BY PALLAB BHATTACHARYA
A high-point of the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to Myanmar was undoubtedly the decision to strengthen rail, road and waterways connectivity between the two countries.
The two sides also agreed on expediting the existing projects and working out new ones. Taken together, these go beyond bilateralism and set the stage for a sub-regional connectivity between India, Myanmar and Thailand and at a later stage possibly China.
During talks with Dr Singh, the Myanmar President, Mr Thein Sein sought India’s financial and technological assistance in construction and upgradation of the 120-km Kalewa-Yargi segment of a highway in that country, which also constitutes part of the proposed Asian Highway network. On its part, Myanmar will take up the construction of Yargi-Monywa road segment of the highway which would help establish connectivity between Moreh, a small town in Manipur bordering Myanmar, to Mae Sot in Thailand, passing through Myanmar. The project, which will provide seamless transit connectivity, is expected to be completed by 2016.
India’s Border Road Organisation has already built a 132-km road link between Tamu-Kalewa-Kaleymyo, in Myanmar and the remaining 28 km is expected to be completed by later this year. Myanmar has also requested India to rebuild and upgrade 71 bridges over TKK road, which are in poor condition, a project that would help not only connectivity but also operationalise a proposed passenger bus service between Imphal, capital of Manipur, and Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest town close to border with Bangladesh.
Developing Infrastructure Projects
The two countries also discussed the possibility of Indian participation in development of key infrastructure projects like Dawei port off Bay of Bengal in southern Myanmar, very close to Thailand, which will give India much easier access to South East and East Asia. It was, in fact, the Thailand Prime Minister, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra who had, during her visit to India in January this year, proposed the link between the Indian city of Chennai and Dawei by building a deep-sea port and a massive industrial complex in Dawei. What Ms Shinawatra had said is revival of a moribund tri-nation project first talked about a decade ago. During Dr Singh’s visit, the Myanmarese government sent clear signals about its interest in developing Dawei with India’s help.
The countries also agreed to set up a joint working group which will examine enhancing cross-border rail links and cooperation in railway sector, and signed an agreement that will allow airlines of India and Myanmar to cover more destinations in each other’s territory and pick up passengers from there on way to third countries.
India is also engaged in building a multi-modal transport project over the Kaladan river in Myanmar and road and waterway linkages between Sittwe port in Chin state of that country and southern part of Mizoram, another North-East Indian state with which Myanmar shares a border. Both the projects have suffered some delay and the Prime Minister Dr Singh and the President Mr Sein have asked their officials to expedite them. The projects will give India easier access to its northeastern states and an additional opening to Bay of Bengal.
Where does the emerging scenario of connectivity between India, Myanmar and Thailand leave Bangladesh, which too holds the potential of being a gateway to South East Asia and a transit hub through Chittagong and Mongla ports?
While India and Myanmar move ahead in right earnest to improve connectivity between each other, the transit between Bangladesh and India remains non-starter because it has been highly politicised by main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The question that Dhaka must ask itself is whether it would be willing to be squeezed out of a larger picture. There is no doubt that once the Kalandan multimodal project is completed, India will get much easier access to its northeastern states than through the ‘Chicken’s Neck’, a narrow corridor through West Bengal and Assam states. This could reduce India’s dependence and hence importance of transit through Bangladesh to its North-East.
For Bangladesh, transit with North-East India will facilitate its connectivity with Myanmar. This has acquired more important after, as The Daily Star reported recently in a front-page story, China gave up plan to build a rail link between Chittagong and eastern
China’s city of Kunming through Myanmar following opposition from Myanmar. Myanmar’s opposition to Chittagong-Kunming link is not surprising considering that the country is reaching out to the West and India at a time when it is travelling down the democratic path in which China will be of little help.
One of the reasons why India financed the multi-modal transport project over Kaladan and developed Sittwe port, and is going after other road links with Myanmar, is that India-Bangladesh transit has so far failed to take off even though Bangladesh was much more strategically placed than Myanmar. Once India-Myanmar connectivity is completed in four years down the line, Bangladesh could face the risk of being left by the roadside.
What is more important is that there is a bipartisan consensus in Myanmar -- among the government as well as National League for Democracy led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi -- about multi-modal connectivity with India. It is that for this reason that Dr Singh had, during his speech at the banquet hosted by the President Mr Sein, said that Myanmar was a “critical partner” in India’s “Look East” policy and that Myanmar and “is perfectly situated to play the role of an economic bridge between India and China and between South and South East Asia. We should work together to create a regional economy that can become a hub for trade, investment and communication in the region.”
As Myanmar moves down the path of political and economic opening up after decades of diplomatic isolation, it appears ready to seize the opportunity of an economic resurgence by making full use of its strategic location by leveraging its with both regional powerhouses -- India and China. With Myanmar having chosen that path, can Bangladesh, which is no less advantageously located geographically, be far behind? If Bangladesh and North-East India can establish seamless multimodal transport links, it will be a win-win situation for both by integrating with India-Myanmar-Thailand connectivity network. If Myanmar can use its geographic position to become the economic hub of the region, does Bangladesh not also deserve to be so? Dhaka needs to make up its mind.