Dozens of Naga tribes yearn to reunite the 3 million living in India with their 400,000 estranged cousins in Myanmar.
The king of the Konyak tribe sleeps in Myanmar, but eats in India – his house, village and people divided by a mountain border which serves as a vulnerable lifeline now severed by a coronavirus lockdown.
The Konyak are just one of dozens of Naga tribes, a people yearning to reunite the 3 million living in India with their 400,000 estranged – and much poorer – cousins in Myanmar’s isolated far north.
Many from Myanmar cross the border to attend school, sell vegetables or visit a hospital, as it is a days-long journey by foot to the nearest town in Myanmar.
Even in normal times, they live at the mercy of Indian soldiers guarding checkpoints against the threat of armed groups fighting for reunification.
Tonyei Phawng claims to be the 12th generation of his family to rule the Konyak, whose feared tattooed warriors once brought home their enemies’ heads as trophies.
His son, the crown prince, will one day take over in a lineage many believe possess supernatural powers.
Dressed in a tracksuit and trainers in his village of Longwa, the 43-year-old king described to AFP news agency in February how his Myanmar brothers were often stopped at the border and detained as they were trying to enter India.
“Their rights are denied.”
Days later, the border was shuttered, not at the whim of Indian soldiers, but because of COVID-19.
For the town of Longwa, which straddles the border, the shutdown has impacted the two sides differently.
The Indian government was providing some emergency rations, but Myanmar’s authorities were not doing the same on their side of the border, Longwa-based tour guide Nahmai Konyak, 34, told AFP by telephone.
Those living hand-to-mouth in Myanmar are finding it very difficult, he said. “We just can’t help them.”
Retreating British colonialists left behind the frontier after World War II, cleaving the Konyak tribe of 44 villages in two – alongside several other tribes.
The Naga on both sides enjoy some degree of autonomy, but there is a huge disparity in the level of development.
Indian roads lead right up to the frontier, bringing business and even some hardy tourists.
Over the border, off-grid villages with few schools or amenities dot thickly-forested slopes, connected by muddy paths in one of Myanmar’s poorest regions.
Thousands of Naga have taken up arms over the decades to try to win a united homeland by force.
The rebels splintered in the late 80s into two main groups, one fighting for the Naga cause each side of the border.
Civilians must pay taxes to help finance the groups and many families “sacrifice” a son to the resistance, says Myanmar Naga activist Jacob Ngansa.
But New Delhi’s relative investment is chiselling away support over the border, the 23-year-old admits with sadness.
“They are brainwashed by the Indian government.”
With India-Myanmar relations blossoming, these are ominous times for Naga nationalists.
Myanmar is hungry for new allies after being snubbed by the West over the Rohingya crisis, while India is keen to counter China’s regional influence over its smaller neighbour.
The allies recently held joint military exercises and Myanmar’s president in February signed numerous deals on his visit to the subcontinent – also reaffirming a pact to prevent rebels mounting cross-border attacks.
Politics over force
Other Naga unionists choose politics over force.
The newly-formed Naga National Party aims to woo the Naga vote in Myanmar’s elections due later this year.
Once they are in power, chairman Shu Maung says, they will work within the system to bring change. “You cannot live in your uncle’s house forever.”
The battle for the ballot box has already started.
Regional National League of Democracy MP Kail, who goes by one name, is Naga but says his immediate priorities are education, healthcare and food.
“Once we have those, then maybe the younger generations can take up the fight again for the dream.”
But analyst Bertil Lintner believes the best the Myanmar Naga can hope for is more autonomy within the country.
A united Nagaland is “never going to happen,” he says, not least because the tribes are so divided among themselves.
At a viewpoint overlooking Longwa village, smartly-dressed Rongsen Ao was one of the last tourists to make it to the border before it closed.
Excitedly hopping from one side of a demarcation post to the other, the 65-year-old Indian Naga doctor said he had fulfilled a childhood dream by seeing the frontier in person.
But his smile faded when asked about the Naga’s quest for a homeland.
“Everyone feels bitter about being divided…but this is beyond our control.”
