Bilateral Conference on “India – Myanmar: Frontiers of New Relationship”

The linkages between India and Myanmar date back to the pre-Christ era. India and Myanmar have had strong cultural, civilizational and historical ties since several centuries which have led to creation of amiable and convivial relations between the people of these nations. Post-independence and the end of British rule, India and Myanmar began charting their journey to achieve peace and prosperity.

With a new dispensation at the helm of the affairs in India at the center, a significant boost has been witnessed in the initiatives undertaken in the foreign policy space. The Prime Minister has consistently underscored his philosophy of Neighbourhood First which is translating into robust and concrete actions and initiatives through the earnest efforts made in the last 25 months in strengthening India’s relations with the neighbours.

Myanmar had been undergoing a political metamorphosis since the beginning of the decade which reached its culmination with the elections in late 2015 when Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory. The slow but steady opening up of Myanmar has led to rising aspirations of its citizens and increasing expectations of the global fraternity from its political class to restore its lost legacy. This provides an invaluable opportunity for a friendly neighbour like India to accelerate the pace in taking forward its relations with Myanmar.

In this backdrop, India Foundation hosted a 10 member delegation from Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS), Myanmar for a Bilateral Interaction on “Myanmar-India: Frontiers of New Relationship”. The interaction was held on 05-06th July, 2016 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.

The aim of this conference was to take forward the discussions that took place during our comprehensive dialogue in Yangon in November 2014 on “India Myanmar: Together the Way Ahead”. The objective of such set of dialogues is to build a robust relationship between the two countries, based on our common heritage and interests.

Inaugural Session
Shri Alok Bansal, Director, India Foundation gave the introductory address where he welcomed the delegates from Myanmar for being a part of the Conference. Further, he went on to inform the distinguished guests about the brief outline of the program. Speaking about the expectations from Myanmar to bring about reformative changes in its system, Shri Bansal said, “The whole world is looking at Nay Pyi Taw with bated breath.”

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Chair of the session, Shri Himanta Biswa Sarma, Finance Minister, Government of Assam, welcomed the distinguished guests expressed his hope that this Conference will be fruitful in furthering relations between India and Myanmar. Emphasizing on the key role played by North East Indian region in Indo-Myanmar relations, Shri Sarma said, “North East India is the focal point for improving relations between India and Myanmar.” He called this delegation visit from Myanmar as a new ray of hope and expressed confidence that both North East India and Myanmar can simultaneously grow with forging of close bonding between these nations.

Delivering the Special Address for the session, Ambassador U Wynn Lwin, former Myanmar Ambassador to India, expressed that with a new Government in both nations, the relations between these nations will reach to greater heights. He also gave extensive details about the projects undertaken by the Government of India in Myanmar such as Kaladan Multi Modal Transportation Project and the Trilateral Highway projects.

Former Ambassador of India to Myanmar, Shri Gautam Mukhopadhaya gave the keynote address for the session. He began his address saying, “We are on the threshold of a new Myanmar.” Mr Mukhopadhaya focused on one relatively untouched issue- economic relations between India and Myanmar along with investments made in Myanmar by India. He cautioned that all three nations namely- China, Japan and Thailand have a headstart over India in creation of positive strategic influence in Myanmar but the opportunity is not yet lost. He also pointed out that India has also lost an opportunity to use Myanmar, despite having a historical relation with Myanmar spawning several centuries, as a springboard to enter into economic markets in Vietnam and further till the Pacific Ocean.

Speaking about the potential of Myanmar, the former Ambassador categorically stated that, “Myanmar has the potential to become a tiger economy and not just any other tiger economy but one whose roar can be heard well beyond its region.”

Speaking about the trade statistics, from being third in trade in 2011, India is ranked 10th in trade with Myanmar now not because the trade with Myanmar has reduced but Myanmar’s trade with other countries has significantly rose. The target of 3 billion to be achieved in 2015 set in 2011 with Myanmar has also not been achieved. There is also a pertinent absence of Indian brands and consumer goods which give profound visibility to India.

IMG_0296-300x200IMG_0040Ambassador went on to spell out a strategy for India to involve in Myanmar by making strategic economic investments in Myanmar in Special Economic Zones (SEZs), Economic clusters etc. He also asked for increasing focus on making investments in labour intensive agricultural industries especially rice growing regions and MSME units in Myanmar. He suggested that, “Private enterprises, Chambers of Commerce and big ticket corporates must take an initiative to invest in Myanmar.” He also made a special reference for the need to invest in diary and agricultural cooperatives to replicate the success of Gujarat dairy model. To conclude, he said, “We certainly need to go beyond the Government and involve various other potential partners such as private enterprises, NGOs and border State Governments.”

