India’s Act East policy amid Myanmar’s centre-periphery conflict: Ms. Ramya PS, PhD Scholar writes on India-Myanmar relations

Myanmar’s centre-periphery dynamic

Since 2011, Myanmar, India’s eastern neighbor, has received global attention for its transformation process from a military regime to a more democratic setup. But this process has been wrought with problems, specifically the country’s centre-periphery dynamic. This centre-periphery dynamic is characterized by the ethnic conflict of the majority Bamar community at the centre and the minorities such as the Kachins, Chins, Shan, etc. at the periphery, in terms of geography. This dynamic can be traced to the colonial period wherein the British favoured the minorities at the cost of alienating the majority, thus creating cleavages in Burmese society till this day!

Within this, one of the prominent conflict that has acquired international scrutiny is the Rohingya crisis in the western province of Rakhine in Myanmar. Believed to have originally descended from the sea-faring Arab traders, this minority Rohingya community forms the largest Muslim group in Myanmar, a country otherwise predominantly Buddhist. The Rohingya have been systematically ostracized by the state’s apparatus, which has even denied them citizenship. They were also excluded from the 2014 census.

The policy of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) had been to deem the Rohingya as illegal immigrants. This policy has continued with the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD). Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimates 6,700 Rohingya fled the province following a crackdown by the Tatmadaw in August of last year. This has been deemed as an ethnic cleansing campaign launched against the Muslim minority community, resulting in 650,000 Rohingya fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor and the leader of NLD has been heavily criticized globally for this humanitarian crisis. However, the NLD’s position is understandable given that the 2008 Constitution gives the military an upper hand over the civilian government. The Rohingya crisis is symptomatic of the institutionalized power of the Tatmadaw and how civilian forces have to navigate the power-hierarchy in mitigating this centre-periphery dynamic engulfing Myanmar. The stalled peace process termed the ‘21st century Panglong Peace Conference’ has faced hurdles with ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) backing out due to continued armed struggle with the Tatmadaw. Delays have mired the third session of the peace conference, and it was moved from February to May 2018.

In this context, how does one perceive India-Myanmar relations?

In the Rohingya crisis, India has remained largely silent despite the fact that the influx of Rohingya refugees would have direct impact on the country. Prime Minister Modi, in his visit to Myanmar in September last year, deemed it as extremist violence, and lauded the civilian leadership for seeking to solve the crisis. India refused to support a Parliamentary declaration backed by 50 nations in Indonesia because it cited the Rohingya issue. The Rohingya refugees have been viewed as a threat to security by the Indian government, and it informed the Supreme Court on deportation of the illegal immigrants. India’s approach appears to be largely in support of the centre in Myanmar, keeping with India’s policy since the late 1990s. The shift in policy was linked to its Look East Policy, and can now be interpreted as a continuation to the Act East Policy.

This move by India is linked to several strategic and economic reasons:

The Rakhine province (where the crisis is ensuing) and the Sagaing region that borders India hold great potential for hydrocarbon projects. Following PM Modi’s visit to Myanmar in 2017, the press release stated that the situation in Rakhine had a developmental as well as a security dimension. Several international players, led by China and also India, South Korea, etc., are involved in the projects in Rakhine province. Offshore gas reserves have been found in the Bay of Bengal sea and China’s strategic gas pipeline passes through that province. Several activists have alluded to alleged links between the attacks against the Rohingya to the valuable hydrocarbon projects in the region.

In context to India, the strategic Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project passes through Rakhine, connecting India’s north-eastern states to the Bay of Bengal. Sittwe port, which forms an integral part of the transit project, is located in Rakhine and it has already faced several setbacks owning to the Myanmar government’s delay in handing over the required land to India. Given the roadblocks to the infrastructural projects India has faced, questions are being raised if Indian companies can indeed proceed to invest in Myanmar. The reality is that India has missed several opportunities in Myanmar which is seeking to overcome its over-reliance on China. Other East Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea have already made headway in Myanmar over the last decade. India remains the ninth largest investor in Myanmar with 23 approved projects totaling USD 732 million.

Myanmar presents India with opportunities to trade and invest in energy (hydrocarbon and renewable), agriculture and information technology sectors, and this cannot be ignored. Private players such as the TATA Group have entered Myanmar with success and even set up an office in Yangon, indicating long term business interests in the nation.

Myanmar’s transition process, although faced with challenges emanating from its centre-periphery dynamic, also gives rise to opportunities. This pertains to the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) investment law 2014 which had led to larger international presence in the development of the state. Furthermore, ease of investment has improved in Myanmar. It is now estimated to take about three months for a foreign agency to enter into its market. Myanmar’s rank on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Scale has improved by 11 places between 2014 and 2018.

The Indian government, realising the potential and strategic nature of engaging with Myanmar, has initiated investment conclaves to encourage Indian outbound investment to Myanmar. In fact, the third business  conclave in 2016 centred on the theme ‘Myanmar as an Investment Destination’. It was touted as the most important promotion of Myanmar’s business opportunities by the Indian government in a decade. However, many in Myanmar believe that Indian business forums have not responded positively and maintain that Indian companies prefer procuring products and services from Chinese companies overriding Indian interests.

In conclusion, an effort needs to be made by the government to promote investment in Myanmar rigorously, specifically in light of its Act East Policy. Long term cooperation between the two states is impinged on India’s ability to bridge the gap between the potential and implementation of strategic policies. Building awareness and incentivising businesses to invest in Myanmar can bring tangible results in making its Act East Policy a success, despite all the issues surrounding Myanmar’s centre-periphery dynamic.

Written By: Ms. Ramya P S, PhD Scholar, South Asian University, India

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