In November-December 2017 I was sponsored by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to complete a three-week internship in Yangon, Myanmar through the New Columbo Program. As an undergraduate university student my work with an NGO at East Yangon University was not eligible for a business visa. Therein lay the challenge: how could I see the most of Myanmar while tied to the city of Yangon for three weeks?
On a 28-day tourist visa, one can hardly even scratch the surface of this complex country – and that’s without being tethered to Yangon for business days. Myanmar is home to more than 100 ethnic groups. Almost two thousand kilometres of land stretch from Arunachal Pradesh to the Bay of Bengal; including glaciers, coral reefs coastal wetlands and more. Do not make the mistake of looking for signs of Delhi in Yangon, or fall into the trap of comparing Ngapali Beach to Ko Samui. Though influenced by the cultures of the countries surrounding it, Myanmar is worth exploring because of its uniqueness, not its familiarity.
Yangon is a city full of life: enchanting, often perplexing and a worthy introduction to the country. In between aging colonial buildings are hints of a more vibrant reality: night markets with fresh river fish still squirming on ice, women and men in longyi of every colour of the rainbow and a skyline lit up by numerous gold pagodas.
In a city of over seven million, you can feel like you belong in a matter of days. This is especially the case if you make the effort to do so. Myanmar language is not broadly spoken outside of the country but smiles are easy to come by – as is curiosity. While you drink in your new surroundings, locals can spy you from afar. Whether a business colleague or a busy street side tea shop, foreigners are peppered with questions. The best way to respond? Tweya da wan ta bad de. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ and add a few questions of your own. When Myanmar citizens travel, it is not uncommon to hear people admit they know nothing about the country. A little effort goes a long way for foreigners to show their interest in Myanmar culture.
At East Yangon University, as with the majority of Myanmar, students dress in longyi every day. Girls often wear matching tailored tops (ingyi), and the traditional acheik water wave pattern competes alongside more contemporary designs featuring the likes of Hello Kitty and emojis. Individuality is permitted and even celebrated on social media; but the attire still lends a sense of uniformity to both the classroom and broader community.
Dressing and speaking like a local – even if in somewhat fragmented ‘Myanglish’ – provides a cloak for exploring. Perhaps only true locals will look forward to the unmistakable condensed-milk taste of Myanmar milk tea in the morning, but an aromatic bowl of mohinga is a breakfast to be savoured. The unofficial national dish of Myanmar is best enjoyed roadside, at a plastic chair and table, watching city life go by. Other staple dishes include Shan noodles and salads seasoned with fish sauce, lime juice and crunchy fried onions.
The best part of spending multiple weeks in a city is the opportunity to savour it. Directions are easy to remember; particularly in Yangon where streets are numbered. Restaurants can be visited 2 or 3 times. What was once unfamiliar becomes speckled with ‘favourite’ spots – the iconic Bogyok Market and its in-house seamstresses and artists; Maha Bandula Park with its perfect view of Sule Pagoda. Despite leaving the city at every opportunity provided – once even to dart across the river to a fishing village called Dala – Yangon was a wonderful welcome home.
Each opportunity to see a piece more of Myanmar’s tantalising puzzle was unforgettable. Local travel agents are a valuable asset particularly as reliable online information can be hard to come by. ‘VIP’ bus is by far the most comfortable way to travel – if you choose the right provided and pay between $20-25 USD, the seats will be spacious, the coach will be air conditioned and sleep will be easy to come by. Internal flights are much quicker but also less reliable. When time is precious, choosing air travel is often unavoidable.
Mandalay also has an international airport and is well connected to the country’s most popular tourist sites. The city merits a visit by its own right; particularly for a weekend away from Yangon. Mornings in Mandalay are tranquil by comparison and leaving the south means escaping the heat. Beauty is everywhere and in different forms. On the outskirts of the nearby Anisakan village is Dat Taw Gyain, a 120m tall roaring waterfall. Kuthodaw Pagoda features the world’s largest book: comprised of two-metre-high standing stone pages. Mandalay Hill is an essential visit for sunset. Dotted with pagodas and monasteries along the way; Suntaungpyei Pagoda sits atop them all.