Giving a Vote of Thanks for the session, Shri Binod Bawri, Director, India Foundation made a marked reference to the lack of any direct flight between India and Myanmar. He thanked the members of delegation from Myanmar, the distinguished guests as well as Team India Foundation for successfully organising the Conference.

Second Session
Beginning the first session of the dialogue, former Ambassador of India to Myanmar, Shri Rajiv Bhatia informed that the first session to be conducted on the theme of trade and commerce and remarked the important role played by trade and commerce in determining the geo-political landscape of the region.

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The first speaker of the session was Mr U Khin Maung Nyo, Senior Research Fellow, Myanmar Development Resource Institute (MDRI- CESD), began his presentation by expressing his pleasure at the initiative being taken for dialogue-making between the two nations. Speaking extensively about the need for improving connectivity between the two nations, Mr Nyo added that it will be crucial for India to improve key infrastructure to connect North East with the Eastern nations. He also underscored the role which can be played by India by contributing for growth in nearly every sector in Myanmar especially in agricultural sector.

Hon’ble Finance Minister of Assam, Shri Himanta Sarma talked about role which can be played by North East in promoting growth in Myanmar including creation of a North East Myanmar Grid within SAARC grid.
Mr Sarma gave the motto of 4Cs- Connectivity Commerce Culture Community for improving the connectivity between the two nations. He also gave a suggestion for creation of a Council of Ministers of states on either side of India and Myanmar border for greater coordination between the two nations.

The discussions during the session went on to bring the following points-
– Myanmar being an agricultural country with the new government looking to make it an organic farming powerhouse, India s investments are more towards heavy industries notably oil and gas. Hence, there needs to be a more balanced approach in investment making in Myanmar.
– Extensive suggestions came regarding promoting investments in Myanmar by Indian private sector most notably in agriculture (beans and pulses were specially marked as Myanmar s exports to India) as well as in developing MSME in Myanmar.
– Moreover allowing rice exports to India was also an area touched upon by the Myanmar delegation members.
– Suggestions also came to reduce tariff barriers in terms of prohibitive list goods disallowed for imports from Myanmar to India (by Sanjana Doshi, ICRIER) as well as promoting Chambers of Commerce to create and develop capacity in Myanmar.
– Moreover several infra projects in West Myanmar especially the steel road (a World War 2 road connecting India with Myanmar) were discussed and their feasibility of getting developed with India s help.
– China was factored out as a single largest nation which was making investments in Myanmar.

Third Session
The third session of the Conference was held on Day 2 of the Conference. The theme of this session was “India-Myanmar Relations; under NDA & NLD Governments”

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Chairing the session, G Parthasarathy, Former Ambassador of India stated that, “We are looking at new horizons. There is immense goodwill between two nations which can be used to move ahead with the relations between these nations.” He went on to assure the delegates from Myanmar that the Government in India is extremely proactive and will surely take action if any specific matter is brought to their notice.

Mr Myo Htike Tan Thein, Former Director, Burma Democratic Concern (BDC), was the first speaker in the session. Mr Thein began his talk by referring to the historical ties between two nations since their independence from British. He went on to state that, “Aung San Suu Kyi has always considered India special and the roots of democracy in her were born during her years spent in India.” He underscored the need for building people to people relations between India and Myanmar. He made a marked reference towards the key role which can be played by Myanmar in Indo-China relations by stating that, “People look at Myanmar as a battleground between India and China. However Daw Aung San Suu Kyi considers this as an opportunity to play a role in bettering relations between India and China.” Talking about the distinctive advantage possessed by India in Myanmar he stated that in terms of similarities in food, language, recall value for Indian products and services- there is an already established platform. He also stated that Indian movies can be a great way to associate with people in Myanmar.

The next speaker for the session was Shri Amar Sinha, Secretary in Charge of Economic Relations at MEA. He initiated his talk by stating that, “Clarity with which new government has been taking steps to improve relations with neighbouring nations, it has now become a guiding principle for diplomacy by India- Neighbourhood First.”

He then went on to elaborate the existing progress on each of the projects undertaken by India in Myanmar and giving specific details such as-
Kaladan Multi Modal Transport Project is a key project where Kolkata is being connected to North Eastern India through development of infrastructure in Myanmar.
Myanmar Institute of Information Technology (MIIT) has started functioning with over 90% of students being women and extremely robust international placement records.

The first discussant for the session was Secretary of the Central Executive Committee, Arakan National Party, Mr Aung Mra Kyaw. In the beginning of his intervention, he hoped that the approach towards Myanmar from India will be different under this dispensation and also stated that there is also a stated change in approach towards India by the new Government in Myanmar. He gave the successful working of the Kaladan Project is an illustration in this regard. Concluding his talk, he said, “I would like to recommend that the approach towards the relations between both nations must be adjusted to assuage the feelings of people in Myanmar.”

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The next discussant for the session was Maj. Gen. Dhruv Katoch, Secretary of the General Indian War Veterans Association in India. In his initial remarks, he mentioned that- “As compared to China, India has been much slower in implementing its projects in Myanmar.” He strongly emphasized that there is a need to go in for the economic development between North East region and Myanmar rather than waiting for insurgency to stop. Giving a constructive suggestion for the same, he stated that, “Building cooperative zones in 25-50km on both sides of border can go a long way in controlling insurgency.”

Talking about the military relations between the two nations, Major Katoch said, “Cooperation between military to military has been excellent between India and Myanmar.” He stated that the Act East policy of the present Government has been a game changer however, there was a need to emphasize on two particular issues-
1. One is communication and connectivity.
2. And the second is perception.
He went on second the suggestion made by Mr Myo Htike Tan Thein regarding the fact that Myanmar can surely be used as a bridge to better relations with China.

The next person to speak during the session was Ambassador U Wynn Lwin. Reasserting the strength of Indo-Myanmar relations, Ambassador Lwin said, “In the contemporary history, both India and Myanmar have sympathised with each other since their respective struggles for independence. Linked by history, geography and culture, India and Myanmar are natural partners.” He went on to admit that cooperation with neighbours especially with India will be crucial for Myanmar. In conclusion, he summed it up saying, “The more and the earlier India engages with the new Myanmar, the more and earlier can it reap benefits.”

After rigorous discussions among the delegates, giving the closing remarks, Shri Amar Sinha, acknowledged the points raised by the speakers regarding issues faced in infrastructure projects, border-fencing issues as well as in improving people-to-people connect between the two nations. In his last remarks, Chair of the session, G Parthasarathy made a strong recommendation to make efforts to improve religious infrastructure and facilities to boost the ties with between citizens of both nations.

Valedictory Session

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Talking about the improvement in relations Minister of State for External Affairs, General VK Singh said, “Myanmar is one of our closest neighbours and in the recent times, we are seeing not only improvements but also scope for taking improvements further in relations between India and Myanmar.” However Hon’ble Minister went on to add that there are a lot of things which have come out however, there are still a lot of things which are required to be done.
Talking about the spiritual connection between the two nations, General Singh said, “If a common man from Myanmar can reach Bodh Gaya, we can say that we have improved relations between India and Myanmar tremendously.”
Underlining the key areas of collaboration between India and Myanmar, the Minister added that India has a great strength in promoting MSME, pharmaceuticals, agricultural research which can immensely help Myanmar.

Initiating his remarks in the Valedictory session, Mr Ba Hla Aye spoke on a positive note that the relations between both nations have been moving forward despite certain shortcomings. He added that, “Both sides believe that there is a very huge potential for progress and benefits between both nations.” In the end, he expressed his deepest acknowledgment towards the India Foundation and the people involved with the Conference who made this meet possible.

Beginning his valedictory address, Shri RN Ravi said, “Myanmar has been a country with which India has had ancient civilizational and cultural relationships.” He emphasized on the fact that with Myanmar, India has never had any issues and hence, there has been a certain amount of neglect in relations between India and Myanmar which is required to be rediscovered and strengthened.

Talking about the global role which can be played by these nations, Shri Ravi said, “These two countries together can be a major player in two problems confronting the whole world- terrorism and climate change.” Adding to the significant importance attached to Mother Nature by both these nations, he remarked, “Hindu Buddhist philosophy which is shared by India and Myanmar considers humans to be a part of the nature and hence, the philosophy of coexistence with the nature is very powerful which can be shown to the world by India and Myanmar.” He concluded his address by saying, “India and Myanmar are destined to lead together.”

Giving the vote of thanks, Shri Alok Bansal, Director, India Foundation thanked the Myanmar Delegation for coming to India and making this meet possible for fruitful discussions between the two nations.
Further, he went on to thank all the speakers, experts and former Ambassadors who became a part of the Conference.
In the end, he also went on to thanks Team India Foundation for their efforts in putting up this bilateral dialogue event and making it a grand success.