In Myanmar, the fate of major Indian projects hangs in balance
These projects are regarded as vital components of India’s Act East Policy aimed at forging closer ties with the Asia-Pacific region
Uncertainty looms over two of the biggest Indian projects in Myanmar regarded as vital components of the Act East Policy aimed at forging closer ties with the Asia-Pacific.
Work on the multi-crore Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project has been halted in Myanmar owing to many factors.
In reply to an RTI application, the Ministry of External Affairs said that progress on the crucial greenfield road of 109 kilometres in Myanmar has been “impacted due to COVID-19, security reason and due to bankruptcy of existing (sic) contractor.”
The reply added that “restriction” on the movement of resources has affected the pace of the project and the government is coordinating with concerned ministries of Myanmar for its “smooth execution”.
The project, which has a road and waterway component, aims at providing an outlet to the landlocked North East. The road also covers a distance of 87 kilometres from the border at Zorinpui to the district headquarters of Lawngtlai in Mizoram which has almost been completed.
The reference to “security” in the RTI reply implies the danger from an insurgency outfit Arakan Army which is active in Chin and Rakhine States of Myanmar. The project’s road and waterway components pass through the twin states located south of Mizoram.
On 4 November, 2019, five Indian workers along with a Member of Myanmar Parliament and four other nationals were abducted by the Arakan Army in Rakhine State. One of the Indian abductees died of heart attack while in custody and before the rest were released by the outfit.
The region in Myanmar where the project is being constructed is among the most remote and underdeveloped in the country. Moving men and resources is a daunting task which is analogous to the situation in some zones of the North East.
Construction of the port and the inland water terminal had been completed two years ago. The RTI mentioned that “efforts are being made” to operationalise the port and the terminal.
India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway
Similar in importance to the Kaladan project is the 1,360-kilometre India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway trilateral highway that India is deeply engaged with in Myanmar. The RTI reply pointed out that only 35.75 per cent of the project has been completed so far, almost two decades after it was begun.
The highway, which is an initiative of the three countries, starts from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand through Myanmar. It is aimed at opening the gate to ASEAN, boosting trade and commerce in the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area and with the rest of Southeast Asia. India has proposed extending the highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
India is undertaking the construction of two segments of the highway in Myanmar — construction of 120.74 kilometre Kalewa-Yagyi road section and construction of 69 bridges along with the approach road on the 149.70 km Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa (TKK) road section.
Work on the 69 bridges including the approach roads was halted in 2018 after the contractor was terminated due to unsatisfactory performance.
Will projects gather pace?
The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) is one among the many factors that could decide the fate of the Kaladan project. Not long ago, it was engaged in heavy fighting with the Arakan Army in the region where the project is located.
The conflict in Chin and Rakhine states of Myanmar has dissipated after the unofficial ceasefire between the Arakan Army and Tatmadaw late in 2020. At the same time, there are reports that the Arakan Army has taken advantage of the peaceful conditions to entrench itself. Whether the outfit allows the Indian project to resume could depend upon a host of other factors including its linkages with other agencies beyond the borders of Myanmar.
The outcome of most other Indian investments in the country is likely to be influenced by New Delhi’s policies towards the military regime now desperate for recognition after the coup. India is walking a tightrope — it cannot be seen supporting a regime that has committed huge human rights atrocities on civilians and nor can it condemn the regime for fear of further alienating the generals.
What is most certain is that Tatmadaw will not go the extra mile to assuage India’s concerns or expedite timely execution of the projects. Its survival will take precedence over everything else even if it necessitates double-dealing with India again.
This is best evidenced by Tatmadaw’s changed gesture towards the rebel groups from the North East that have camps and training facilities in the neighbouring country. In 2019, the facilities of these groups were dismantled at the Naga-inhabited areas in north Sagaing Division bordering the eastern districts of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
After the coup, there are reports that some of these group have been deployed by the Tatmadaw to attack the fleeing refugees and People’s Defence Forces (PDFs). Former functionaries of the Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) also claim that all these outfits are regrouping and efforts are on to erect a new general headquarters in the Naga inhabited region.
On 14 January, there were news reports claiming that Indian special forces had attacked a camp of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Myanmar’s Senam village in which two rebels and a personnel of the army were killed.
The army told reporters that no such incident took place. Which is contrary to what some people closely attached separatist outfits in a few border districts of the Northeast firmly believe. Speculation is on among some circles that New Delhi has firmed up a policy of surgical strikes against the separatist rebels even if it means antagonising the Myanmar generals.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam. Views expressed are personal.
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