Northeast India – Myanmar Connect: The Need to Ensure Borderless Trade

A VIEW OF CHAMPAI TOWN IN MIZORAM WHICH LIES CLOSE TO MYANMAR BORDERRelations between Indian and Myanmar go back a long way. These two countries were even the part of the same Union for a long time since 1885 when Myanmar (then Burma) became a part of British India. Myanmar was separated from British India in the year 1937 and eventually India and Myanmar got independence from British rule in 1947 and 1948 respectively. After gaining independence, closeness and cordial relationship between the two countries were maintained because of friendship between India’s first Prime Minister Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru and Myanmar’s first Prime Minister Mr. Nu. However, that wasn’t the very beginning of the closeness between these two countries. Myanmar is located south of the states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India and the people living there have always shared close relationships with each other. Buddhism, which originated in India, is a big connecting factor between them as Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country. In fact, the culture, lifestyle, and even the physical characteristics of the people living in Northeastern states of India are very similar to people of Myanmar. This is quite understandable as anthropologically the people living in this region are the same. Indian state of Manipur particularly shares a big cultural connection with Myanmar due to its close proximity. The similarities are so much that cultures of Northeast India and Myanmar can said to be fully capable of being integrated with each other.

As a result of being under the army rule for a long time, Myanmar remained closed to most of the rest of the world for many decades. The relations with India were still maintained but they were somewhat limited. However, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy  winning the elections and Myanmar moving towards democracy the closeness between these two nations is definitely going to increase a great deal. This change socio-political environment is going to impact over 40 million people living in Indian Northeastern states and 60 million people living in Myanmar a lot. This is a huge market consisting of over 100 million people which presents tremendous trade opportunities. These people already share a very similar culture and can be considered as the same community which has been engaging in commerce since hundreds of years. Additionally, India is a major connecting point for Myanmar to engage in trade with Bangladesh.

These three C’s of commerce, culture and community are extremely important and should be focused on. So, far enough attention has not been paid to these socio-economic factors despite India being the largest market for Myanmar’s exports. In the year 2015, total trade between India and Myanmar stood at around 49 million US dollars. Out of this total amount, Myanmar’s to India amounted to 31million US dollars while Indian exports to Myanmar equaled about 18 million US dollars. Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) expect the trade between India and Myanmar to reach 10 billion US dollars by 2016. However, to achieve that target more focus will need to be given and some concrete steps need to be taken:

  • Tourism can help a lot in bringing India and Myanmar together.
  • Exploring not much yet explored tourism sectors such as cultural, medical, educational, religious and environmental tourism would be greatly beneficial.
  • The Buddhism connection makes religious tourism a great possibility.
  • Educational tourism especially has great potential as renowned academic institutions like Vivekananda School, DPS, and Ramkrishna Mission. When it comes to higher educationIIIT Guwahati is a correct fit for IIIT Mandalay in addition to IIT Guwahati and IIM Shillong.
  • Further opportunities in terms of educational tourism are provided by North Eastern Hill University(NEHU), Sikkim Manipal Institute of Medical Science (SMIMS), Himalayan Pharmacy Institute, Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Tezpur and RIMS, Guwahati.
  • Special focus should be given on enhancing trade through the border towns of Moreh in Manipur and Zokhawtharin Mizoram.
  • Nagas live on both side of the borders and thus Nagaland needs to be provided free access to Myanmar for cordial relations and increased connect between the people.
  • Cultural exchange programs related to dance, music and handicrafts etc. should be organized on a regular basis.
  • Such events encouraging the sharing of culture will help people in seeing their similarities and coming closer to each other while at the same time also learning from each other.
  • Promoting cross border participation in the festivals of the region can act as a great way of improving solidarity and improving people to people connection.

DUE TO BUDDHIST CONNECTION GAYA CAN ATTRACT A LOT OF TOURISTS FROM MYANMARIn order to make the most of the numerous opportunities that exists between India and Myanmar, improving connectivity is of prime importance. India and Myanmar share a1643 Km long international border along India’s North eastern region. Most of this border is porous but that is not a negative point. It should be seen as a positive advantage as it can help in boosting trade and bringing the people across these borders closer to each other. Need for security should not be neglected but cross border movement between these two nations should be encouraged. A secure but borderless world in this region would be a big boon to everyone living here. We should make use of modern security equipment to ensure safety but increased people to people connect through movement between these two countries should be facilitated.

The improvement in economic development that will result from this will in a way enhance security on its own. This is because increased trade will enable businesses to flourish in the region which will provide numerous employment opportunities in the region. The more the youth is employed the less are the chances of its moving towards crime and illegal activities. Hence, more interaction between the community members across the border will enhance both security and prosperity in the region.

  • Initiatives such as Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project and India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway are a great step in this direction and many more such projects need to be started.
  • Air connectivity between these two countries also needs to be enhanced.
  • Flights between Imphal and Mandalay are available but their frequency is not enough and it definitely needs to be improved by introducing daily flights.

So, as is evident from various facts such as lifestyle, culture, eating habits, clothes, handicrafts and even physical features and ethnic identity- people living in India’s north eastern states and Myanmar in fact one community. The Ahoms of Assam and the Shan people of Myanmar are a part of the Tai ethnic group of South East Asia with a common lineage. It is estimated that there are about 4.5 million Tai Man and Shan people in Myanmar and about 4 Million Tai Ahoms in Assam. Similarly many other communities in the North east like the Mizos, Kukis Singpos, Nagas etc. either trace their ancestry from Myanmar or have alarge number of their ethnic brothers and cousins living in Myanmar. Therefore, this region can said to be Indo-Malayan Realm as besides cultural and anthropological similarities this region also shares topological similarities.

The connectivity between people across borders which was there earlier but was lost as India went towards democracy and Myanmar took the Army route needs to be re-established.   Increasing connectivity in this region is the need of the hour and it will lead to increased tourism

which can act as a great way of bringing the people closer together and its potential should be fully harnessed. Besides that the tourism sector focusing upon cultural, medical, educational, and environmental tourism should be developed and encouraged. India being the bigger of the two countries also needs to take more active part in the economic development of Myanmar. India still ranks low in investment in Myanmar. According to the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, at the end of April 2016, combined investment since 1988 at around US $ 733 billion were only 1.15 per cent of total foreign direct investment that Myanmar has received from over 40 countries.

The following steps can be taken to improve this situation:

  • Government investment alone is not going to enough. Therefore, private investments need to be encouraged and supported by the Government.
  • 25-25-50 model can be utilized to increase investment in the region. In this model 25 percent cost of the project will be borne by Myanmar Government, 25 percent will be given by Indian Government and the remaining 50 percent will come from private investors (half of this by Indian private investors and the other half by their counterparts from Myanmar)
  • India’s North eastern states and Myanmar should be considered as core community.
  • The borders between India and should be guarded by security but the region should be considered borderless for increased prosperity.
  • Cross border movement should be encouraged and we should aim at establishing a free trade zone.