Mandalay is rife with opportunities for exploration and adventure. For just the opposite, the closest beach getaway by distance to Yangon is Ngwe Saung. The coastal village sits aside the Bay of Bengal, with access to snorkelling, swimming and snoozing for a deserved break from normal. Accommodation options vary from backpacker-style bunkers to resorts and villas; which means the company is diverse. Many in Myanmar wear thanaka, a traditional cosmetic product made from ground bark and it is particularly popular in Ngwe Saung for its sun protection properties. Seafood is a must here, as well is an Inle Lake, an undoubtedly more popular water destination for tourists.
The nearby township Nyaung Shwe is full to the brim with lake-oriented exploration activities; such as cycling routes around the shoreline and boat trips to floating markets and restaurants. Cooking classes and day spas are easy to come by, and a winery set atop a mountain provides another stellar sunset location.
Even with less than 48 hours to devote, Bagan is a non-negotiable part of any visit to Myanmar. Seeing the sun rise and set over thousands of thousand- year old temples is a breathtaking spiritual experience. Paying a $25 USD entry fee to the Bagan Archaeological Zone is worth it to contribute to the preservation and restoration of the temples; especially considering the complicated relationship with UNESCO. There is no need for an itinerary in Bagan. You simply hop on a bike, take along a map that is hardly worth glancing at and instead gaze at the endless miles of pagodas. Locals will tell you stories about their history and guide you to hidden staircases where you can ascend to a new view of the horizon. The experience is one that summarises travelling in Myanmar: difficult to plan, infinitely easy to enjoy and utterly unforgettable.
It is human nature to look for signs of home when faced with the unfamiliar. Leave this tendency behind when travelling in Myanmar. To the majority of the world, Myanmar is unfamiliar and that makes the prospect of discovery an opportunity that should not be passed off.
Ria Bhagat is an Australian law student with many passions; two of which are protecting human rights and travelling the world.
Myanmar’s slackened shrimp exports has caused its largest export market – Japan to support Myanmar in mushrooming its shrimp export supplies and its capacity building aspects. A host of reasons leading to the culled supply of the same stems from the report detailing exports to Japan. The report is backed by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The reasons span from inefficient breeding technology, virus in the farmed fishery sector, loss of their natural habitat and inept preservation of fishery resources.
To allay the region’s limited supply of shrimps, Japan’s development aid agency has come forward to assist the country in boosting its export market and thus, enabled the Myanmar Trade Promotion Organisation(Myantrade) to review aquaculture practise. JICA’S mentor Mr. Kazuo Mishima asserted, “The country needs to increase its export supply capability as well as product quality and value.”
It’s been reckoned that the availability of 120,000 hectares of land and the right resources makes Myanmar fit for shrimp farming, given it is supported by the appropriate infrastructural requirements as per the department of Fisheries. On this, Vice Chair of the Myanmar Fisheries Federation Mr. U Kyaw Tun Myint expressed, “The Rakhine and Ayeyarwady coastlines can be used to farm and produce white Vietnamese shrimp for the purpose of export.”
The recent percentage of shrimp export from Myanmar to other countries is as follow – 24% to India, 4% to Japan and 27%to Vietnam. However, to accelerate this percentage share, productional raise of the shrimps has been proposed by Myanmar Trade Promotion Organisation (Myantrade) via tax incentives and procedural ease.
Recommendation of an effectual and sustainable aquaculture strategy to fix supply shortage of shrimps has led to framing of a National Aquaculture Development Plan (NADP) to formulate a long-term development of this sector.
As part of the Denmark- Myanmar 2016-2020 programme, Denmark shall assist and cooperate with Myanmar’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Conservation for a project on Administration of Mangrove Forests. Denmark’s Ambassador to Myanmar Mr. Peter Lysholt Hansen signed an agreement with the Environment Ministry at Nay Pyi Taw wherein Denmark has earmarked US$5.5 million for the project, along with its technical know-how. This assistance by Denmark is stipulated for a period of over five years, catering to the people of coastal regions of the Rakhine State and the Tanintharvi region.
The project strives to promote locally produced forests, discouraging excessive dependence on mangrove forests. With primary focus on environment protection and conservation, enhancing local’s capacity to concentrate on other projects while generating maritime business is also an underlined part of this association. Director General of Forest Department Dr. Nyi Nyi Kyaw remarked, “We will suggest best practices that won’t damage the environment and the daily lives of local people but will develop social and financial benefits.”
