Perhaps because of the Buddhist tradition of patience, or perhaps because resistance seems futile, the people of Myanmar wait quietly, work to feed their families and wish for the regime to collapse. Some hope reincarnation will free them from their hardships. “In my next life,” said a 47-year-old worker, “I want to come back in another country.”

Life Under Myanmar’s Military Regime

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “Today, despite Suu Kyi’s release and the influx of foreign investment that has brought the occasional Hummer and day spa to Rangoon, Burma is still a country preserved in amber. Tropical totalitarianism is deceptive. In North Korea, the broad, desolate avenues and drably dressed citizens make for a perfect tableau of authoritarianism. Burma’s sprays of bougainvillea, its gilded pagodas and the sway of schoolgirls dressed in the sarongs called longyis all create a false sense of contentment. But life in Burma is not easy. Roughly 40 percent of the national budget is spent on the army, while just around 1 percent each is reserved for health and education. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, December 29, 2010 =]

“The new capital in Naypyidaw, which means “abode of the kings,” was built with billions of dollars, even as nearly a third of Burmese live below the poverty line. For farmers, a hand-to-mouth existence is made worse by routine land seizures and orders to work without pay for the military. Even in Rangoon, power outages are as common as junta informants; both leave the populace in the dark. In a sign of just how removed the generals are from their subjects, confidential U.S. embassy cables released by WikiLeaks refer to the junta lavishing money on a nuclear program with alleged help from North Korea, while junta supremo Than Shwe pondered spending $1 billion on Manchester United at the behest of his soccer-loving grandson. =

Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker, “I asked Aung San Suu Kyi whether the country had changed during her last period of house arrest. The first thing she noticed after getting out, she said, was “the hand phones and the cameras” of the supporters who gathered in front of her villa and in front of N.L.D. headquarters. Internet cafés and satellite dishes—purchased on the black market and tolerated by the regime—were everywhere. “I’m the only one without a satellite dish, precisely because they’re illegal,” she told me, with a laugh. The dictatorship understands that keeping its citizens in the dark is no longer possible, she believes, and this gives her hope. “Journals and magazines have come up in the last seven years that carry articles on politics, economics, history, the struggle for independence. Some of these articles are censored, and prevented from appearing, but even the fact that they submit these articles for publication means there’s been a change. The self-censorship is decreasing.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011]

Being Followed in Myanmar

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker that Myanmar used to be a place “where you never uttered a name on a phone line and, in some cases, carried a wig to help shake off the intelligence officers in a crowd.”

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “The special branch had chased us across the city for hours, through the haunted, betel-nut-stained streets of old Rangoon, past street-side tailors hunched over ancient sewing machines and open-air bookstalls selling worm-eaten copies of Orwell and Kipling. Unable to shake the latest batch of state security men following us by foot, we jumped into a wheezing taxi of mid-20th century vintage. The young driver’s eyes widened at the foreigners who hurled themselves in the back and ordered the car to move — fast. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, December 29, 2010 =]

“And the public’s desire for freedom, of course, is why security agents were hunting us, snapping pictures with telephoto lenses fit for Hollywood paparazzi. Earlier that day, a total of at least a dozen special-branch officers trailed us, calling in our movements on their cell phones. It took the taxi driver only a couple of minutes to figure out we had a tail. Pointing back at a car practically on our bumper, he grinned and gunned the engine. For more than half an hour, our high-speed chase wound through the streets of Burma’s moldering former capital, past the carcasses of Victorian-era government buildings abandoned when the junta mysteriously moved the seat of power to a remote redoubt five years ago. We circumnavigated the massive golden spire of Shwedagon pagoda, Burma’s holiest site, and careened by the hulk of Insein prison, where Suu Kyi was once jailed and where some of the country’s 2,200 political prisoners still languish. =

“Dusk was falling. Screeching through an open-air market, the taxi finally shook our pursuers. Gratefully, we bid our driver goodbye. He reached into his pocket again, offering me Suu Kyi’s picture as a gift. I was touched, but it was his talisman to cherish. I could leave Burma. He needed the Lady to keep him safe.”

Myanmar Joins the Modern World

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I first visited Myanmar during a post-college backpacking trip through Asia in 1980. On a hot and humid night, I took a taxi from the airport through total darkness to downtown Yangon, a slum of decaying British-colonial buildings and vintage automobiles rumbling down potholed roads. Even limited television broadcasts in Myanmar were still a year away. The country felt like a vast time warp, entirely shut off from Western influence. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, March 2011 <>]

