Analysis: India’s ‘Act East’ Policy Faces Uncertain Times As Myanmar’s Civil War Runs Aground Ambitious Sittwe Project

Analysis: India’s ‘Act East’ Policy Faces Uncertain Times As Myanmar’s Civil War Runs Aground Ambitious Sittwe Project

Policy-makers need to realise that without people-to-people connections and trade, India may find it difficult to get the ethnic tribes of North Myanmar or even its own tribal population to support its connectivity initiatives

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Sunday, March 03, 2024, 11:21 PM IST
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Sittwe Port | File

As the rebel Arakan Army battles the Myanmar junta for control of the key port of Sittwe, India stares at uncertain times for its twin objectives of furthering foreign trade and connectivity from its neglected Northeast as part of the Act East policy and of securing its eastern borders from the chaos beyond.

The latest news out of Myanmar’s hilly coastal province of Rakhine (or Arakans as it was earlier called), situated with the Bay of Bengal to its south and Bangladesh and India to its northwest, is that the Arakan Army with which India has had a fraught relationship, has captured nearly three-fourth of the restive province as well as large chunks of the neighbouring Chin province.

The rebels have not only managed to outmanoeuvre the Myanmar regular army but also taken large number of prisoners including a Brigadier General.

India has long been trying to build a port at Sittwe in the heart of the Arakan region and link it through a waterway route to Paletwa in neighbouring Chin province of Myanmar and thence through a highway to connect the northeast through Mizoram.

As part of this ambitious project, India and Myanmar had in May last year, with great fanfare, announced the opening of the the Sittwe port and the arrival of the first cargo vessel from Haldia in mainland India for transshipment of its cargo to the northeast.

That initial success story seems to have now soured and the US $484 million project to have turned into a quagmire, as rebels have overrun key portions of the project and much of the roadway which was built has turned into a dirt track where pitched battles involving aircraft, tanks and artillery, are being fought.

Earlier Paletwa, the key nodal transit point, at a distance of 158 kms from Sittwe had fallen to the Arakanese Army. On Saturday the rebel troops claimed they had destroyed Myanmarese tanks at the Minn Chuang bridge, some 20 kms away from Sittwe, where India has its port and a consulate.

India’s problem at this juncture is that while it has assiduously cultivated the ethnic Burman-dominated Myanmarese regimes — both Aung San Suu Ki’s elected government and the military junta regime which toppled it — its relations with the Arakanese Army as well as many other militant groups are at best arms length and at worst, seriously hostile.

There have been run-ins with the Arakanese Army and a high-profile group from the rebel force was captured from a deserted island in the Andamans in a controversial mission by Indian intelligence. These rebels were released in the last decade after 13 years of incarceration at Kolkata’s Presidency prison.

On the other hand India’s rival China, which has a similar project to link its southeastern province of Kunming through northern Myanmar to Arakan’s Kyaukphyu port on Ramree island, has managed to play both sides in the war.

The Chinese on the one hand have been supplying military equipment to the Myanmarese junta, while engaging the rebel groups by turning a Nelson’s eye to their trade in illegally mined jade, semi-precious stones and other goods as well as allowing their personnel to cross borders at will.

China’s project at Kyaukphyu is perhaps far more ambitious with a price tag running into billions of dollars and certainly more strategic than Sittwe. The port’s strategic vision seems to be to help Chinese merchant marine avoid entering the narrow straits of Malacca as well as the adjoining Andaman and Borneo Seas, patrolled by the US, Indian and ASEAN navies, and to land cargoes of oil, gas and other goods in Myanmar’s Ramree island for transshipment to Kunming. It is needless to underscore that this would protect Chinese oil supplies from being choked by either the US or Indian navies in case of hostilities.

In contrast Sittwe’s main attraction is that it will act as a cheaper alternative to both mainland India’s and Bangladeshi ports, cutting down travel time and costs. It was conceived during the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Bangladesh, then under Begum Zia’s BNP regime, had decided to deny India access to its harbours for cargo meant for the Northeast.

In time, Sittwe’s long-term importance would not have been just a cheaper route to the Northeast. It has the potential to become a staging post for further road building linking India with other cities in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, which in turn held the promise of turning the Act East policy into more than a mere promise for the future.

However, as Arakanese and other rebel groups battle the Myanmar junta, at times alongside the pro-democracy Myanmarese groups, India’s ambitions in the Arakan hills seem to have turned into just a castle of sand.

The only way India can perhaps salvage the situation would be to take a leaf out of China’s playbook for the region. It will need to reach out to both the junta in power as well as the rebels, and explain that the economic benefits of the connectivity project will accrue to all, and in larger measures to locals living in the Rakhine province.

Tentative moves towards this end may have already started with or without an official sanction. A pointer to this is a visit by a senior politician from the Mizo National Front — which is part of the ruling alliance in Delhi — to the Rakhine state to meet leaders from the Arakan Army.

The need to reach out and get the the project back on the rails is grounded on economic reality on both sides, besides strategic necessity. After all, Myanmar has been going through not only a civil war but also economic chaos. The Northeast on the other hand remains one of India’s poorest hinterlands with little or no exports or fresh industrial investments.

Myanmar’s economy shrank by double digits since the military coup ousted a legitimately elected government in 2021and grew by just 2-3% in 2023. Unemployment is believed to be rampant. While the country’s Kyat traded at 2100 to the US dollar in 2024 March, compared to 1300 to the dollar in pre-coup days.

However, at the same time, India has in response to its own internal politics in riot-hit Manipur decided to rescind an earlier pact on free movement with Myanmar which allows locals living within 40 km of the border to travel to each others’ lands across the international border, and to fence the densely forested boundary line, shutting in people on either side.

The move is ostensibly to check drug smuggling, illegal migration, etc., but has proven to be extremely unpopular with both the Nagaland and Mizoram assemblies, who have protested against the measure. Manipuri legislators have predictably been deeply divided over the issue — with Meiteis supporting it and tribals opposing.

Nevertheless, policy-makers need to realise that without people-to-people connections and trade which the fencing the and revocation of the free movement regime will certainly hinder, India may find it difficult to get the ethnic tribes of North Myanmar or even its own tribal population to support its connectivity initiatives.

Besides, as most analysts will readily admit, fences and bans are hardly able to keep out the impact of events in the neighbourhood. It is always better to hold out a shining example of stability and prosperity in one’s backyard to influence one’s neighbours to yearn for an end to chaos in theirs.

Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw is far from the Aarakans or even the Chin province, both of which are nearer Mizoram and Manipur, and the military junta’s or even Suu Kyi’s writ is unlikely to run fully in these areas even in the best of times.

Perhaps India does need to imitate the Chinese a bit more in the pursuit of its foreign policy goal of seeking influence, connectivity and trade with its eastern neighbours to improve the lot of its own people.

The author is former head of PTI’s eastern region network

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