Reshmi Banerjee ponders Indo-Myanmar relations during the COVID-19 crisis.
As the gateway for linkages with Southeast Asia, Myanmar is an important neighbour strategically for India. The relationship has had its ups and downs but recent years have seen growing military and economic ties between the two. This is in keeping with Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, aiming to strengthen regional diplomacy, cooperation and connectivity. So it was not a surprise when the Indian Air Force evacuated foreign nationals (including people from Myanmar) along with Indians in February 2020 from Wuhan during the pandemic. India’s assistance to Myanmar thus went beyond the planned development projects which are in the pipeline (there are ten memoranda of understanding signed between the two). A good-will gesture can work wonders, especially for foreign policy, and a moment of crisis can serve as a huge opportunity to build trust and friendship. In keeping with this spirit, India also offered to help Myanmar with the challenges posed by COVID-19 in both the health and the economic sectors. As one example, India provided 200,000 hydroxychloroquine tablets along with surgical gloves, body bags and thermal scanners to Myanmar in May 2020.
However, regional diplomacy and mutual relations between the two countries are also marked by competitive relations between India and China. China has also made efforts during this time to reach out to countries in the region, including Myanmar. While China has helped Sri Lanka with a loan of US $500 million to tackle COVID-19, it has also supported Maldives to build shelters for stranded foreign workers. Indo-Myanmar relations continue to have the all-important ‘China factor’ looming over this critical alliance, apparently often deciding the course of policies and politics. India will benefit immensely if it utilizes the old socio-cultural connections (including ethnic linkages) which it has shared with Myanmar to help communities that are stranded on the other side of the border. Re-kindling kinship ties in this exceptionally difficult period can lead to positive results in terms of long term collaboration based on benevolence.
Buddha diplomacy, as witnessed through visits by the top brass of leadership from Myanmar to Bodh Gaya (the famous Buddhist pilgrimage site in Bihar, India where Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment), needs to be extended to dedicated humanitarian pursuits across borders during this crisis. Other collaborative endeavours could build explicitly on the values of social compassion and deeper understanding for the ‘other’ – guiding principles for every religion, including Buddhism – to improve quality of life and decrease uncertainty and suffering for vulnerable populations in both countries.
The cross-border everyday movement for trade which used to occur during normal times has stopped due to the shutdown, leading to the closure of both borders and livelihoods. This has produced different effects in towns that straddle borders: in Longwa (in the Mon district of the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland), the Indian side provided emergency rations, whereas a local tour guide indicated that support was inadequate on the other side. The local Naga tribes here, the Konyaks, find themselves on both sides of the border. Thus, the same community has been impacted differently based on where they find themselves geographically, with common grievances met with varied responses.
On March 10th, India closed its border indefinitely at the Tamu (Sagaing Region) – Moreh (Manipur, India) crossing, which led to a reduction in border trade by over 40%, with trade value declining from US $128 million to US $76 million. The plan to import 400,000 tonnes of black gram from Myanmar to India between May 2020 and March 2021 (according to a report by Thura Swiss) also remains unsettled.
Not only border trade but also border tourism has been affected. Khonoma village in Nagaland in Northeast India near the Indo-Myanmar border, which became famous after the creation of the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS) in 1998 and attracted more than 4000 tourists including overseas ones in 2019, has suffered with the flow of tourists coming to a stop. Medical facilities, including critical health checkups which people from Myanmar used to avail themselves of in Northeast India also stopped (Shija hospital in Imphal, Manipur used to receive patients from across the border before the pandemic). Thus, every sector seems to have been adversely affected.
Challenges have compounded due to continuing illegal movement, which has occurred even during the lockdown. Indian authorities detained and registered cases against four Manipuri women who entered Myanmar illegally for trade. Twelve Myanmar nationals (mostly traders) were apprehended as they crossed illegally into Mizoram in North East India. These two recent incidents are telling of the complex yet common circumstances that the two countries face: the presence of illegal trade accompanied by dire circumstances of the common people. The fundamental question remains of how to equally sustain lives and livelihoods, both of which are mutually dependent on each other.
One needs to still thrive on hope with dreams of better times to come. In June, the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, based in New Delhi, organized a webinar on ‘India-Myanmar Business Promotion, Challenges and Opportunities Post-COVID-19’, where discussions were held on business growth and revival of the two economies. Views were expressed on charting out the scope for expanding trade relations in areas such as healthcare, pharmaceuticals, transport, communication, education and food processing. It is pragmatic to have a workable roadmap for the future and interactive sessions like these can go a long way in generating a positive outlook for the future.
Moreover, India needs to re-emphasize its ‘Act East’ policy by coordinating its responses with not only Myanmar but also with the rest of the Southeast Asian countries. It can collaborate in areas of medical research, digital technology and economic recovery plans. After the lockdown lifts, strategies need to be developed between India and Myanmar to prevent cross-border spread of infections. As far as ASEAN is concerned, both the India-ASEAN Plan of Action (2016-2020) and the India-ASEAN Dialogue Relations (upgraded in July 2019) have sections on health, with the former having ‘health and pandemic preparedness and response’ as one of its components,which also includes areas like surveillance, laboratory-cum-information networking and human resource capacities.
The former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, Rajiv Bhatia, argued in his 2015 book India–Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours that ‘what is needed is an increased public awareness of the potential of the relationship, the geopolitical stakes involved and the costs of suboptimal action’ (p.224). The two countries already have a history of shared experiences and values. These need to be revisited to rejuvenate the relations even further. A combination of concerted government efforts along with vibrant civil society/people’s initiatives will be needed to bring the relationship back on track after normalcy returns.
The COVID-19 epidemic has made us all realize not only the absolute futility of conflict but also the need to have cooperative joint responses to global concerns and challenges. Although the virus crossed frontiers and affected almost every country, it unevenly impacted certain sections of the population due to a variety of human-created discriminations. The virus did not ‘create’ boundaries but it generated a disproportionate impact on some communities based on man-made pre-existing boundaries and reinforced the effects of these boundaries. Although the pandemic has taught us the need to be more humane and inclusive in our overall perspective, it has also witnessed opposite approaches: certain countries and communities have become more insular and protective, thus building more walls than bridges of cooperation. Indo-Myanmar relations in the future, therefore, must keep in mind both normative values and complex geo-politics. These will determine how common priorities are explored and the vision for togetherness that can be created for a better tomorrow.
Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the Department of International Relations, University of Indonesia (UI) and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East India Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She completed her MA, M.Phil and Ph.D from the Centre for Political Studies (CPS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She is the author of Land Conflicts across Frontiers: Contested Spaces in Myanmar and North East India (Notion Press, 2018) and has co-edited three books: Fixed Borders, Fluid Boundaries – Identity, Resources and Mobility in Northeast India (Routledge, 2020), Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017) and Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015). She is currently pursuing another master’s in museum cultures from Birkbeck, University of London.