Myanmar sits at Asia’s crossroads, sharing a western border with India, and a northern one with China. Thailand is its neighbour to the east and the Malacca Strait is on its southern flank. The country of nearly 60 million people has emerged from a half-century of military rule. However, certain old features continue to reign in Myanmar. First of all, the country has not fully accepted liberal parliamentary democracy. Then as Reuters journalists on a recent trip to the Myanmar-India border in Manipur found, the region continues to be a place where rebel groups deeply influence politics and business. Opium poppies are grown openly. Cross-border gun-running remains big business. Recent elections in Myanmar were chiefly dictated by the need to court with the West while trying to wean itself from dependency on China for trade and investment. In a way, Myanmar has opened its trade and the country continues to be a land of opportunity for many. But when it comes to India, despite a recent flurry of high-level visits between the two countries, India appears ill-placed on the ground to exploit Myanmar’s openings. This is in spite of the fact that the Indian state of Manipur and three others share a 1,640- km (1,020-mile) border with Myanmar, which were supposed to be India’s “Gateway to the East” and the much promised “border trade” between the two countries. Instead, the area has become India’s Wild East.
India, which fought a border war in 1962 with China, has watched with mounting concern as Beijing steadily increased its influence around the rim of the Indian Ocean, especially in Myanmar. Ten years ago India’s foreign minister proposed reopening a World War II highway to the north of Manipur called the Stilwell Road, which connects India’s far eastern region, known as the Northeast, with Myanmar and China.Worried that the road risked strengthening China’s influence and the flow of militants and arms to the region, India dragged its feet and Myanmar turned to China’s Yunnan Construction Engineering Group instead. India also missed out on the natural gas from two fields in Myanmar it has a stake in, when the government chose to pipe it to China.
During long years of self-imposed isolation, Myanmar’s only major economic partner was China. India realised in the 1990s that Chinese investment in Myanmar’s military and infrastructure was giving Beijing a strategic advantage in a nation that borders five countries, straddles busy Bay of Bengal shipping lanes and has large oil and gas reserves.
New Delhi quietly dropped its backing for the opposition party of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who went to school and university in India.Ties have strengthened since then, with President Thein Sein just the latest of Myanmar’s leaders to call on New Delhi on a visit to India last year.Rajiv Bhatia, who was India’s ambassador to Myanmar until 2005, says India is still more concerned with its South Asian neighbours, including Bangladesh and Pakistan, and could miss the moment.
“In pure geopolitical terms, Myanmar is hugely important to India. We are now getting a historic opportunity to recover our relationship,” he said. “ But it is still not a priority for our politicians.
Sorry State of the Border Trade& the Tragedy of Moreh
While the bilateral trade between India and Myanmar has witnessed an upswing, the border trade between the two countries through Manipur has witnessed a downslide. The bilateral trade had grown steadily in the 1990s to reach a level of US $ 328 million in 1997-98. The trade volume continued to rise through the 2000s upto US$ 569.17 million in 2005-06. The trade turnover shot up to US$ 892.99 million in 2006-07 doubling just in two years. The balance of trade has always been in favor of Myanmar. According to Myanmar statistics, in 2001-02, India was the second largest- market for Myanmar's exports. The total trade in 2010-11 (US$ 1070.88) has more than doubled in the last five years. India is now the fifth largest trade partner of Myanmar (4th largest export destination for Myanmar and 7th largest source of imports into Myanmar) after Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Singapore.
On the other hand, legal trade on the border has dwindled in the last five years to just about 0.15 percent of total commerce between Myanmar and India. Checkpoints by security forces and rebel group supporters make the 120 km (75 mile) journey along the rutted Highway 102 through the hills from Manipur’s capital Imphal to Moreh on the border a painstakingly slow – and expensive, too, from the “taxes” they impose on traffic.The Highway was supposed to be part of a road network linking up with Mandalay, Myanmar’s main city in the North, and on into Thailand. But the only notable improvement on the Indian side is a short patch running through the Manipur Chief Minister’s home town.
