Hungry India hugs Myanmar Resources and security count


New Delhi, Oct. 15 : Appetite for scarce resources, Northeast security concerns and strategic calculations have prompted India to scale up its engagement with Myanmar, branded a pariah by the West but courted assiduously by energy-hungry China.
India and Myanmar today unveiled a series of measures to step up economic and security co-operation (see chart), suggesting that New Delhi has shrugged off its initial unease in engaging with the controversial military junta and decided to focus on protecting its interests in the region.
The measures, announced today during the visit of Myanmar President U Thein Sein, and the joint statement reflected a deepening relationship that has often been overshadowed by other bilateral ties.
A key component of the thrust is an Indian role in Myanmar’s infrastructure development. New Delhi will provide a $500-million (Rs 2,450 crore) line of credit to Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s new capital).
A line of credit is effectively a bank account that can readily be tapped in tranches at the borrower’s discretion. Most of the money is expected to be used in projects, including irrigation schemes, that Indian companies are likely to implement. The new line comes in addition to the $300-million (Rs 1,470 crore) scheme Delhi had earlier committed.
New border points will also be opened, which are expected to increase economic activity in the northeastern states. Four Indian states — Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland — share a boundary with Myanmar.
On insurgency, too, the two sides appeared to have taken purposeful strides. They have agreed to enhance co-operation and co-ordination between their security forces to tackle “the deadly menace of insurgency and terrorism, strengthen institutional mechanisms for sharing of intelligence to combat the menace of insurgency, arms smuggling and drug trafficking, further strengthening of border management mechanisms”.
Both sides assured the other to not “allow their respective territory to be used for training, sanctuary and other operations by terrorist and insurgent organisations and their operatives”. Nearly 18 common ethnic groups live on either side of their land boundary, which is extremely porous and prone to insurgent activity.
Other than the internal security factor, economic attractions such as Myanmar’s vast undeveloped gas reserves have prompted India to skirt the human rights concerns of the West. Myanmar straddles the busy Bay of Bengal shipping lanes, making it strategically important for energy-hungry economies like India and China.
Improved ties have already given India access to Myanmar’s substantial gas reserves (the 10th largest in the world), gas, copper and zinc.
Another raw material that Myanmar has and which will find a resonance in power-starved states like Bengal is coal, which is on China’s radar. China has put all its land border countries on the watch list to acquire natural resources after many of its acquisitions in Canada and Australia were thwarted.
However, India’s efforts have only been partially successful — which explains the compulsions behind the new thrust. Planned roads and ports are behind schedule and although India part-owns two natural gas projects off Myanmar’s coast, the gas is sold to China.
The red-carpet welcome for President Sein today reflects India’s eagerness to scale down Myanmar’s reliance on Beijing. China had stood by Myanmar’s military leaders when West-sponsored economic sanctions kicked in and crippled its economy.
But now Myanmar’s rulers are seeking to widen their circle of friends. The junta has responded to nudges from South Block to carry out political and economic reforms and hopes that, with Indian help, it can convince western countries to lift economic sanctions.
Sein’s government, which took over in March, has initiated what New Delhi terms as “significant” reforms, though the West is yet to be convinced. Myanmar released 200 political prisoners earlier this week but activists say 2,000 more, including several key figures, are still incarcerated. About 100,000 refugees and migrants from Myanmar live in India.
However, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s statement today suggests that India feels the stirrings of political reform vindicate its policy of engagement.
Singh “welcomed the ongoing efforts at political, economic and social reform in Myanmar” and congratulated Sein “on the transition towards democratic government”. The Prime Minister also offered “all necessary assistance in further strengthening this democratic transition in an inclusive and broad-based manner”.