(This article is part of our special package on Myanmar. Read more articles here.)
An Indian army colonel posted in Mizoram was arrested for complicity in a case of smuggling 52 gold bars estimated to be worth INR 14.5 crore (USD 2.1 million) from Myanmar in May 2016. This incident drew attention to the illegal transport of goods, weapons, and the almost unregulated border along what was once known as National Highway 39, now a part of the rechristened Asian Highway 1. These dark tales of illegal trade can with a single imaginative change of policy of the governments of the two countries be transformed into a thriving legal trade, bringing in valuable duties for both countries, along with the usual stories of general well-being that successful commercial activity brings to a wide spectrum of people.
The ground is being prepared in earnest for such a transformation and the 1400-kilometre highway, which will begin at Moreh and Tamu, the two neighbouring border townships along the India-Myanmar border in Manipur, and culminate at Tak in the Mae Sot district of Thailand, is set to become operational in another two years.
The Thailand-Myanmar-India highway already exists though it is not always in good condition. Apart from upgrading the highway, there are the challenges of standardisation, issues of customs gates, immigration regimes and coordinating the varying right- and left-side traffic systems. While Thailand and India follow the left-hand drive norm, Myanmar, which once had the same, now drives on the right hand side of the road. Quite peculiarly, a majority of the vehicles in the country are still right-hand drive, sometimes making it awkward for passengers of public transport vehicles, for they are required to mount as well as dismount not on the edge but towards the middle of the roads. Importers were directed to import only left-hand drive cars 2016 onwards.
Since a political decision has been taken, the road should become a reality soon. However, there are reasons to be cautious. India needs to take note of certain political and geographical realities while framing policies as well as moderating expectations from its much hyped but long-delayed Look East Policy, renamed Act East Policy by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in 2014. In a nutshell, looking or acting east should not be just about commerce but also about strategic interest, and more importantly, about the welfare of the people in those regions. However, the latter considerations have often been overlooked.
In this approach, Myanmar or the Northeast are not viewed as the primary targets of this policy. Instead, connectivity is viewed as a way to link India with the vibrant economies of the advanced Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members. The Northeast and Myanmar thus get reduced to a mere land corridor needed to establish this connection to wealthier markets. Or else, the economic worth of the Northeast and Myanmar, which have few industries worth the name, gets measured in terms of their potential for the extraction of their rich mineral deposits and other resources, including timber and hydroelectricity.
This approach, as has been seen elsewhere, only makes people mistrustful of their governments. The public opposition that led to the suspension of the Myintsone Dam project in Myanmar’s Kachin State in September 2011 is an example. This dam, a joint venture between China Power Investment Corporation, and Myanmar’s Ministry of Electric Power and the Asia World Company, was at the time billed to be the 15th largest hydroelectric project in the world with a production capacity of 6000 megawatt. Similarly, the Letpadaung copper mine at Monywa, operated by the Chinese company Wanbao Mining Copper Ltd in collaboration with the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, ran into trouble because of public protests in November 2012, and the terms of the project had to be renegotiated.
On the Indian side of the border, the continuing controversy over the proposal to build more than 100 dams over tributaries of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh, and the concerns raised about proposals for exploring and mining oil and natural gas in Nagaland and Manipur, are evidence of the social unrest and discontent that such an approach can bring. In May 2016 two anti-dam protestors, including a Buddhist monk, were killed in police firing at the monastery township of Tawang on the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh.
This top-down approach leaves many blind spots, and what gets neglected are the outlying underdeveloped provinces and the ‘non-mainstream populations’ of these regions. Since the central interests of such projects gravitate around connecting established urban commercial hubs, the danger of the Northeast and northern Myanmar being relegated to a mere land corridor, cocooned from its immediate surroundings, between the cores of Southasia and ASEAN is a real one.
After all, when trade and commerce become the sole goal, the tendency has also been to opt for the easier maritime routes across the Bay of Bengal, which results again in pushing the Northeast and northern Burma out of sight. This call for inclusion must not be treated as just a lament of those in the Northeast, but a studied consideration of how important stability in this contiguous region is, strategically, wedged as it is between two emerging superpowers, India and China.