While observing the importance of mangrove forests in conserving the environment, Dr. Kyaw further highlighted the urgency of technical and financial aid in meeting the conservation needs sufficiently.
Sustainable development of mangrove forests is the need of the hour for Myanmar’s vulnerability to climate change is immense. Being reckoned as natural sinks of greenhouse gases and cyclone fighters for the well-being of coastal communities, mangrove forests need immediate rehabilitation and restoration.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, a conference was held at the Myanmar International Convention Centre in Nay Pyi Taw. State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi while addressing the gathering, talked about the rights of the rural women, the need to promote them in order to build a better future and life. She pointed out the discrimination between men who are expected to move out for work while the women stay behind. Thus, highlighting the precarious state of rural women.
The State Counsellor urged the Health and the Sports Ministry to concentrate on the condition of the rural population, particularly women. The improvement in the status of their health conditions would be a reflection of development in the rural sphere, and in consequence, leading them onto the path of equality with the urban populace. She added, “The ministry will have to start by improving the health of children and mothers in the villages.”
Thus, shrinking of urban and rural gap is essential and imperative in accomplishing sustainable development goals, with development of women being at the core of this mission. Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Mr.U Win Myat Aye further stated, “If we utilise the existing resources more effectively for rural women’s development, there will be more success.”
Focussing on the nutritional requirements of the children, Aung San Suu Kyi expressed, “It’s crucial to develop the right mindset in your sons and daughters from the time they are born. Women are invaluable. No matter how much a father says he loves his children, there are only a few who can spend as much time with a child as a mother can.”
One of the development projects designed to uplift rural women is being implemented by the Rural Development Department called Mya Sein Yang project. This public- based project intends to electrify the villages that lie outside the purview of the power grids. Apart from this, various other village development projects impacting the lives of women have also been initiated.
Establishing newer and improved trade channels to facilitate enhanced cross- border trade between the countries of Myanmar and Thailand was recognised at the meeting held between the State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Somkid Jatusripitak in Nay Pyi Taw.
Mr. Somkid Jatusripitak while underscoring the significance of economic relations between the two neighbouring countries, expressed his willingness to support Myanmar’s agricultural and industrial sectors. Financially revamping, upgrading and developing the immature areas of the Myanmar-Thailand Highway was asserted and stressed upon by him to further strengthen Thailand‘s cordiality with Myanmar.
The Myanmar -Thailand Road is expected to swell trade, commerce and employment prospects along with enhancing connectivity to other South-East Asian countries. He proposed setting up of a specific community for the purpose of supplementing the upgradation work of the Myanmar-Thailand Road.
The possibility to accentuate trade along the border areas as a result of new avenues being opened up along the border was also mentioned in order to enable new routes for the purpose of cross- border trade between both the countries.
This integrative economic endeavour aims to forge a sense of economic equality between Myanmar and Thailand wherein Myanmar is being reckoned as a probable supplier of goods and services to the international community. Thailand’s trust in expanding Myanmar’s economic base to the global arena reverberates the impression – ‘Myanmar is the farmland, Thailand is the kitchen’. Chair of Thai- Myanmar Business Council and Deputy secretary general of FTI Mr. Panitarn Pavarolavidya exclaims, “We want Myanmar to be the farmland, and also the kitchen, so we will help until Myanmar and Thailand are able to stand equally in the supply change.”
Leveraging the pervasive digital opportunities exploding the current scenario, United Motor Works (Siam) Public Co (UMWS) has exhibited its expansion plans in the region of Myanmar.
One of the foremost distributors of premium quality industrial and automotive tools and machinery in Thailand: UMWS is driven to extend its commercial presence in Myanmar primarily, followed by Laos, Malaysia and Cambodia in the span of three years.
Managing Director of UMWS Mr. Atsushi Tomita regards growth prospects through digital ventures extensive with its credibility of overcoming geographical barriers. Capitalising on Thailand’s immediate neighbour Myanmar seemed pertinent to him. Believing in shared beneficial arrangement between Myanmar and Thailand, he reckons Myanmar as their second largest market in ASEAN. He remarked, “The firm would officially launch in Myanmar by next year, bringing its Thai product range and other products to meet local market demands. It will mainly focus on handling and lifting equipment as well as automotive garage items.”