“Thirty years later, when I returned to the country—traveling on a tourist visa—I found that Myanmar has joined the modern world. Chinese businessmen and other Asian investors have poured money into hotels, restaurants and other real estate. Down the road from my faux-colonial hotel, the Savoy, I passed sushi bars, trattorias and a Starbucks knockoff where young Burmese fire text messages to one another over bran muffins and latte macchiatos. Despite efforts by the regime to restrict Internet use (and shut it down completely in times of crisis), young people crowd the city’s many cybercafés, trading information over Facebook, watching YouTube and reading about their country on a host of political Web sites. Satellite dishes have sprouted like mushrooms from the rooftop of nearly every apartment building; for customers unable or unwilling to pay fees, the dishes can be bought in the markets of Yangon and Mandalay and installed with a small bribe. “As long as you watch in your own home, nobody bothers you,” I was told by my translator, a 40-year-old former student activist I’ll call Win Win, an avid watcher of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a satellite TV channel produced by Burmese exiles in Norway, as well as the BBC and Voice of America. Win Win and his friends pass around pirated DVDs of documentaries such as Burma VJ, an Academy Award-nominated account of the 2007 protests, and CDs of subversive rock music recorded in secret studios in Myanmar. <>

“After a few days in Yangon, I flew to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, to see a live performance by J-Me, one of the country’s most popular rap musicians and the star attraction at a promotional event for Now, a fashion and culture magazine. Five hundred young Burmese, many wearing “I Love Now” T-shirts, packed a Mandalay hotel ballroom festooned with yellow bunting and illuminated by strobe lights. Hotel employees were handing out copies of the Myanmar Times, a largely apolitical English-language weekly filled with bland headlines: “Prominent Monk Helps Upgrade Toilets at Monasteries,” “Election Turnout Higher Than in 1990.”

Street Life in the Land of Shadows

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Welcome to the Hotel California,” calls out a voice from the shadows in perfect English. Three young men sit on plastic stools in the street, laughing at the greeting. The DVD vendor, a skinny 29-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and a pink button-down shirt, leaps up with a smile. Though his schooling ended in fourth grade, he speaks English in an eruption of phrases gleaned from Hollywood movies and 1950s grammar books. Meeting an American, he says, makes him feel “over the moon, on cloud nine, pleased as punch.” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011 <>]

“The three “bosom buddies”—Tom, Dick, and Harry, as they call themselves—meet almost every evening to practice their English idioms. Tonight, over cups of milky tea, they will banter for hours, showing off new expressions like nuggets of gold. Now, in the dark, the three friends hesitate for a minute, puzzling over the lyrics of an old Eagles hit. “Hey, maybe you can help,” Tom says. “What do they mean when they say, ‘We are all just prisoners here of our own device?'” <>

“Myanmar is a land of shadows, a place where even the most innocent question can seem loaded with hidden intent. For most of the past half century this largely Buddhist nation of some 50 million has been shaped by the power—and paranoia—of its military leaders. The tatmadaw, as the national military is known, was the only institution capable of imposing its authority on a fractured country in the wake of independence from Britain. It did so, in part, by pulling Myanmar into a fearful isolation, from which it is only starting to emerge. <>

“This isolation, deepened by two decades of Western economic sanctions, may have preserved the nostalgic image of Myanmar as a country frozen in time, with its mist-shrouded lakes, ancient temples, and blend of traditional cultures largely unspoiled by the modern world. But it also helped accelerate the decline of what was once referred to as “the jewel of Asia.” Myanmar’s health and education systems have been gutted, while the military—with some 400,000 soldiers—drains nearly a quarter of the national budget. Most notoriously, the tatmadaw’s brutal suppression of ethnic insurgencies and civil opposition has made Myanmar a pariah nation, a distinction it now seems eager to shed

Urban Life in Myanmar

The cities in Myanmar are somewhat like the ones in India.

There has been something of a construction boom in downtown Rangoon as investors from Hong Kong and Singapore have financed new hotels and office buildings. Otherwise relatively few buildings have been built since colonial times. Paint and plaster is peeling, despite cosmetic whitewashing.

Urban population: 34 percent of total population (2010). Rate of urbanization: 2.9 percent annual rate of change (2010-15 est.), Major cities – population: Yangon (capital) 4.259 million; Mandalay 1.009 million; Nay Pyi Taw 992,000 (2009). [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Largest Cities in Myanmar, with population over 100,000 (all figures are estimates for 2002): 1) Yangon, 4,016,000; 2) Mandalay, 1,057,600; 3) Mawlamyine, 367,500; 3) Bago, 228,100; 4) Pathein, 219700; 5) Monywa, 165500; 6 ) Akyab, 164400; 7 Taunggyi, 157100; 8) Meiktila, 154,900; 9) Mergui, 146,500; 10) Lashio, 128,500; 11) Pyay, 126,300; 12) Henzada, 125,000; 13) Myingyan, 123,700; 14) Dawei, 115,600; 15 ) Pakokku, 113,200; 16) Thaton, 103,200; 17) Maymyo, 102400.