The sleepy border town of Moreh had dreams of being a major international trading centre, a key station on the ambitious Trans-Asia Railway that will enable containers from East and Southeast Asia to travel overland across India to Europe.
At first glance, Moreh seems to be a quiet bazaar of traditional wooden stilt houses, frontier hotels and stores where Myanmarese Buddhist monks and tribes-people in traditional dress and sandal-paste painted faces mingle with traders from across India. The town of 15,000 people has one bank.Opened in 1995 to great fanfare, the Moreh crossing was supposed to be a major trading post by now. Only some small-scale merchants conduct legal trade. Much of that is on a barter system, exchanging flour and soy products for betel, a mild stimulant popular in India.
Moreh is a major smuggling centre where outlaws move around freely. Heroin from the Golden Triangle, guns and gem stones go westward; raw opium, tiger bones and rhino horn move east. The reverse is also equally true. Today, Indian origin pharmaceutical drugs such as effedrine(in generic form) find making inroad to Moreh only to be smuggled into Myanmmar illegally. This is inspite of the fact that there are around 13 Integrated Check Posts being developed by Central Government and mostly manned by the Assam Rifles. A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2006 released by Wikileaks described local politicians either in league with the rebels or supporting them for financial reasons. Involvement of the Security personnel in the illegal trade is anybody’s common knowledge.
It wasn’t always this way. Until the early 1990s, Myanmarese flocked across the border to buy Indian-made consumer goods. But as China’s workshops cranked up and offered cheaper, more durable products, the market shifted to the other side of the fence. Today, small traders from Imphal endure the serpentine journey along bumpy Highway 102 and its checkpoint shakedowns to visit the Namphalong Bazaar on the Myanmar side of the Moreh border gate.Their pick-up trucks are piled high with Chinese mattresses, refrigerators and TVs to sell back in India, returning along the same road that brought Japanese troops in World War Two through then Burma in an attempt to invade India. The trip from the border to Imphal carrying such contraband can involve payoffs along the way amounting to several hundred dollars.
Disenchantment of the people of Manipur is summed by Lunminthang Haokip, a senior state government official for Moreh’s Chandel district. “People had plans to open eateries, motels and shops along the Asian highway. Now, the trans-national road is imaginary. It does not exist here. The Look East policy is no more than power-point presentations in Delhi.”
The complaint is voiced often here by residents in Manipur who have suffered decades of rights abuses under draconian emergency powers including “shoot-to-kill” orders aimed at curtailing the insurgencies. Residents say New Delhi acts like a colonial power, with much of its mistrust of the region stemming from its relative proximity to China.
“The overwhelming presence of military, paramilitary and police officers contributed to the impression that Imphal was under military occupation,” the U.S. embassy cable said. “The Indian civil servants were also clearly frustrated with their inability to stem the growing violence and anarchy in the state, feeling their efforts to effectively control the insurgencies was hamstrung by local politicians either in league with or at least through corruption, helping to finance the insurgents.”
Notwithstanding all the ambitious projects like the much hyped Look East Policy or Trans-Asian highway or Imphal-Mandalay bus service, Moreh is still every much ill-equipped both in terms of infrastructure or physical ambience. The sadder part is, people of Manipur, the home State of Moreh have not been capacitated to capitalise on Myanmar’s recent opening. What makes things worse, is the Government of Manipur’s lackadaisical attitude towards Moreh and the potentially huge international trade that can be carried out through the border town. Moreh still looks like an 18th century township bereft of any basic modern amenities. Moreh, at present, is full of demerits. Its only merit is its strategic location. The tragedy has been further compounded as New Delhi seemingly planned the Indo-Myanmar cross border trade by keeping either Kolkata or Guwahati as the principal trading hub on Indian side. Under this whole scheme of things, people of Manipur have no place except as by-standers. Myanmar has already awakened, what about Manipur ?
This article was published in The Sangai Express on Sunday, May 13, 2012