India-Myanmar relations are rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties. As the land of Lord Buddha, India is a country of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar. India and Myanmar relations have stood the test of time. The geographical proximity of the two countries has helped develop and sustain cordial relations and facilitated people to people contact. India and Myanmar share a long land border of over 1600 km and a maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal. A large population of Indian origin (according to some estimates about 2.5 million) lives in Myanmar. India and Myanmar signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1951. The visit of the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 laid the foundations for a stronger relationship between India and Myanmar.
NORTH EAST CONNECTIVITY TO THE WORLD
Connectivity within the region and with rest of the world still remains poor. The region has about 2600 kms of railway lines, but till today only two state capitals are connected by railways, with bulk of the lines lying in the states of Assam and Tripura. The Trans Asian Railway (TAR) network still has missing links such as the 219 km Jiribam – Moreh line. When completed, it would extend India’s rail system to the border with Myanmar and eventually the TAR would pass through the North East and provide a cheaper mode of transportation between the North East part of India, ASEAN and China.
In terms of connectivity by air, while the number of flights has increased, the number of destinations served has actually come down from 17 in the 1970s to 11 at present.
A number of agreements enhancing bilateral Cooperation have been signed between the two countries. Institutional mechanisms for facilitating regular dialogue on a range of issues of bilateral interest have also been established. During 2002, the Indian Consulate General in Mandalay was re-opened and the Consulate General of Myanmar was set up in Kolkata. Following the cataclysmic cyclone ‘Nargis’ which hit Myanmar in May 2008, India responded immediately with relief materials and offers of assistance. India also provided assistance of US $1 million for humanitarian relief and rehabilitation in the areas affected by the severe earthquake in Shan State in March 2011. Of this amount, US$ 250,000 was provided as a cash grant to the Myanmar Government while US$ 750,000 was utilized for reconstruction of one high school and six primary schools in Tarlay Township that was worst affected by the earthquake.
NORTH EAST INDIA – BRIDGING ASEAN AND INDIA
As of now the North East Frontier has 30 land customs stations (LCS) with Bangladesh (9 of them non-functional), 3 with Myanmar (1 non-functional), 3 with Bhutan (2 nonfunctional) and 1 with China. Trade through most of these LCS is minimal with only Moreh (with Myanmar), Agartala, Karimganj and Dawki (with Bangladesh) accounting for some substantial trade.
This however is far from a true reflection of the potential. The North East (NE) shares over 5,300 km of border with neighbouring countries including China, Bangladesh and Myanmar. With the opening up of Myanmar, the region will be strategically placed to act as a bridge between mainland India and the ASEAN countries.
To put the opportunities in perspective, the upcoming Asian Highway-1 (AH-1) connecting the entire breadth of Asia from Japan to Turkey and Asian Highway-2 (AH-2) connecting Indonesia to Iran, will both pass through the North East, and the Trans Asian Railway (TAR) Project will also intersect the Asian Highways in the North East. The confluence of rail and road traffic from entire Asia will indeed give rise to great opportunities for the region. At present the bilateral trade between India and its eastern neighbours including ASEAN is well over $200 billion. This is only going to grow in the years to come. If even a small percentage of this trade gets diverted through the land route once it opens up, it will provide the North East a great opportunity.
To be able to take advantage of the emerging opportunities, the region has to put in place world class infrastructure for transport, logistics, processing and value addition; create a pool of skilled manpower; and come up with a long term vision that aims at leveraging its core competencies.
For the NE to develop at a faster pace and catch up with rest of the country, it is imperative that the artificial isolation that the frontier region has been living through for the past 65 years be ended. The best way to integrate the NE with the mainstream national and global economy would be to build robust economic and physical connectivity with the neighbouring countries.
TRILATERAL HIGHWAY LIKELY BY 2016
An ambitious project to develop a 3,200 km highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand was an important item on the agenda of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Bangkok earlier this year. The alignment of this trilateral highway falls within AH-1 and AH-2.India has already given Myanmar $500 million in financial assistance, a part of which will be used to fund the project which, when completed, will connect India, Myanmar and Thailand.The improvement in physical connectivity between Myanmar and North East India would enhance trade between the two countries.