According to Countries and Their Cultures: The ethnic composition of Rangoon and Mandalay is over-whelmingly Burmese, although these cities are also where most of the Indian population lives. Architecture reflects the country’s Buddhist and colonial heritage. Buddhist temples are the most important architectural features throughout the country. The Buddhist temple serves as a religious school, a community center, a guest house, a place where the government and other agencies post information, a site for sports activities, a center for welfare services for those who are poor and ill, a morgue, and a center for music and dance. It also carries out economic services such as providing loans and renting lands and homes. Temples are also important in urban areas. While most temples in central Burma are Burmese in style, the temples of Shan State tend to have a distinctive look that is referred to as the Shan style. Temples tend to be surrounded by small shops that sell sacred and secular items. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures ]

Urban Life in Yangon

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “It’s the magic hour in Yangon, when the last rays of sunlight, softer, cooler now, bathe the crumbling downtown in a golden glow, beckoning residents out into the streets. Giggling children race to buy fresh sugarcane juice. Women with cheeks daubed with a paste made of bark—the alluring Burmese sunblock—haggle with a fishmonger. In the street, bare-chested teenage boys in a circle play a rowdy game of chinlon, a sort of acrobatic Hacky Sack, while potbellied men in T-shirts and longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, sit on the sidewalk chewing red wads of betel nut.” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, August 2011 <>]

“The carnival-like atmosphere doesn’t last. Night falls fast in the tropics, and the power shortages that plague Myanmar give the sudden transition a spooky edge. A decaying colonial-era government building goes black. The alleyway next door emits the bluish glow of television sets powered by portable generators. Under the trees the vendors are invisible, but candles illuminate their wares: circles of silvery fish, clusters of purple banana flowers, stacks of betel leaves. And lined up in a blue wooden case, pirated DVDs of American movies and music.”

Rural Life in Myanmar

Rural population: 66 percent of total population (2010) live mostly in 46,000 small villages scattered across the country. In the 1970s, Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar” that the highlands of Burma can be surprisingly cold, yet people still go barefoot, and wear thin clothes.

Women carry machetes balanced on their head. The main meal is often a plate of rice. Slingshots are now banned in Burma because students used them in 1988 demonstrations to shoot jingles , darts made from nails or sharpened bicycle spokes. [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

Describing his stop in an Irrawaddy river town, Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic: “The children look skinny…I take out a bag of candy from my backpack and hold it out to the children. “I come in peace,” I say. An adult approaches and encourages them to snatch a piece of candy. Before long, my bag is empty. Myitkangyi is a primitive village. It has no electricity or running water, no motorized vehicles, no telephones or paved roads. Everyone lives in thatch huts on stilts, and the only ground transportation is by oxcart. Like most villages along the river, it is self-sufficient, with its own blacksmith, carpenter, and wheelwright. I pitch my tent on a sandbank across from the village, and adults wander over to sit on their haunches and study me for hours. When I eat dinner in the boat, word goes out. Soon a large crowd has gathered, sighing in unison as I open a can of Coke, exclaiming if I drop something.” [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006]

Source from :

Landless in Myanmar


Land is often the most significant asset of most rural families. Approximately 70 percent of Myanmar’s population lives in rural areas and is engaged with agriculture and related activities. Many farmers use land communally under a customary land tenure system, especially in upland areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. Customary use and ownership of land is a widespread and longstanding practice.

The field assessments confirmed what is evident from secondary research that for the vast majority of the Myanmar population dependent on access to land for livelihoods, where land is taken, even with monetary compensation, the impacts on an adequate standard of living can be significant. The compensatory system is often not keeping up with rapidly escalating land prices, meaning displaced farmers being unable to acquire new land in nearby areas.

Another revealing aspect at hand was the challenges of landlessness and food insecurity faced by the rural population in Myanmar. They continue to remain at risk of land confiscation surmounting to an estimated 25 percent of farmers becoming landless agricultural labourers in Myanmar, making them food insecure, in particular when food prices increase.

The Government of Myanmar itself recognizes landlessness as a major problem in its Framework for Economic and Social Reforms (FESR) and states that landlessness in the country was at 26% in 2005, with even higher levels in Yangon (39%), Ayeyarwady (33%), and Bago (41%) Regions, the so-called “rice bowl” of Myanmar.

The need of the hour therefore is reform of land policy and law in Myanmar, which to this day remains incomplete. There is a recognized need in Myanmar for a written comprehensive land use policy.


In July 2012, a cabinet level committee was established known as the Land Allotment and Utilization Scrutiny Committee, with a remit to focus on national land-use policy, land use planning, and allocation of land for investment that will allow it to better balance competing demands for land-use that will inevitably increase with further economic development and investment. The land regime in Myanmar is characterized by a patchwork of new and old laws that leads to overlap, contradiction and confusion. Aworking group of the Committee, which includes civil society representation and external experts, is currently formulating a draft land policy. The final policy is not expected to reach Parliament until mid-2015 or early 2016. Once adopted, the policy will presumably guide the drafting of an overarching land law.

Insecurity of tenure is another major problem. Moreover, the land registration system is considered inefficient, with complex requirements and lack of benefits for registering land. UN Habitat recently announced new cooperation with the Government of Myanmar on the implementation of a land administration and management programme. The land mapping system is weak, which further exacerbates the problem of land disputes, as land classifications and mapping may overlap or not reflect true land use patterns. For example, one map may classify a plot of land as forest land, whereas another map may classify the same plot as farmland, leading to confusion about land use rights and possible disputes about whether the land can be sold or not, depending on the classification. Participatory land use planning is needed that balances the needs of all land users.

