The 19th round of Foreign Office Consultations between India and Myanmar held through virtual mode on Thursday offered an opportunity to explore newer areas of cooperation including in area of infrastructure along borders, trade and investments. The Indian delegation at the Consultations was led by Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla and the Myanmar delegation was led by Permanent Secretary, U Soe Han.
In an important development India has agreed to provide debt service relief under the G-20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative to further assist in mitigating the impact of COVID-19. India has given steadfast support for Myanmar’s democratic transition, national reconciliation and peace process. India is willing to extend its help and share experiences in constitutionalism and federalism.
During the consultations, both sides reviewed the entire gamut of relations, including border cooperation and upgradation of border infrastructure, status of India’s ongoing development projects in Myanmar, trade and investment ties, power and energy cooperation, consular matters and cultural cooperation, including the ongoing restoration work on earthquake damaged pagodas in Bagan. Cooperation in regional and multilateral fora was also discussed.
Both sides expressed satisfaction that despite the ongoing COVID pandemic, meetings in several areas, including power, energy etc., have been held through virtual mode and the next Joint Trade Committee Ministerial Meeting to be held on October 20.
The two Foreign Secretaries also held extensive discussions on ways to mitigate Covid-19 impact, including through vaccine development, supply of medicines, equipment and technology and capacity building.
“Myanmar is a country of special importance to us as it stands at the confluence of our ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies…We are meeting in exceptional times that have thrown up challenges but also avenues and opportunities to collaborate in divergent and multifaceted areas. India is prepared to continue to extend all possible support to Myanmar in mitigating the health and economic impact of COVID-19. I also wish to inform you that Government of With respect to the COVID vaccine, we stand committed to sharing our capabilities with our strategic partners, including Myanmar, in our collective best interest,” Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla said in his remarks at Thursday’s meet.
He also requested Myanmar for an early conclusion of the Extradition Treaty, Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty on Civil and Commercial matters and Agreement on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons. It may be recalled that Myanmar handed over 22 insurgents to India in middle of this year.
Myanmar is India’s closest defence partner in the region. A team for the deployment of Meteorological squadrons will be reaching Myanmar this month. India will also host Myanmar’s representative at Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region.
India’s assistance to Myanmar is around $ 1.4 billion. The Sittwe Port, key to Kaladan Multimodal transport project will be operationalised by the first quarter of 2021. With respect to the 69 bridges on the Trilateral Highway, India will soon be moving forward with the tendering process.
Other agreements such as Project Agreement for the establishment of modern Integrated Check Post at Tamu, MoU for the construction of 50 basic schools and the Project Agreement for upgrading of agricultural mechanization sub-station will be signed shortly. India will also extend support for the construction of Bwaynu bridge in Myanmar.
Meanwhile, the validity of MoUs on the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology and the Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education (ACARE) have been extended. The first batch of engineers are expected to graduate from MIIT this year. Both sides are working on the modalities of a training program for the Myanmar Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU). India will continue to extend assistance and support to Myanmar in meeting its FATF related obligations.
There has been some progress on the setting up of the Basic Technical Training School and the courses are likely to commence from April next year. India will also support Yamethin Police Training Academy. Recently, India and Myanmar have entered into a trilateral cooperation with Japan on the Rakhine State under which we will create soft infrastructure for 15 schools.
India also wants to enhance engagement in the energy sector, including renewable energy. Currently, with an energy portfolio of more than $ 1.2 billion, Myanmar is the largest destination for India’s investment in the oil and gas sector in Southeast Asia. In the recently concluded Joint Working Group, interest has been expressed in the enhanced participation of Indian companies in the oil and gas sector and providing capacity training in various fields. During the recently concluded Joint Steering Committee meeting, both sides have agreed to work on establishing low voltage radial interconnection between our bordering villages. Both sides are also in discussion on establishing a high voltage high capacity interconnection from the Indian grid.
Meanwhile, coinciding with the Foreign Office Consultations a webinar was organised on the Kaladan multimodal project.
Other than enhanced connectivity, the Kaladan multi-modal project can potentially result in other benefits including the betterment of internal as well as cross-border security through local economic development. “While India’s transit to its northeastern region via Bangladesh is getting strengthened, the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project, which is being implemented by India in Myanmar remains even more important”, said Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International.
“That is for economic as well as strategic reasons, and particularly because of emerging geo-political challenges in the Bay of Bengal region. Its importance in aiding eastern and northeast India’s connectivity with the Bay of Bengal cannot be over-emphasised,” said Chatterjee, adding, “With its linkages with India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, it can give eastern South Asian countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, and Southeast Asia a tremendous leeway to develop complementary multi-modal transit and transport linkages.”
“Towards this the enormity of peace and development dividends that it would bring need to be looked upon by taking into confidence all relevant stakeholders at the sub-national level and people on the ground.”
Chatterjee was speaking at a webinar that was organised by CUTS International today to discuss the scope and scale for accelerating diplomatic efforts for the successful implementation of the Kaladan project.
It was based on a briefing paper, recently published by CUTS under its project on multi-modal connectivity in the BBIN sub-region. Among others, it underlined the importance of managing ethnic challenges to an early completion and implementation of the Kaladan project.
Sreeradha Datta, Centre Head, Neighbourhood Studies and Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, and the author of this paper, stated that “India has always tried to find a right balance to engage with the people in Myanmar by providing a broad range of cultural, political, economic and development support.”
However, despite the fact that the Kaladan project being the first cross-border project that India had initiated for the betterment of connectivity of its northeast region, more than two decades ago, it is yet to take off. Hostilities from insurgent groups have contributed to delay.
Speaking as a discussant, Major General (Retd.) Alok Deb, also a former Deputy Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, stated that the Kaladan project is a key pillar of India’s Act East Policy.
“The set-up of the project is such that the Government of Myanmar provides land and security while the cost is borne by India. The border management and security agencies of the two countries need to work closely to deal with security issues in view of political and ethnic issues in Myanmar that are allegedly funded by China,” he said.
According to Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, a former Ambassador of India to Bangladesh, “there is no alternative to connectivity for the development and prosperity of any nation. Certainly for India’s Act East Policy to be successful, the betterment of connectivity with Myanmar and Thailand is vital. The shadow of insurgents will continue to fall on these kinds of projects but it should not deter us”.
The panel expressed that there has been a significant shift in the mindsets of people relating to connectivity and security issues. People now no longer associate vulnerable security conditions with developing connectivity infrastructure.
The importance of viewing bilateral connectivity projects from a larger lens and initiating dialogues on converting them into trilateral projects at the least was also discussed. Participants from Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal highlighted the importance of such projects from their geo-political and geo-strategic perspectives. “It is time to join the dots from various bilateral initiatives so as to make them bigger for facilitating trade and investment, and ensuring benefits for the communities,” the participants said.