Unleash economic spirits
For the moment, China seems to be doing its homework better on this matter. It has used its bridgehead to Southeast Asia, the Yunnan Province, much more imaginatively and productively to connect with Myanmar, and from there to the ASEAN. Yunnan adjoins northern Burma just as India’s Northeast does, but today, China’s integration with the region is far greater than that of India. China has proactively pursued trans-border, sub-regional economic and cultural integration on other fronts too. The Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) experiment vindicates the hypothesis that transforming the modern state to accommodate the inherent aspirations for integration of natural economic regions, which were once undivided by national boundaries, can unleash long bottled-up creative spirits.
The GMS project has greatly succeeded in bringing six nations, which traditionally were bitter rivals, to sublimate their antagonism through enhanced connectivity and economic interrelatedness.
These nations along the basin of the mighty Mekong River, namely Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Yunnan and Guangxi provinces of China, have indeed managed to yoke past antagonisms into mutually beneficial channels of economic cooperation and has in the process reaped immense peace dividends. The GMS initiative has in many ways forged a single economic unit out of these countries, strongly backed by the Asian Development Bank as well as Japan and China for their own long-term economic and political benefits. It is relevant that the project’s officially stated objectives are: connectivity, competitiveness and community.
The underlying logic behind the push for the evolution of economic regions and corridors is that the forces that led to the formation of the political reality of nation states, with their hard, precise, zealously defended political boundaries, are seldom in congruence with natural economic regions that existed in pre-colonial days.
Without compromising the country’s core sovereignty over territories within its boundaries, India’s Act East Policy could potentially soften political boundaries. It would be a welcome miracle if the actualisation of such an economic region comes to supersede the obsession with political boundaries and closed ethnic identities. Though Myanmar’s democracy and peace process are both fragile, the nascent liberalisation should be enough to begin work on the Act East Policy in earnest.
The economic sub-region theory, although it came to be spelled out only in modern times, is not altogether a new idea. The East India Company calibrated their interrelated economic and strategic priorities. After each of the three wars fought with the Burmese Kingdom they annexed territories which formed the economic sub-region.
Various portions of Burmese territories adjoining East Bengal, including Arakan, Tanintharyi were annexed by the British after their victory in the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826; Lower Burma, including Bago and Yangon, was annexed in 1852 after the Second Anglo-Burmese War. After the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, Upper Burma was annexed, and in 1897, the province of Burma in British India was created, thus becoming a major province (a Lieutenant-Governorship).
After 40 years of being a part of British India, Burma began to be administered separately by a newly formed Burma Office in 1937, although it continued to share the same Secretary of State with India.
What is curious to note is that there was scarcely any debate or demonstration when the British decided to separate Burma from British India, not even at a time when the Indian freedom struggle was peaking. Presumably, as a columnist of the Telegraph, Kolkata, Ashok Mitra, wrote in a column titled ‘A Dose Of Heresy’ in 2012, if the then British government had decided to also separate from India the region now known as Northeast, there would probably have been little protest as well. The mainstream Indian psyche has been always obsessively fixated with its western borders and the understandable outcome is the general shortfall in the country’s as well as its citizens’ understanding of the east. The price of this general apathy has been dear. The endemic separatist problems in the Northeast, and the almost complete lack of any intimately pursued Southeast Asia policy, until the dawning of a Look East Policy in the 1990s, is one.
The First Anglo-Burmese War culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826 between the East India Company and the kingdom of Ava. This treaty is also an important landmark in the history of the Northeast because it marked the start of its colonial period after Assam was annexed by the British. Assam then meant almost the entire Northeast with the exception of Manipur and Tripura, which were independent kingdoms – the British chose to leave them as buffer protectorates, for this suited their larger security paradigm.
Once Burma became a part of British India, there were efforts by the British to integrate the Northeast with Burma. In 1895-96, to further their commercial interest, they even came up with the idea of railway links between Assam and Burma via the routes the Indian Government is now considering for railway links. The British plan was to “link the Burma railway system to Prome, in the centre from Lamding via Berima in the Naga Hills to Mayangkhong valley and so through Manipur to Tammoo and Monywa, in the north from Margherita over Patkoi range down the Hukong valley and on through Maiankwan to Mongoung on to the present Shwebo-Myinthkyina line”, L W Shakespear describes in his book History of Assam Rifles.