The current government’s handling of land disputes will set a precedent for how future Myanmar administrations are likely to address the legacies of cronyism, abuse, and lawlessness dating back to the former military regime. Besides devising a working legal framework for the future, the government needs to address issues of land claims predating the Thein Sein government in a manner deemed fair by the public. The extent to which legislators and officials are able to address land reforms and tackle land disputes will be one of the most important tests for the reformist government and President Thein Sein.



Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talks with President Thein Sein reiterated the importance of building on the natural geographic, cultural and historic cultural links between the two countries.

Modi, however, has his task cut out in bridging the growing gap between the potential and reality of India’s partnership with Myanmar. The problem in Delhi is not in the lack of a vision for the future of the relationship, but India’s problems in translating that into practical outcomes over the last two decades.

The hosting of the East Asia Summit in the capital of Myanmar marks an end to the prolonged international isolation of the nation that was once among the richest nations of the region and was at the forefront of imagining post-colonial Asia.In an effort to breakout of the Western pressure, Myanmar joined the Association of South East Asian Nations and began tentative economic reforms.

Over the last two decades, India’s relationship with Myanmar has steadily expanded. The focus was on restoring high level political exchanges, renewing economic ties, and reviving trans-border links between India’s North East and northern Myanmar.

The two sides also launched cooperation between their security forces to counter insurgencies operating on both sides of the restive land frontier that is 1600 km long. India also stepped up military exchanges with the armed forces of Myanmar. As India unveiled its Look East policy in the early 1990s, Myanmar became quite central to Delhi’s engagement with South East Asia. After all Myanmar is the natural land bridge between India and East Asia.

Given the vast and shared maritime frontier in the Bay of Bengal and southern Myanmar’s location at the nexus between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the eastern neighbour has also become an important element of India’s new maritime calculus.


Despite the recognition of these massive stakes in Myanmar, there is no denying that Delhi’s performance there has been less than impressive. Bilateral trade remains at a paltry 2 billion dollars. Trans-border connectivity projects have been slow to get off the ground. Indian companies, private and public, have been reluctant to take up projects in the country. For one, India no longer has a privileged access to the markets in Myanmar. It has to compete with global businesses in the country. At the same time, as Thein Sein told the PM, Myanmar wants to take full advantage of India’s prospects for rapid economic growth under Modi. As it diversifies its international relations, India remains an important political partner for Myanmar. The PM’s emphasis on expanding of infrastructure in the North East, promoting connectivity to South East Asia, developing the  huge tourism potential in the region,


especially the Buddhist circuit, and timely implementation of projects do indeed set the stage for a new phase in bilateral relations. Modi has promised President Thein Sein to return to Myanmar on bilateral visit next year. By that time, the PM should have a concrete action plan for a vigorous and sustainable framework for the transformation of the partnership with Nay Pyi Taw.



Historically, women in Myanmar have had a unique social status in Burmese society. According to the research done by Daw Mya Sein, Burmese women “for centuries – even before recorded history” owned a “high measure of independence” and had retained their “legal and economic rights” despite the influences of Buddhism and Hinduism.

However, key findings indicate that apart from their involvement in civil society and NGOs, women are found to have very low levels of participation in various governance institutions operating at the subnational level in Myanmar. At the union level, women’s participation in elections, parliament, and the executive is very low. Also, women’s representation in the national-level legislature in Myanmar is extremely low compared to other ASEAN countries. The next lowest level of women’s representation in the national lower or single house is found in Malaysia, but even there women’s representation is almost 80% higher than it is in Myanmar.

Evidence suggests that women prioritize issues of health, education, sanitation and microfinance. Therefore, increasing women’s participation is likely to make governance decision-making more responsive to women’s concerns, and have general positive effects on the performance of governance institutions. Barriers to women’s participation in subnational governance in Myanmar are found to include:

• A lack of experience and certain skills
• Low bargaining power within households
• High time constraints
• Restrictions on women’s travel
• Traditional norms that ascribe authority to men over women
• Lack of acceptance of female leadership


However, enabling factors for women’s participation in Myanmar include:
• Relatively high level of gender equality informal educational attainment
• Deliberate actions of the Myanmar Government to increase women’s participation                             • Aspiration from women already in leadership positions inspiring and enabling other women to follow in their footsteps.

The government should seriously consider introducing a quota system that mandates a minimum proportion of women in certain elected positions, or on political parties’ candidate lists. International experience shows that the success of quotas in raising women’s interactive/participation, and ensuring that government becomes more responsive to women’s preferences, is variable. Therefore, any such possible policy needs to be designed very carefully, and be appropriately tailored to the Myanmar context. Various governance actors should work together to increase the availability of gender awareness training, and training in relevant specific skills, to women across Myanmar. Skills and leadership trainings offered by the government and non-government actors need to be made equally accessible to women as they are to men. Important considerations in this regard include ensuring that trainings are offered at times when women are able to attend, and if long distance travel is required that safe means of travel (and accommodation if needed) are provided.