The way forward to grip the Myanmar market lies in embracing its local culture and in being able to strike a chord with its local people. He added, “We need to fit the culture and situation of Myanmar market and hope to ease our challenges by engaging with the right local
partner. We will ensure we recruit local people to manage the market.”
With a total of 8 million shares and current paid-up capital of Bt80 million, UMWS has 59 shareholders since its establishment as a public company in 1947. As per Tomita’s expansion roadmap, 10% of the firm’s registered capital is devoted toward that.
In its market segment, UMWS is positioned among the top three. Tomita plans to clock new milestones in Thailand before he expands his network to other nations and finds its presence in the ASEAN Economic Community. He says, “Depending on the demand, we will continue growing the overseas business further, hopefully to 50 per cent in the future.”
The ruffled circumstances brewing in Myanmar have not refrained Japan from being a constant in Myanmar’s economic upliftment. Its cordial gestures have time and again surfaced to ameliorate Myanmar’s business landscape.
Being disconnected from the commercial segment for long, the need to be integrated and linked with the regions around is a must for the nation to prosper. To cultivate circumstances of cross- border trade, Japan’s delivery giant – Yamato, emerged to provide operational and logistic support solutions to Myanmar. Along with its subsidiary based in Singapore and Aye International Group Company, a joint endeavour called Yamato Global Logistics Myanmar Company was shaped last December. Its scheduled to begin its operations from April.
With the support and services offered by Yamato, the import and export logistics involved between both the countries and further with the South-East Asian countries, is expected to bring efficiency in the whole system.
With the intent to build and mature operations in Myanmar and integrate it with the regional supply chain, solutions being forwarded by the Yamato Group comprise cross- border transport, warehousing, freight forwarding services, home relocation services etcetera.
Yamato Group expressed, “Our main target will be the B-to-B market, such as production goods market, consumer goods market, and B-to-B logistics such as procurement and delivery. We think our challenge will be how we can differentiate ourselves compared to our competitor, by providing added value to our forwarding businesses.”
Yamato’s Singapore subsidiary -Yamato Asia owns 80pc stake, with the contribution of US$400,000, and the domestic firm Aye International Group (AIG) owns 20pc stake with the coverage capital of US$100,000.
Being in the immediate geographical space with Thailand which is the regional centre of industrial activities, Myanmar’s participation in the region’s cross-border trade and logistics market was deemed essential and imperative by the Japanese delivery giant. Thus, the cross-border opportunities enabled by being part of the regional supply chain will bolster the manufacturing scope of consumer and industrial goods, along with its procurement and delivery aspects.
Thereby, with its expansion plans to Myanmar and Southeast Asia, Yamato Holdings have put Myanmar onto the path of acceleration and integration with the regional and global economy.
India’s Exim Bank under its Market Outreach Programme has evinced interest to invest in the healthcare sector of Myanmar. Post its liberalisation, interest from the global sphere in Myanmar’s investment landscape has revitalised, making the country more engaged and interested in the buzzing economic prospects offered by the word outside.
To fiscally benefit and support Myanmar’s health segment, a delegation from India’s Exim bank reached Myanmar early February as part of the bank’s Market Outreach Programme. This programme was undertaken to help the people of Myanmar receive better medical facilities in their own country. India has been well equipped in treating health problems owing to its advanced medical expertise and knowledge. This arrangement aims to provide affordable and efficient medical attention to the ailing people of Myanmar and prevent the urgency to travel to countries abroad for an expensive medical treatment leading to outflow of foreign capital from the reserves of the country.
Along with it, the opportunity to finance Indian investment in Myanmar was reckoned tantamount to Government of India’s Act East Policy. The delegation, on studying various sectors in the region perceived healthcare domain as the most significant segment in need of private sector investments. The Market Outreach Programme was carried out by the Exim Bank at Hotel Sule Shangrila, in association with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
The delegation to Myanmar was led by the Deputy Managing Director of Exim Bank of India Mr. Debashish Mallick. Members from Indian private sector hospitals, medical equipment and devices manufacturers, pathology labs, and hospital management companies were part of the delegation.