Activating the Act East Policy: Northeast India and Myanmar

Obja Borah Hazarika
May 26, 2019
Image Courtesy:

As of 23rd May 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an overwhelming mandate in the general elections of India making it the single largest party for the second consecutive time. Such definite confidence bestowed by the people of India on the BJP makes it an immensely powerful entity. Such resounding faith of the people on the BJP, it is hoped, will enable the party to work towards a country thriving with harmony between the myriad peoples; towards security– both human and national; and towards policies which promote domestic as well as international progress for all concerned.

With regard to foreign policy, the BJP-led government from 2014 to 2019 had made India’s neighborhood an important reference point in its policy pronouncements on the Act East Policy. Initially, the policy, which originated under the Congress-led government of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, was economical in its thrust and gradually acquired political, institutional and cultural nuances. Strategic ties have been established with countries of South East Asia, Australia as well as South Korea. Regional initiatives are also an integral part of India’s Act East Policy, especially the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Asia Cooperation Dialogue, and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation.

India’s ties with these countries have been harnessed to fulfill domestic objectives relating to infrastructure development, manufacturing sector, trade and commerce, skill upgrade, urban renewal policies, smart cities initiatives and the scheme of Make in India. The policy also aimed to improve the state of the Northeastern region of India through cross border haats to boost trade, revive cultural linkages, promote infrastructural developments in border countries such as the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport project to connect with Myanmar, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project, and Rhi-Tiddim road project.

The focus during the BJP-led government from 2014-2019 was on ensuring conducive strategic ties vibrant cultural relations and dynamic economic cooperation between India and its neighbors, both in the immediate and extended vicinity and at bilateral and multilateral levels. The Act East Policy has also shown inclinations of expanding India’s engagements with the countries located along the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. In this regard, a discernible trend has been the Modi government’s willingness to work closely with the US as was evidenced by the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region and India’s involvement in the new quadrilateral dialogue between the US, Japan, and Australia.

The new BJP government, with its astounding victory in the just concluded elections, can inject fresh vigor into the Act East Policy. One of the ways in which the Act East Policy can be furthered is by strengthening people to people contacts in the Northeast of India as many of the people, especially those away from the capitals of the seven states, inhabit the borders defy political cartography. These people can also be the natural ambassadors of the country. The example of Longwa village in Nagaland can be cited as a reference to this point. Longwa is situated on the India-Myanmar Border, about 42 kms from Mon district headquarters of Nagaland district, inhabited mostly by Konyak Nagas. The India-Myanmar border passes through the village, and it divides the chief of the villages’ house into two halves, one in India and the other in Myanmar. Given the unique situation of the village, the locals do not require a passport or visa to cross borders.

Drug pedaling and arms smuggling are reported from the region which remains bereft of other livelihood avenues. Several such examples of border regions in dire need of support and all-round investments can be cited to underline the point that these areas need to be roped into the vision of the Act East Policy, especially the aim to usher progress in the Northeastern region of India. While Dispur, Shillong, Aizwal, Itanagar have to some degree found a footing in the Act East Policy narrative, the need is to go beyond these lofty capitals to the places which are organically connected with the immediate neighboring countries surrounding the Northeastern region of India – Bangladesh, Myanmar, and China. Once other livelihood means are established along with infrastructural developments, it will not only counter drug smuggling and other anti-social acts but will also usher greater cooperation between the two countries involved given that the people already live without politically cultivated animosity which is usually found in post-colonial border regions.

A second way forward in activating the Act East Policy especially with regard to Myanmar could be to counterbalance China not by joining a needless rat-race on big-project investments in Myanmar which India will lose given China’s greater capital clout but to concentrate on Small and Medium Enterprises instead which could aim to help reinvigorate Myanmar’s small businesses and industries. In this regard, one can refer to the dwindling lacquerware business of Bagan in Myanmar. Once a thriving industry which provided employment opportunities to many youths, it is now facing extinction according to reports from Myanmar. Fake and lower-priced lacquerware items now flood Myanmar, which has an adversarial impact on the entire industry. India can invest in such sectors which are tied to the culture of the Bagan region in Myanmar. Apart from saving a cultural legacy, such investments would help India participate in reviving an industry, which provides opportunities of livelihood to the local people which stand in stark contrast to China’s investments such as dams, copper mines, and oil pipelines. Chinese investments have often led to protests due to displacements, ethnic strife, and possible environmental degradation.

The second consecutive Narendra Modi led government is favorably positioned to push forward many a new policy on the foreign front. A thrust on people to people contacts of the borders of Northeast India and investment in Small and Medium Enterprises in Myanmar will fuel the activation of the Act East Policy

*** Dr. Obja Borah Hazarika, is currently teaching as an Assistant Professor in Dibrugarh University, Assam since 2013. Her research interests include international relations and riparian relations. ***

Note: Written with inputs from Prof. Deba Kumar Chakrabarty, Professor, Economics, Dibrugarh University.