Women’s participation in the political life of Myanmar is gaining attention from policy makers and researchers, but systematic data remains lacking. Women’s leadership has been found to be especially strongly resisted in the spheres of politics, religion, and in many traditional cultural activities/societies. A number of the barriers to women’s participation are starting to fall, making the possibility of increasing women’s participation more likely.

CAN CHINA AND INDIA COEXIST IN MYANMAR? By Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero


“As in the past, so in the future, the people of India will stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Burma, and whether we have to share good fortune or ill fortune, we shall share it together.” These were Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s words in 1948, on the day of Burma’s independence from Britain. Since then relations between the two countries have fluctuated between friendship, neglect and outright hostility, yet India’s rise on the international stage and Myanmar’s “democratic transition” are forcing both governments to reassess the nature of bilateral relations based on regional geopolitical developments.

India views Myanmar’s emerging political transformation as a strategic and ideological opening that offers New Delhi an opportunity to dilute Chinese influence while expanding India’s strategic depth. While India cannot expect to rival China’s influence in Myanmar in the near or even medium term, it can have an impact on that relationship. In turn, Myanmar stands to gain from a stronger relationship with India on a variety of levels, whereas China views the strengthening relationship between India and Myanmar as a strategic threat.
India has long prided itself as the world’s largest democracy, as well as being a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. At previous junctures in their modern history, both of these factors contributed to the dynamics that shaped the India-Myanmar/Burma relationship. Throughout the 1950s, ties were cordial, however the 1962 coup d’état in Myanmar led to a deterioration of relations. During the two decades of General Ne Win’s junta, ethnic Indians were targeted, being viewed as “privileged” during British colonial rule. The nationalist wave that followed led to the expulsion of many ethnic Indians from the country. India pursued a rather disinterested and neutral policy vis-à-vis Myanmar throughout the majority of the Cold War. By the late 1980s, New Delhi began to play an activist role by sponsoring the democratic opposition—seeking to establish itself as a beacon of democracy in Asia. New Delhi soon learned that such an idealistic approach to foreign policy did not advance its strategic interests, nor did it help the democratic struggle in Myanmar, as the repressive nature of the regime only worsened.


As the military junta in Yangon grew hostile toward India, China became the regime’s closest ally. India’s approach to Myanmar’s government subsequently shifted toward realism by 1995, as New Delhi accepted that the ruling junta was there for the long term.Thereafter, India became one of only eight governments in the world to sell arms to Yangon, underscoring the degree to which the bilateral relationship fluctuated since independence. Following the commencement of Myanmar’s “democratic transition” in 2012, which led to the lifting of international economic sanctions, India’s government and some of its private companies, saw a strategic opportunity to influence the subcontinent’s periphery.Indian firms such as ONGC Videsh, Jubilant Oil and Gas and the Century Ply-Star Cement group commenced operations in Myanmar. Total Indian investment in the country now approaches $300 million. Yet this is a small fraction of the total $43 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) that has reached Myanmar and the majority of its FDI continues to originate from China. While a decrease in Chinese FDI in Myanmar has ensued since 2012 the government in Naypyidaw remains dependent on China (and Russia) for its military armaments. Here, India is simply not in a position to compete, and probably will not be for many years to come—if at all. India’s lack of capacity to become an influential trade and investment partner is driven by several factors, which include India’s underdeveloped energy infrastructure, which limits New Delhi’s capacity to transfer and distribute Myanmar’s oil and natural gas in India, the reality that the two countries’ mutual border is undeveloped, which contrasts with Myanmar’s border with China, and bureaucratic hurdles and red tape that impede the cross-border trade and investment process.India has every reason to want to embrace Myanmar at this time, and to make as much progress as is possible on the trade and investment front. New Delhi’s interest in integrating India’s isolated northeast with the rest of the country will continue to provide Indian officials with an incentive to deepen economic, political and military ties with Myanmar. Yet security dilemmas on both sides of the border constitute major concerns for Indian authorities. For example, the Buddhist-orchestrated pogroms against Myanmar’s Muslims have led to a radicalization of some Muslims in the region, which threatens to result in retaliatory attacks against Buddhist institutions in India and other corners of South and Southeast Asia.


The Naga community, situated on both sides of the border, will also remain a concern for both governments as the concept of “Nagaland” potentially threatens both states’ territorial integrity. From Naypyidaw’s perspective, deeper ties with India can alleviate some of its own concerns about destabilizing developments on its side of the border, while also demonstrating that the country can balance its partnership with China along with other regional actors. Given Myanmar’s economic and political dependence on Beijing, it should be expected that the government in Naypyidaw will only do so much, and with caution. Even if Myanmar’s relationship with China does not fundamentally shift (and we do not expect that it will), India—and other countries such as the United States and Japan—offer Naypyidaw greater leverage against Beijing by emphasizing that Myanmar has other options.