But the link between the Northeast and Burma is much older than the arrival of the British in the region. Manipur, in particular, has had an engaging history of military as well as commercial relationship with its much larger neighbour, the Ava Kingdom of Mandalay. Owing to constant incursions into the neighbouring communities of present-day Manipur, Myanmar and Bangladesh, there are many colonies of Burmese indigenised Manipuris skilled in various crafts, settled in and around Mandalay even to this day. Likewise, the names of many settlements in the valley area of Manipur suggest these population pockets were originally of Burmese origin. As anthropologist James C Scott claimed in his book Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History Upland South East Asia, these military expeditions were often made to capture skilled populations from each other’s kingdoms and resettle them in their own.
At the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War, the Chindwin River was treated as the boundary between Manipur and Burma thereby giving Manipur the custody of the much-disputed Kabaw Valley. In 1834 however, following repeated complaints by the Burmese, the British gave away the Kabaw Valley to the Burmese, the logic being it would be easier to govern it from Mandalay. British officer, Captain R Boileau Pemberton was asked to to delineate and demarcate a new boundary along the foot of the “Murring Hills”, which is roughly where the present international boundary is. Although in the coming decades it underwent some more modifications, not many are aware that this 1834 boundary is one of the oldest demarcated international boundaries of India. In 1882, the line was modified by British Political Agent in Manipur, Colonel James Johnstone, and in 1896 another Political Agent, Colonel H S P John Maxwell re-demarcated the boundary introducing minor realignments.
Independent India’s Myanmar policy has been rather tentative and noncommittal. After Myanmar’s independence in 1948, India assisted Myanmar’s first civilian government under Prime Minister U Nu financially as well as in terms of military hardware to overcome its birth pangs which were marked by an ethnic turmoil which threatened its very survival. After the military coup in 1962, Burma went into isolation. India was piqued when the new military junta nationalised all businesses and properties and expelled people of Indian origin, forcing over 300,000 people to flee to India and take refuge. In 1988 when there was a popular uprising against the military junta, India chose to side with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but in the 1990s, when it had seemed the military was not buckling under even very tough sanctions by the US and EU, thanks to the continued support of the Chinese, and the refusal of the ASEAN to abandon its neighbour, India began an about-turn in its policy, establishing increasingly closer links with the Junta. By then, however, Myanmar’s partnership with China was already too secure to be dislodged.
With the return of democracy in Myanmar, India is now making a fresh approach and the Northeast is eagerly waiting to see whether this new diplomatic gambit takes a shape that would benefit the region. There will be hurdles, some historical, some political and some a consequence of the new world economic order and geopolitics. When the British annexed Burma, they encouraged Indians who were much more acquainted with their administrative norms to migrate to the country to fill the ranks of lower bureaucracy. As expected, Indians soon came to dominate the landscape, occupying not only the country’s lower rungs of power but also trade and commerce.
As many describe it, the Burmese capital Rangoon was at one point virtually an Indian city. This caused resentment among the local populations, and in 1942, during the World War II, when the Japanese forces entered Burma and swept the country, pushing back British troops across the border into Manipur, there were anti-Indian riots in Burma forcing a wave of Indian refugees to head for India. The derogative term in Myanmar for Indians, ‘kala’ or ‘kalar’, is used today to also describe the Rohingya. This prejudice may however be older than the arrival of the British in 1885. In Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, when the first British cannons were heard in Mandalay, the first to feel the insecurity of the imminent breakdown of law, were the ‘kalas’. Indeed, other than the competition from China, ASEAN, and the West, all of whom now take a keen interest in the new Myanmar, India has to also work on neutralising this scar from the colonial past.
The region’s hope from the Act East Policy then is that the success of the GMS story, with its motto of “Connectivity, Competitiveness and Community” is repeated. The belief is that connectivity will naturally lead to cementing inter-community ties and competiveness, securing lasting people-to-people linkages.
India’s Act East Policy must not be reduced to a development model which lays too much premium on the state and the benefit the state reaps. The belief that the benefits of the state get automatically translated as benefiting people is a fallacy. On the contrary, this approach has been the source of friction and strife between the state and citizens. In such a scenario, development in the region should not have a terra nullis approach, but rather take into account the ground realities while rebuilding ties.
~Pradip Phanjoubam is the editor of Imphal Free Press, and author of The Northeast Question: Conflicts and Frontiers; and the forthcoming Shadow & Light: A Kaleidoscope of Manipur.
~This article is part of our special package on Myanmar. Read more articles here.