India’s Myanmar Connection

Northwards by North-East?

While the world looks towards Myanmar’s open door, Myanmar’s neighbours are busy taking position in preparation for participation in its economy.

Thus far, India has a considerable handicap vis-à-vis China in the race to capitalize on the opportunity. China is today far ahead as a trading partner to Myanmar. Besides, China’s long term interest in Myanmar stems not only from its eye on the latter’s natural resources, but also the access Myanmar potentially provides to the markets of the western world through its ports. (China’s susceptibility to the narrow straits of Malacca for its global trading future could also weigh heavily at the back of their minds.) Nevertheless, the major interest from China to participate in Myanmar comes less from Beijing than from Yunnan, situated in closer proximity.

Ranjit Barthakur with Aung San Suu Kyi at the World Economic Forum
Ranjit Barthakur with Aung San Suu Kyi at the World Economic Forum

Among the various neighboring states of Myanmar, Yunnan in China and Thailand represent far higher per capita incomes than India’s North East and Bangladesh. This naturally provides a starting advantage to China and Thailand in the trading race against India. To offset this, India needs to take progress in the North Eastern states more seriously.

The lack of connectivity and poor rail-road links in border areas of Myanmar and India’s contiguous northeastern region poses a formidable challenge for making Myanmar a land bridge between South and Southeast Asia. India’s “Look East” policy could bridge this infrastructural gap including by building roads to connect the two countries.

It is heartening to note that the North-East Frontier Railway (NFR) intends to lay a 118km railway track between Imphal and border towns Moreh and Tamu in Myanmar. This will help in the integration of the North East with the ambitious 81,000 km Trans-Asian Railway Network (TARN) project envisaged to connect China in the Far East to Iran/ Turkey/ Bulgaria across continents. Another phase of NFR’s development will seek to connect Tripura and Mizoram with Myanmar, and form part of the TARN link. In the next 20-30 years, with rising per capita incomes in bordering China and India, Myanmar can show good growth, with good highways, railways and airlinks connecting each other, then, of course, Myanmar will be a gateway to other parts of Asia from the east of India. But in the short term, the importance of Myanmar for India and for Indian policymakers depends on the importance of North-East India for Indians. If North-East India is important, then Myanmar is very important. If Myanmar has to be a gateway for anywhere, an imaginative focus on North-East India is going to be critical.

– Ranjit Barthakur, Founding Chairman, Myanmar Matters.