Chinese officials view the gradual development of economic, political and military relationships with India as a threat to Beijing’s unique relationship with the country. Myanmar’s government understands the value it provides to both India and China. India’s security dilemmas and its interest in new sources of oil and natural gas will continue to drive its ambitions vis-à-vis Myanmar for the foreseeable future. At the same time, China’s access to the Bay of Bengal via Myanmar, and the security of energy accessibility via its landlocked southern provinces, make Myanmar an important strategic partner for Beijing. Within this context, deepening ties between India and Myanmar will remain an issue for China.Regardless of whether Myanmar completes it democratic transition or retreats to resume its previous pariah status, its geostrategic significance and natural resources will continue to shape the balance of power in a region where Chinese and Indian interests intersect. China and India can indeed coexist in Myanmar, but China will maintain a distinct advantage by virtue of its recent history, the nature of its military assistance, and its alignment of long term interests with Naypyidaw.



Myanmar’s military rulers have wised up since 1990. After Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in a landslide victory, the military rulers quickly discovered that Democracy threatened control over their self-interests. They promptly placed Suu Kyi under house arrest and returned to their business as usual. Prior to Suu Kyi’s release in 2010 Myanmar’s dictatorship announced its new Constitution.

Myanmar, with its promised time as the ASEAN Chair, now looks at the 2015 national elections with a sentimental eye on the past and one worried eye on the future. With political scrutiny at an all-time high, the government rule is softly moving into a nebulous conditional domain described by key government officials and military leaders as a “Disciplined Democracy.”

A new constitutional law was written recently by Myanmar’s rulers, pre-empting Suu Kyi’s release, to prohibit her from running for President. Responding to the law, Aung San Suu Kyi protested at campaign events with massive crowds, reminding some of the famous 1988 uprisings. The opposition seemed to have no way to counter the support for the one person in Myanmar capable of effectively opposing them for years on end simply by remaining in her own home.

Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy (NLD) followers and like-minded supporters recently made brisk progress, using basic principles of democratic freedom, by gathering millions of signatures to petition the government to amend the law barring her from the Presidency.


Will Myanmar’s current rulers listen to Myanmar’s citizens? Or, will they listen to the Chinese investors, IMF, and other foreign investors currently planning to convert greater Yangon and Mandalay into enormous enterprise zones?

In the past, when Suu Kyi said something, world leaders listened. Their policy reflected well on her words. But now, the situation is different. These days, Washington and other governments seem to need Thein Sein more, while Suu Kyi is becoming a mere symbol for the international community. Foreign diplomats aren’t missing meetings with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but their meetings are more and more appearing as courtesy calls.

The recent reforms rolled out in 2012 by a former general, President Thein Sien, was touted as amazing progress by governments, institutions and people across the globe itching to get their hands on a piece of Myanmar’s vast resources and access to its low wage manufacturing workforce.

With Suu Kyi being nudged out of the top political sphere, her influence on national and regional issues may equally vanish. As Suu Kyi ages and with no national leader remotely as popular in opposition to the military rulers, the NLD may be in danger of permanent collapse. The reality is that while Suu Kyi remains the most influential opposition leader to the current government, she is not the leader of the government. Neither is Suu Kyi just a symbolic figure.

However, until the current rulers stop imprisoning journalists, land rights activists and protestors while ignoring the near-genocidal treatment of the Royhinga people in Arakan State, as well as other ethnic people on the border regions of Myanmar, it’s doubtful that Suu Kyi will just give in and consign her supporters to sweat shops and shopping malls.

Myanmar needs solutions to solve issues of basic human rights, to end the misery and suffering of the poor, the uneducated, the hungry, the homeless, and to set free its child soldiers.


An Invitation from a Neighbour

Myanmar is open for trade and investment but the response from Indian business has not been adequate despite the growing political ties between the two countries.

V. S. Seshadri, Indian Ambassador to Myanmar from July 2010 to February 2013
V. S. Seshadri, Indian Ambassador to Myanmar from July 2010 to February 2013

A message coming out from our neighbour Myanmar that is transforming itself after 50 years of military rule is ‘we are open for business.’ Are our commercial establishments listening and are they ready?

Our bilateral relations with Myanmar have gathered momentum in recent times. We have agreed on a wide-ranging development cooperation agenda. India has made substantial commitments to assist Myanmar in the areas of capacity building, connectivity, infrastructure and border region development. Our trade and economic ties have however not kept pace. India figures at only the seventh place in Myanmar’s total imports and ranks, even lower at the13th place in terms of foreign investments into Myanmar. Being a large and contiguous neighbour, a closer overall engagement would call for a more robust trade and investment share that seems definitely possible at a time when rapid changes are unfolding.

Inclusive Politics

To what extent has Myanmar transformed itself? President Thein Sein has, in the last two years, taken the country towards a democratic path that has made political life more inclusive; it has also enabled Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to enter Parliament, albeit in a small way. The government has released a great majority of political prisoners and launched an ethnic reconciliation process to build peace with the various minority groups that have been out of the national mainstream from before independence.

Some problems have no doubt arisen in taking forward this process. Hostilities broke out with the Kachin rebels but the atmosphere has improved since late January. Tensions have also been building between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. Deadly riots erupted last year in Rakhine state in two spells between the Rohingayas and the Rakhine Buddhist community, leading to casualties and displacement of people. Last month there were attacks against the Muslim community in certain areas in Central Myanmar.

