Indo-Myanmar Relations: Complexities of Geography and Connectivity

Dr. Anup Shekhar Chakraborty
April 6, 2019

The neighbourly relations between India-Myanmar are rooted in ‘shared heritages’ of interconnected historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties in South Asia. India and Myanmar share extensive territorial spaces and sites through four north-eastern states namely, Arunachal (520 km), Nagaland (215 km), Manipur (398 km) and Mizoram (510 km). The author describes both sides of North East India and Chin state and Sagaing region in Myanmar as ‘disgruntled geographies’, because of interweaving complexities of the geography. Also, the region as ‘disgruntled geographies’ have witnessed the mushrooming of armed insurgent groups.

The people on both sides of the border have ethnic, religious and cultural ties since centuries. Consider the Sagaing region, bordering Nagaland and Manipur interestingly, which has a varied mix of people with different sub-ethnicity like Bamar, Chin, Shan and Naga population practicing Buddhism and Christianity. This factor is being exploited by some of the ethnic militant groups in North East India (PREPAK and PLA in Manipur, and the China backed Kachin Independent Army (KIA) in Myanmar to name a few) to seek shelter in Chin state, Sagaing region, Arakan and Rakhine region for their anti-India activities. The complicacies of the region and its lived space are further riddled when one focuses on issues of citizenship and regulating citizenship. For instance,  PemLekha issued by vigilant groups or by the civil society groups such as the YMA (Young Mizo Association) or even by the Village Council in Mizoram are used to circumvent the official barriers of checking illegal immigrants and citizenship. These local practices are considered in sync with the spirit of Indo-Burma treaty of 1952 on Border Affairs which allows free movement of the local ethnic tribals on both sides for the purpose of carrying on local trade and social visits. The border areas of southern Mizoram  (India) and Arakan, Rakhine (Myanmar) have been serving as the traditional camp spaces for anti-India trainings since the days of the insurgent Mizo National Front (MNF) and have doubled as safe haven for ‘anti-Barmar’ (dominant ethnic group) organisations in Myanmar .

Of late, both countries have now focused on ‘Development of Border Region’ towards capacity building, development of infrastructure and securitization/sanitization in the region. India’s contribution to capacity building and infrastructural development in Myanmar includes its investment in border region projects such as the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP). The KMMTTP aims to connect the Bay of Bengal to Mizoram through Myanmar hinterland using sea, river and road transport modes and in the process promote growth and development. This involves development of port at Sittwe, dredging of waterway along Kaladan river from Sittwee to Paletwa (158 km), development of IWT at Paletwa and development of road from Paletwa to Mizoram border (129 km). The work on the project started in 2008 and deadlines have been deferred since. The technical hurdles and glitches in the planning and oversights of geographic challenges, and also, the armed insurgents and inter-ethnic animosities have delayed the project.  Movement of goods to the North East through Myanmar from India or ASEAN and its extensions is likely to bring down the present transportation costs and will provide the much awaited economic boost to India’s Indo-Pacific linkages.

The other initiative to keep Myanmar and the trans-border ethnic sentiments favourably inclined to India is the Construction and Up-gradation of Rhi-Tiddim Road. The project involves development of approx 80 kms of road in Myanmar from border town of Rhi upto Tiddim opposite Mizoram. The MoU for the same was signed in December 2012. The project is expected to boost the border trade in Mizoram (Zokhawthar- Rih gates) which has seen limited growth since 2004. Other projects include the Trilateral Highway Project. India has recently commenced work on up-gradation of some segments of project (about 1,360 km) connecting Moreh (Manipur) to Mae Sot (Thailand) through Myanmar. The project is to be executed jointly by India, Myanmar and Thailand by 2016. However, political and financial will are key to successful completion of this project. The Up-gradation of the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyoa Road is another project in the direction of Indo-Myanmar collaborative engagement. After completing resurfacing and maintenance work, the approximately 160 km stretch of road across Manipur has been handed over to Myanmar. However in 2012, India has undertaken to build/upgrade the 71 old iron bridges on this road and to extend the highway further to Monywa as it is a segment of the Trilateral Highway. Enhancing of this road capacity has potential for a multifold increase in border trade especially in Manipur (Moreh-Tamu points) provided the other issues are also addressed by both the sides. The Economic Aid to Chin State that India has provided (US $ 6 million for development of Chin State) is the first of its kind from India. India’s aid diplomacy should provide greater leverage with Myanmar, going forward.

Better neighbourly relations with Myanmar and prosperity amongst people living in border areas on both sides augurs well for the security of India and is in its national interests. Hence various infrastructure development projects being undertaken in Myanmar, if timely executed and made functional, will tackle not just the immediate security concerns but also check China’s increasing engagement in Myanmar. The Government of India should also make provisions to provide economic aids for specific projects to the Myanmarese governments of bordering Sagaing region and Chin state to foster close links and gain cooperation on various border issues. Simultaneously, within the North East region, the logistics and modalities of connectivity (road, rail, air, inland waterways) should be boosted keeping in vision the environmental sustainability issues of the region and convert the ‘disgruntled geographies’ into a ‘lived economic hub’, thereby, wayfinding connectivity to champion India’s Act East Policy objectives and positively affect the neighbourhood and ‘Neighbourhood first policy (NFP)’ in South Asia.

*** The author is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science & Political Studies, Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata ***