Sunday, November 20, 2011

It’s Raining Goodies in Myanmar

Last year, before elections took place in Myanmar, a very unusual foreign dignitary paid a visit to India. Normally very reclusive, leader of the Myanmar military junta, Senior General Than Shwe was in India for a visit that was officially described as a personal and religious visit. True to the description, General did begin his visit from Gaya in Bihar, where he and his wife took a day’s halt to offer prayers at Bodhi Gaya’s Mahabodhi temple. With religious formalities over, the General touched down in Delhi, where he was offered a red carpet welcome by the Indian government. General Than Shwe’s visit was designated as a state visit with a ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhawan and a gala state banquet thrown in for the visiting leader. Next day, the General got into the serious business of bilateral talks with the Indian Government. The agreements reached during negotiations make a fascinating reading. 
  • Expressed satisfaction at the construction, maintenance and repair work by Indian Border Roads Organization of the Tamu-Kalaywa-Kalemyo Road connecting Moreh in Manipur to Myanmar and the handing over of most of the segments of the TKK Road to the Government of Myanmar.
  • To enhance road connectivity, especially through the State of Mizoram, the construction and revamping of the Rhi-Tiddim road at a cost of more than $ 60 million to be financed through grant assistance from India to be started.
  • India announced a grant of $ 10 million for procurement of agricultural machinery from India. and agreed to provide technical assistance in manufacturing of agricultural machinery.
  • India also announced a project to set up rice silos to facilitate disaster relief operations particularly in the cyclone prone delta areas, with grant in aid from India.
  • India agreed to cooperate in the implementation of the Tamanthi and Shwezaye power projects on the Chindwin River Basin in Myanmar. India’s National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) has carried out additional investigations after the signing of the MoU on Cooperation in Hydro-power Development projects in the Chindwin River Basin after signing of the MOU in September 2008. This Memorandum of Agreement to be concluded within a year.
  • Already two border trading point are operational at Moreh – Tamu (Manipur) and Zawkhathar-Rhi (Mizoram) on India-Myanmar borders. Additional trading point agreed to be operationalised at Avankhug-Somra (Nagaland). Necessary infrastructure to make these points viable and business friendly is to be put in place.
  • A treaty on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters to combat transnational organised crime, terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and smuggling of arms and explosives.
  • India to supply Myanmar fast inshore and offshore boats and interceptors to patrol its rivers and deltas. These boats are of the type used mostly by the Indian Coast Guard. Based on the original British Archer class boats design and armed with 12.7mm machine guns, the boats are being made at Goa shipyard. India has already leased such a vessel to Mauritius.
  • A $60 million line of credit for developing the railway sector is on the way.
  • ONGC Videsh, the overseas arm of Oil and Natural Gas Corp, and GAIL have a 30 percent stake in two gas-producing blocks in Myanmar as part of a consortium which is supplying the hydrocarbon gas that goes to China. The two companies are also part of the pipeline project which will link the two blocks to China. The total investment by the state companies is around $1 billion.
This list really surprised me because it showed the depth to which India is co-operating with Myanmar. I decided to look on the internet for what has been agreed in the past? The results were even more astonishing. Look at this list.
  • India’s auto major, Tata Motors Ltd. signed a turnkey contract with Myanmar Automobile & Diesel Industries Limited (MADI), an enterprise under the Government of Myanmar’s Ministry of Industry-2, on 22 March 2009, for setting up a heavy truck plant, at Magwe, approximately 480 km from Yangon, funded by a Line of Credit from the Government of India. The facilities planned at the plant, include a highly flexible chassis & frame assembly line along with a cab manufacturing, painting & trimming set-up. The plant is expected to become operational by the last quarter of 2010-11, with a capacity of 1,000 vehicles per year. The capacity can be expanded to 5,000 units.
  • India gave generous assistance to Myanmar in the relief and rehabilitation efforts that followed the devastating Cyclone Nargis which hit Myanmar in May 2008.
  • In February 2009, Indian Vice-President Shri M. Hamid Ansari visited Myanmar capital Naypyitaw to inaugurate, first cross-border optical fiber telephone link between the two countries set up in Myanmar’s second largest city of Mandalay. The high-speed broadband link costing US$ 7 million for voice and data transmission connects Mandalay and India’s border town of Moreh in Manipur which are separated by a distance of 500 kilometers. It was also decided to start with Indian assistance an English language training center in Yangon and set up an industrial training center in Myanmar’s Pakkoku.
  • An agreement was signed between India and Myanmar in April 2009 regarding development of Kaladan transport project, which also includes development of Sittwe port. The project has been awarded to an Indian company ‘Essar Projects’ and involves constructing a port at Sittwe and a jetty at Paletwa, 120 kilometers of road to be built in Myanmar from the river terminal in Paletwa to the India-Burma border in the northeast. The project will have 333 miles (539 kilometers) of waterways and 140 miles of roads. It would be completed in 36 months at the cost of about $ 75 million and is entirely financed by India. It is expected that this project would boost links between ports on India’s eastern seaboard and Sittwe in Arakan (Rakhine) State, Myanmar. From there, goods will be shipped along the Kaladan River from its confluence near Sittwe to Paletwa in Chin State and by road to India’s Mizoram State, which will provide an alternate route for transport of goods to India’s landlocked northeast.
  • India has been supplying military hardware such as Field Guns, and light artillery to Myanmar, since 2004. It is training Myanmarese military personnel at INS Garuda in Kochi. India transferred two old British-origin BN 2 Islander maritime surveillance aircraft to Myanmar in 2006 .
Obviously, this list is not inclusive of everything, but gives a fair idea of the assistance provided by India to Myanmar. What is surprising here, is the fact, that just a few years back, China appeared to sit pretty in Myanmar with India very much on the sidelines. China still remains Myanmar’s main defence supplier on “friendship” prices. It has captured so far, all major infrastructure projects including ports and airports. Most of Myanmar’s oil, gas and minerals are being captured by China, and Beijing has got the gas and oil pipeline from Myanmar’s Indian Ocean port to China’s Kunming. China is Myanmar’s most ardent protector at the United Nations with its veto power. In the trade hubs at Mandalay and Tamu, traditional Tamil traders are being undercut by new Chinese traders. It would therefore become apparent to anyone, that the Naypidaw government, had almost become a captive of China. Yet this list of India’s assistance is so impressive that one starts doubting that something has obviously soured in Myanmar-China relationship.
In the month of January 2010, India and Myanmar agreed on conducting joint coordinated military operations in North-East and Myanmar, to flush out Indian extremist fugitives hiding in the dense jungles of Myanmar. The Security forces of India and Myanmar were supposed to conduct coordinated operations in their respective territories in the next two-three months. The objective of the operation was that no militant can escape to the other side after facing heat on one side. The security forces were also to intensify their vigil along the border to check smuggling of arms, narcotic drugs and other goods.

These joint operations are very significant as India has suffered for too long from its North East insurgents and separatists like the ULFA of Assam and the NSCN of Nagaland using Myanmar’s territory to bring arms and communication equipments from China or the Naga insurgents led by T. Muivah going to China in 1958, for support, arms and training. The situation dramatically improved in 2008, when Awami league came to power in Bangladesh and decided to cooperate with India. This is the kind of co-operation that India needs from Myanmar, and January agreement paves the way for it.

One of the reasons for this change, appears to be the situation in North-East Myanmar. In August 2009, in the Kokang territory, Myanmar military overwhelmed and disarmed the Kokang rebel group, triggering an exodus of more than 37,000 refugees into China, prompting an unusual outburst of anger from Beijing. It is common knowledge that Myanmar Generals are vehemently anti communist and are suspicious of banned Communist party of Burma. Most of them have fought in the anti-communist/anti-Beijing operations in the 1950s and 1960s. In these operations, Chinese soldiers wore Burmese Communist military uniform and had participated in actual battles against the Burmese armed forces. It’s difficult to imagine a change of heart on behalf of the Burmese generals toward Beijing.
The Myanmar-China relationship is obviously a marriage of convenience . It becomes clear that Myanmar junta has given sufficient signals that it wants to get out of China’s clutches. This is the first step where it desperately needs assistance. India seems to have sensed this and is trying to help Myanmar with all she could. India’s co-operation projects with Myanmar appear to be mutually beneficial to both countries and are therefor welcome.
Just south of the Kokang Territory in Myanmar, there is another autonomous region known as WA country. It is controlled by the United WA state army(UWSA),an ethnic left-wing rebel militia. It consists of about 30,000 fighters and enjoys very close relations with China because most of its leaders, being former Communist guerrillas, were trained in China in the 1960s and 1970s.Myanmar army had a ceasefire agreement with UWSA. This agreement is in a danger of falling apart because of the Myanmar government’s drive to get all ethnic militias to join a military-sponsored Border Guard Force.

This news is of particular significance to India because UWSA runs informal franchise factories to manufacture small arms designed by Chinese ordinance factories. The quality is known to be fairly good with prices very low compared to Chinese factory prices. The small arms manufactured by UWSA are the principal sources of arms supplied to all rebel and terrorist groups from this region which includes Maoists and ULFA operating from India. The arms were exported through a conduit operating from Chittagong in Bangladesh. This conduit has been busted when Bangladesh started operations against ULFA and other rebel groups. This has made both UWSA and the Indian rebel groups desperate. India would naturally want Myanmar to destroy these UWSA small arms factories. This would be possible if India has good relations with Myanmar.

India and Myanmar have common geopolitical and strategic interests. Both can benefit with greater trade and economic co-operation. The two countries share a common land border and meet at the seas.
The help given by India to Myanmar appears to me to be the best foot forward without least doubt. Let there be more rain of Goodies in Myanmar.
4 August 2010

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