President Thein Sein has acknowledged that rioters have harmed the image of the country buthe has also talked about adoption of a different approach to build trust. In a recent meeting with Muslim leaders, Ms Suu Kyitold them that the law has to be just for all and she would want everyone to feel proud of being a citizen of the country. Building trust and peace to pave theway for an inclusive society is a delicate and painstaking process. It is hoped that the troublemakers are firmly and effectively dealt with and the supremacy of the rule of law is maintained.One can expect that responsible leaders of Myanmar would not want adverse domesticdevelopments to affect its hosting of international events in the coming months – for the first time, the World Economic Forum East Asia Summit in June and the South East Asian Games in December 2013. It will also chair the ASEAN from January 2014.

More Open Economy

Myanmar is also moving towards an accelerated development programme with the promise of a more open economy. An unexpectedly deliberative Parliament, social activism and loosening of media controls have further energised the process. An economic reform programme launched with more debate is likely to be more acceptable and enduring even if the process is slower.Several steps have already been taken. An IMF Staff Assessment Report on Myanmar acknowledges that the government has embarked on a bold set of reforms and cites changes brought about in the areas of foreign exchange, banking, budget formulation, agriculture and improvement in business climate. It further notes that economic performance has improved projecting 1 6.25 per cent growth for 2012-2013 and a growth rate of 7 per cent over the next five-year period. The local currency Kyat, for example, has seen a fair degree of stability.

On the financial front, private local banks have been granted an enhanced role, including in handling foreign exchange transfers, and allowed to consolidate themselves. Steps are under way to make the Central Bank more autonomous from the Finance Ministry.

On the trade side, procedures for import and export licences have been made easier. Myanmar products will also now enjoy concessional market access with the European Union making them eligible for benefits under its GSP scheme. This will be particularly attractive for those establishing garment making units in Myanmar. On the investment front, a new Foreign Investment Law was enacted in November 2012 after which new regulations and procedures for the processing of investment proposals have been issued. The Myanmar Investment Commission has provided further details about the areas where, and in what form, foreign investments will be allowed.

Lake of adequate infrastructure is a constraint and an opportunity. The government is paying attention to setting up power and other infrastructure projects. Expansion of telecom network, airport development, hotel zones in major cities and real estate development, including affordable housing, are other areas where one can see specific initiatives being taken. This is apart from the offers invited for a large number of onshore petroleum and gas blocks for which bids were due by mid-March and which should have elicited a good response. A few
days ago, the government also invited bids for 30 offshore blocks, 19 deep sea ones and 11 in shallow waters.

File photo of Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Vice-Senior General Min Aung Hlaing meeting the then - Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, V. S. Seshadri | Photo:
File photo of Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services Vice-Senior General Min Aung Hlaing meeting the then – Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, V. S. Seshadri | Photo:

Many Indian trade and industry associations have mounted delegations to Myanmar during the last several months. A few product shows have been held. Some companies are exploring trade and investment opportunities. A few have also been shortlisted for certain infrastructure projects. Our companies and industry associations will however need to pack in a lot more punch to significantly improve our trade and investment ranking. The $500 million concessional Line of Credit extended by EXIM Bank of India to the Myanmar government
could play an important role in enhancing trade relations to mutual benefit. Both the governments and the agencies concerned will however need to ensure that the proposals for utilising these credit lines are quickly finalised and translated into contracts.

Development Programmes

Devising suitable commercial strategies can also help to build on our development cooperation programmes. For example, our businesses can explore possible commercial ventures that can ride on the back of some of the infrastructure that will be created from the Indian government- assisted Kaladan project in western Myanmar or the Kalay-Yargyi road project in the North-West that will enable Moreh on our Manipur border to be connected to Mandalay and beyond by 2016 as part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project. Similarly, our IT companies could work on commercial spillovers of benefit to both countries from the Myanmar Instituteof Information Technology that is being set up with the Indian government support as a centre of excellence in Mandalay. All such commercial proposals will no doubt need host country approvals but if they are well conceived and bring value addition, they would be welcomed.

File photo of Myanmar President U Thein Sein (R) meeting with visitng Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, May 28, 2012. The Indian PM visited Nay Pyi Taw during his three-day official tour to Myanmar | Photo: Xinhua/U Aung/
File photo of Myanmar President U Thein Sein (R) meeting with visitng Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, May 28, 2012. The Indian PM visited Nay Pyi Taw during his three-day official tour to Myanmar | Photo: Xinhua/U Aung/

On its part, our government will also have to try and make the cost of doing business with Myanmar more competitive. Encouraging enhanced direct air connectivity between our metros and Yangon is now rendered easier with a more liberal bilateral air services agreement signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar in May 2012. As of now, there is only a tri-weekly Air India flight from Kolkata to Yangon. It is woefully inadequate. Compare this with airlines from Japan, the Republic of Korea, Qatar and Taiwan which have introduced regular flights to Yangon in the last six months, and airlines from China, Singapore and Thailand now flying more frequently every day and to more destinations in Myanmar.

