From Security to Connectivity: A New Phase of ‘Proactive Partnership’ between India and Myanmar

Dr. Netajee Abhinandan
September 15, 2019


Image Courtesy: Times of India

The joint military operation carried out by armies of India and Myanmar for three weeks during May-June this year to ‘eliminate’ terror groups in the bordering areas, achieved significant success though it received less public attention or publicity compared to the similar operation conducted earlier (in March). Christened ‘Operation Sunrise 2’, it was a well-planned and calibrated strategic operation, that reflected not only close cooperation between two armies but also signaled ‘maturing’ of relations between two countries. The operation targeted and destroyed terror camps being run by militant groups like Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), NSCN (Khaplang), the United Liberation Front of Assam (I) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and claimed to have captured around six dozen militants belonging to these groups. It was the biggest-ever operation against insurgents holed up across the border in Myanmar with excellent cooperation with the Myanmarese Tatmadaw.

Both the operations (Sunrise 1 and 2) targeted terror camps of the North-East based militant groups with the apparent aim to safeguard the interests of both India and Myanmar and thwart any attempt to sabotage developmental projects being jointly carried out in border areas. The success of both the operations in terms of intelligence sharing, use of weapons and high-level coordination between two armies reflect geopolitical realignment where India is positioning to play a proactive role to safeguard its security and vital national interests. The March leg of the operation targeted members of the Arakan Army, an insurgent group in Myanmar, who were opposed to the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project. It must be noted that the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project, touted as India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, aims to connect Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state that would pass through the north-eastern state of Mizoram; it will also link Sittwe seaport to Lashio in Myanmar via Kaladan riverboat route and Lashio to Mizoram in India by road transport. It would be a new avenue from Kolkata to Mizoram, reducing the distance by nearly a thousand kilometers and bringing down the travel time by at least four days. Launched as part of the Look East Policy, this project is expected to open up sea routes and thereby promote economic development in the North-Eastern states, and also revitalize the economic, commercial and strategic ties between India and Myanmar.

With China carrying out several infrastructural projects at Kyaukpyu port near Sittwe, the Kaladan project holds crucial significance for India’s efforts to enhance connectivity and commerce with Southeast Asia through the North-eastern gateway. India, seeking greater engagement with Myanmar, has to contend with China which exerts considerable influence over the former’s politics and strategic affairs, especially in being the largest investor who has invested heavily in almost every sector in the country, most notably hydropower, gas, and oil sectors. Also, under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has announced massive projects for Myanmar that include $1 billion port project at Kyaukphyu, high-speed rail and thousands of kilometer of energy pipelines. However, there is a sense of disquiet in Myanmar’s political establishment which apprehends that all these projects that have come as part of ‘soft’ loans and credits might eventually turn Myanmar into a ‘client’ state of China as was its status in the 1990s and early 2000s. Myanmar’s anxiety over China’s expanding influence provides India the opportunity to push its own connectivity projects with Myanmar through mutual partnership and collaboration. While the Indian government is pushing hard to expedite the setting up of the Bangladesh–China–India–Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor, and a 1360km trilateral highway which is being jointly developed by India, Thailand, and Myanmar to be operational by December 2019, that would link the three countries and improve connectivity between India and ASEAN states. India has also undertaken rural connectivity project worth US$77m to provide basic internet access to villages in Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, a scheme that could be replicated in other ASEAN countries.

Most significantly, after the Land Border Crossing Agreement, that got operationalized on August 8, 2019, after a long wait, now any Myanmarese or Indian national with a valid Passport and Visa does not require special permission to cross over through two crossing points; one at Moreh in Manipur, opposite Tamu in Myanmar’s Sagaing division, and the other at Zokhawthar in Mizoram, opposite Rhikhawdar in Myanmar’s Chin state. The operationalization of this agreement, signed on May 11, 2018, is aimed not only at boosting the movement of tourists from both the countries but also at helping establish connectivity between theNortheast and Myanmar, and with the broader ASEAN region. Since August 8, around a thousand medical tourists from Myanmar have visited Imphal hospitals. Also, under the ambitious Bharatmala project, a ₹1,630-crore project has been rolled out to upgrade 110 Imphal-Moreh Highway that would ensure smooth transportation of essential goods. With Manipur intending to open its border for both trade and movement of people from across the border, beginning of Mandalay-Imphal Bus Service and easing of Visa processing and people-to-people exchanges are expected to gain significant momentum. As the strategic interests of India and Myanmar align, the relations between the two neighbors are set to enter into a new phase of ‘proactive partnership’.

*** The author is Director of Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies and currently working as assistant professor of political science at Ravenshaw University ***