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Roads to Mandalay
In 2001, with the fall of Taliban in Kabul, India embarked on a decade of engagement in Afghanistan that has been unparalleled in recent history. A decade later, India can say, with some justifiable pride, that it is one of the biggest players in that country with influence that spreads across the spectrum. India has completed some virtually impossible infrastructure projects, in record time too. Today, we need the same sort of commitment and political vision from Manmohan Singh's goverenment about Myanmar. As the PM heads to Yangon and Naypyidaw on Sunday, the first such visit since 1987, the word has to go out in the system - that Myanmar policies and projects must get priority.
Ask anyone in government and they will read you reams of virtuous lectures about how important Myanmar is for India's security and strategic concerns. Homilies are read out about Myanmar being our gateway to ASEAN. We want Myanmar to be prosperous because in its prosperity lies ours. We want Myanmar to be our springboard for an East-West connectivity corridor project that will increase our reach all the way to Vietnam. Wonderful words, and nobody tires of repeating them ad nauseum.
Yet the intention, too, is evident. The PM will announce a $500 million credit line to Myanmar during his three-day visit. Apparently 18 Indian cities will soon be connected with Yangon by air, which will be fantastic. Close to a dozen agreements will be signed by our PM and Thein Sein in Naypyidaw. The PM is also being sensitive enough to stay only at NayPyiDaw and only spend a few hours in Yangon, where he will briefly meet Aung San Suu Kyi.
He will signal that India continues to deal with the government of the day in Myanmar, which is military-dominated, while reopening ties with Suu Kyi. This is an important signal, because no matter what happens in Myanmar, the military will hold the balance of power for a long time to come. Second, it needs to be remembered that the military-backed political party, USDP, continues to be strongly backed by China. China is the largest investor in Myanmar and it will be a long while before it can be upstaged. It is in our interest to engage them meaningfully, as India works with Myanmar in its opening-up process.
But as many a weary Myanmarese will tell you, "India is all talk. No action. " Reluctantly, you will agree. The Imphal-Mandalay bus service may be a relatively new idea, but we all know it will only see the light of day years from now, when everybody has forgotten about it. Retired diplomats handling the Myanmar brief years ago will tell you that similar bus services had been started, worked in fits and starts and stopped. The showpiece Kaladan multi-modal transport corridor was recently halted because Indian planners found they had miscalculated and they had to work on an extra 29 km inside Myanmar. The Tamanthi and Shweyaze hydro-electric projects that India is building will be compared to projects completed at lightning speed by Korean and Chinese firms.
Let's think differently about Myanmar. Thus far, we have been used to thinking of Myanmar through the prism of our North-east. That's undoubtedly important, but runs the risk of holding our Myanmar ties hostage to our development of the North-East. The latter, we know, will take ages, because New Delhi cannot see beyond its own nose, and the North-east region always falls between the cracks.
Shankar Acharya, economist, has a better idea. He says we should focus on maritime connectivity with Myanmar. So the Kolkata-Sittwe port link should be speeded up, and may be easily done. We can increase connectivity with Vizag and Chennai. Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra invited India to help set up a Chennai-Dawei-Bangkok corridor. This is easy stuff and a low hanging fruit if I ever saw one. Second, ask any Myanmarese what they want from India, and they will say, schools and hospitals. Let's export both CBSE and ICSE. The government can invite big private schools to set up others in Myanmar, and offer subsidies. That will translate into real influence. Similarly, with the healthcare majors, we could ask our big private players to set up the equivalent of primary health care centres. These could be joined up with India's telemedicine network. That's also easily done. And the results will be quick and long-lasting.
Meanwhile, let's not forget Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a huge political and moral force in Myanmar and we need to give that fact adequate importance. That will be a longer term project, but let's remember one thing - all of Suu Kyi's political and spiritual heroes are Indian;with Netaji Subhas Bose and Mahatma Gandhi at the top of the list.
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