Shipping, Banking & Finance

Furthermore, direct shipping services that will enable our goods to reach Myanmar in a matter of a few days, as in fact they did during the colonial days, than several weeks at present, would play a critical role in facilitating greater trade. The Shipping Corporation of India will need to take the initiative here with some initial support from the government to make the services viable.

Banking and finance are other areas. The United Bank of India made a beginning with the opening of a representative office in Yangon in December 2012. More Indian banks need to follow. Making available easy credit finance would provide a big to suspend or waive the economic sanctions imposed by them earlier, these have not altogether translated into allowing U.S. Dollar denominated letters of credit to be opened vis-à- vis Myanmar. Our banks need to operationalise these as soon as they become possible.

Finally, our businesses have also to learn how to do business in Myanmar. Businesses from countries like China, Thailand, Korea, Japan and Singapore frequent the country. Many of them have established a strong local presence keeping regular contacts with government ministries in Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital, and networking with the local business people in Yangon, Mandalay and other business centres, all of which form an important part. Trade and industry associations of these countries have also made Myanmar a priority country. It is essential that as our political ties and development cooperation efforts gather momentum, our trade and investment relations also gain further strength so that they get to reinforce one another.

India & Myanmar Knowledge Corridor


Myanmar’s educational system is based on the United Kingdom’s own system, due to close to a century of British colonial presence in that country.

It is operated by the government’s Ministry of Education. The Universities and professional institutes from upper Myanmar and lower Myanmar are run by two separate entities, the Departments of Higher Education (Upper Myanmar and Lower Myanmar), whose office headquarters are based in Yangon and Mandalay respectively.

Today, Myanmar lags behind in educational standards. Once a significant educational force in the region, Myanmar today has well-trained qualified teachers, but few resources, and dated content material and standards.

Vol02_InlineText_003As the rest of the world increasingly moves towards a knowledge-based economy, Myanmar’s growth is being essentially driven essentially by the industrial and service sectors. It therefore needs to catch up, and do so quickly. Whether in terms of student-intake capacity, or skilled teacher mobilisation, or providing modern facilities, curricula and content to students, new models that involve private sector participation should be examined. Another move could be for the government to encourage student exchange programmes with Indian educational institutions and with those of other partnering institutions.

Mr. S. Ramadorai Advisor to Prime Minister on National Skill Development Council.
Mr. S. Ramadorai
Advisor to Prime Minister on National Skill Development Council.

The development of the North Eastern part of India is integral to India’s policy on Myanmar. The North East could be used to enable a knowledge corridor and a transit route to South East Asia, especially with Myanmar. The context for the next phase of an Indo-Myanmar relationship needs to be understood in the backdrop of India’s ongoing dialogue with Myanmar, over the past 15 years, which has promoted the concept of an inclusive process of national reconciliation, and transition to democracy.

India is also attaches significant importance to the role it can play in the area of technology and skill development. While the development of physical infrastructure is very important for Myanmar, it is equally important that there is equal emphasis on investments in the technological as well as the social infrastructure in that country. This is a space where India’s own experiments, successes and lessons learnt from failures could prove to be invaluable to Myanmar. In recent years robust bilateral cooperation has taken place, suitably supported by a number of high-level visits on both sides. Our relations with Myanmar today encompass a number of important areas like security, trade and investment, energy, capacity-building, health and education, science and technology, as well as infrastructure development.

As these engagements intensify in the future, and we enable more physical connectivity between our two countries through road, rail air and other trade links, we expect to see further momentum in building mutual ties.

– S. Ramadorai

The Myanmar I Remember

Myanmar, dawn on Irrawaddy river. | source :
Myanmar, dawn on Irrawaddy river. | source :

The author of this article, Dr (Mrs.) Gayatri Mehta, is an Indian, born in Myanmar and currently living in Thailand, who recounts her early years in Myanmar between 1924 and 1929. She made a return visit to Myanmar in 2010.

I was born in Machida town in Myanmar and this is where my experiences in that country began.

This is from the time when Myanmar was a part of India and the British were ruling. My father Shri Krishan Kanhaiya Lal achieved his Civil Engineering Degree from Thomson College, Roorkee. His first placement also happened in Myanmar itself.

Vol4_InlineText09During that time, from Kolkata to Rangoon, one would have to go by sea, which used to take 3 days. I would enjoy every moment of those three days on the ship. My mother was never comfortable during these journeys and was troubled by sea sickness. She would just keep lying down while we children, three of them elder to me, would roam around the ship, eat puri, halva and other Indian delicacies, play and enjoy to the fullest. I very well remember sleeping on the top berth in the cabin and looking at the sea from the window.

On my father’s joining, my grandfather Shri Badri Prasad sent two cooks, one barber, one priest and four other people with us. The barber used to accompany my father on his work. My father would either drink tea or coconut water and would never drink any other water at work.

My mother’s name was Achi Bai but my grannny used to call her Laadli. My elder brother Nalini was two years elder to me. There were more elder brothers and sisters to him who used to study in English medium schools. more…