By Roshan Iyer
It’s time to revive the free flow of people, capital and ideas around the Bay of Bengal.
India and Myanmar released a joint statement after a visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Naypyidaw, Myanmar. Connectivity was highlighted with eight mentions of road construction projects, bridge restorations and work on port infrastructure. The statement also contained six mentions of joint India-Myanmar technical and capacity building initiatives in the sectors of industry, agriculture, English language and Information and Technology (IT).
Relations that hinge on connectivity and people to people exchanges would bode well for India’s Act East Policy and Thailand’s Act West Policy. Today there are strong possibilities for trilateral cooperation that would serve to the interests of all three countries, but the focus must remain on the trilateral and not deviate back to the bilateral.
From former ambassadors to top level academics, there is no dearth of calls for the revival of historic ties between India, Myanmar and Thailand. The region around the Bay of Bengal once benefited immensely from the free flow of people, capital and ideas.
However, mismanaged decolonization, the enforcement of artificial borders and the rise of anti-immigrant and nationalistic sentiments uprooted centuries of organic integration across the region. Today, India, Myanmar and Thailand (IMT) should look to identifying those areas in which the seeds of a 21st century form of regional integration can be replanted.
The Trilateral Highway
Conceived at an IMT Trilateral Ministerial meeting in Yangon in 2002, the crux of this trilateral relationship centers around the construction of a 1,360 km highway from Moreh-Tamu on the India-Myanmar border to Mae Sot on the Myanmar-Thailand border. The 2017 Indo-Myanmar joint statement mentioned that “construction work would shortly begin on reconstruction of bridges on the Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa Road and on the Kalewa-Yargyi sector of the Trilateral Highway.” The deadline has now been set for 2020.
It is important to note that the project already missed its first deadline in 2015 and India has consistently faced difficulty in implementing its projects in Myanmar. The frontier regions of the region are not an easy place to build roads as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) car rally of 2013 demonstrated, long stretches are motorable but suffer from landslides and steep, hostile terrain which are especially problematic during monsoons.
However, India does have the capacity to take on such projects, the Border Roads Organisation, a wing of the Indian Army constructed and maintained the road from Tamu to Kalemyo-Kalewa road (160 km) between 1997 and 2009. Additionally the Asian Development Bank supports connectivity projects in the region such as the USD$100 million it provided for the 66 km Karaweik to Eindu road in Kayin state of Myanmar. Both are positive signs for Indian connectivity projects in this area.
The importance of the IMT highway cannot be understated as a permanent asset for the three countries. There is already considerable talk on expanding the road to Vietnam. On a sub-regional level the possibilities of creating a development corridor with rural development projects, special economic zones and exclusive economic zones would be a boon to the people of the region. A Motor Vehicles Agreement allowing for the free movement of vehicles between the three countries would be another logical step on completion of the highway.
Capacity building and academic cooperation are touted as another avenue for strong cooperation between IMT. Keeping with the theme of the trilateral, it might be wise to expand the Indian training and teaching programs in Myanmar to Thai nationals as well. However, these programmes must be handled with great care in order to avoid common pitfalls. Participants have complained about difficulties with the Indian accent as well as low quality teaching, these can have an extremely damaging impact on the expansion of such initiatives.
Another area of importance could be the establishment of a trilateral Mutual Recognition Agreement of each country’s university standards and degrees. In fact the India-Thailand joint statement released in 2016 after a visit by Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha to India explicitly states that “the two leaders agreed to work together towards mutual recognition of degrees, research collaborations and training of teachers.” If put in place, over time perhaps this could be expanded to Myanmar as well.
Connecting the region’s people will serve another purpose. The median age in Thailand is 37, considerably higher than the average age of 27 in India and Myanmar, at the same time India has a considerably larger population than either of the others. Allowing for the movement of young people across the region could help mitigate negative effects of an aging population in Thailand as well as the issue of job creation for youth in India. Such a strategy will only work if there is a level of trust, acceptance and familiarity with the people of the three countries.
A Trilateral Tomorrow
There are certainly areas for strong collaboration between IMT. However it is important to maintain quality standards as well as deadlines with each initiative. For India, successes on the IMT front can be tied into the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) of which Myanmar and Thailand are members. It might also be wise to seek out the support of Japan which can function as a midwife providing not only financial assistance but also ensuring strict measures of quality of initiatives and projects.
Meanwhile, the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state of Myanmar cannot be ignored. More than a humanitarian issue, the presence of significant Muslim populations in India and Thailand might flame internal political fires that could potentially derail further collaborations with Myanmar.
The focus on delivering promised projects should remain the focus for India within the grouping. It is also crucial to keep cooperation in the non-economic focusing on connectivity, movement of people and academic cooperation for now before taking on more ambitious initiatives such as a Free Trade Area. As of now, the New Delhi, Naypyidaw and Bangkok must remain committed to playing a facilitative trilateral role to bridge the region once again.