Why India’s Focus Should Stay on Improving Southeast Asian Ties
PM Modi with the State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, Myanmar in Sept 2017.
PM Modi with the State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw, Myanmar in Sept 2017.(Photo: PTI)  

Why India’s Focus Should Stay on Improving Southeast Asian Ties

India-Myanmar Ties: The Role of State Governments

India has been focusing on enhanced connectivity with Southeast Asia and bolstering its Act East Policy, by seeking to enhance economic and trade linkages between Northeastern India (the states of Mizoram and Manipur) and Myanmar.

Some of the key projects which are being given high priority by the Modi government are the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project, which will connect the Sittwe Port with Calcutta, and the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway (a 3,200-km project which stretches from the border town of Moreh to Mae Sot in Thailand).

India is seeking to expand connectivity to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. At the ASEAN Summit in 2016, the PM had proposed a joint taskforce for the same.

Infrastructure has also been upgraded at the Tamu-Moreh land crossing. An integrated check post has been set up at Moreh for giving a fillip to bilateral trade.

A number of important infrastructural projects are being undertaken with funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). They include the NH 54, located in Central Mizoram, which seeks to connect Aizawl and Tuipang. These will give a boost to the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project.

The Importance of Other States in India's Outreach Towards Myanmar

While the Northeast is important, India also needs to utilise other states which have historical and economic links with Myanmar. While the Northeast has geographical connectivity with Southeast Asia, other states such as Tamil Nadu, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab have historical links with Myanmar, and they should play a greater role in ties with Myanmar.

Outreach to South East Asian countries has already picked up in the context of drawing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in infrastructure. Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have already been reaching out to Singapore and Malaysia for FDI in a number of areas, apart from seeking to cooperate in areas like skill development. 

States should be equally pro-active in reaching out to Myanmar and tap the available opportunities in the Southeast Asian country.

There are a number of levels at which interactions can be built:

First, there are a large number of PIOs hailing from a number of states. If one were to look at the case of Tamil Nadu, Myanmar was home to a strong Chettiar community (mostly moneylenders) which had to migrate back after the expulsion of ethnic Indians in 1962.

Though anti-Indian sentiment had built up much earlier, with locals expressing resentment against the Chettiars, the large scale migration took place in the 1960s. 

During his visit to Myanmar, the PM visited the Kalibari temple, which was set up by the Tamil Community. Tamil Nadu has also maintained its economic links with Myanmar, with a number of cement companies shipping cement from Tuticorin to Myanmar.

Also Read: An India Free From Communalism is Being Created: Modi in Myanmar

PM Modi visited Kalibari Temple in Yangon during his Myanmar visit in September 2017.
PM Modi visited Kalibari Temple in Yangon during his Myanmar visit in September 2017.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@narendramodi)

A steamer service had also commenced in 2014 with an eye on rekindling links between Tamil Nadu and Myanmar. There are a large number of PIOs from other states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Punjab.

There are a number of Sikh temples in Myanmar, including one in downtown Yangon. During the British period a number of Sikhs, who were in the army and police, migrated, although a significant number did engage in other professions including business.

Secondly, apart from the PIOs, Buddhism is an important link for Bodh Gaya. The direct flight between Bodh Gaya and Yangon is an indicator, that New Delhi realizes the importance of this link. Amaravati which is showcasing its Buddhist heritage to Southeast Asian and East Asian countries should work closely with Myanmar. The state government is already in touch with Mahayana Societies in Myanmar.

Third, in areas like capacity building, state governments can provide assistance to Myanmar. While India has provided assistance for setting up Centres of Excellence in Agriculture and IT, states which have excelled in these spheres can play an important role. 

Southern Indian states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana can provide assistance in areas like IT, while simultaneously assisting business houses from their respective states who are keen to invest in Myanmar. States which have excelled in agriculture can provide know-how and work jointly with JICA, which is providing significant financial assistance in the area of agriculture.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at the two-day ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting in the Philippines in October 2017
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at the two-day ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting in the Philippines in October 2017
(Photo: AP)
Finally, there is a need to encourage more Indian tourists to visit Myanmar. Currently, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia are the top destinations for most Indian tourists. Given the historical commonalities between both countries, there is no reason why Indians would not be interested in visiting Myanmar.

Greater outreach by state governments will give a boost to the bilateral relationship, and also enhance economic and people-to-people links between India and Myanmar. Outreach by state governments to Myanmar should be followed by more extensive linkages with countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

India’s outreach to ASEAN has witnessed a significant increase in the past two decades, and ties with Myanmar and other CMLV countries need to be boosted further.

Also Read: Nirmala Sitharaman’s ASEAN Summit Visit Is a Step Towards Manila

(The writer is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The OP Jindal Global University (Sonipat, India). One of his areas of interest is India's Act East Policy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)