In November 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at the meeting of the Association of South-east Asian Nations held in Myanmar about India’s newfound commitment to play a major role in linking economies of these countries through its Act East policy, seeds for which were sown in the early 1990s during the Congress regime.
On 12 April 1995, then Union commerce minister P Chidambaram flew in a helicopter from Imphal to Moreh (109 km by road). There he signed, at a simple ceremony, the historic overland trade treaty with the Myanmarese military junta headed by a senior Lieutenant-General, The function at Tamu, 10 km from Moreh, was well-organised. It included a dance contingent of Myanmarese Hemi Nagas to which chief of NSCN SS Khaplang belonged This was an obvious signal to New Delhi that Myanmar also have Nagas.
At the press conference I asked Chidambaram about the exchange rate of Indian rupees and Myanmarese kyats. He hedged the question, apparently because it is the level of the river that flows between the two countries that determined the prevailing market rate of exchange. The lower the level of the river the higher the value of the rupee as it meant that more head-loads of Indian goods can find their way into Myanmar.
Economically-speaking it meant the more elastic the supply of Indian goods, the higher the Indian rupee commands and vice versa. Locally known as “bhata”, the exchange rate could fluctuate between 1,000 and 2,000Mmyanmarese kyats to 100 Indian rupees.
This trade agreement was basically signed with the purpose of putting to an end the clandestine multi-crore daily market transactions that were going on between the two sides in the grey market. Enterprising traders would open up cycle shops a mere 100 feet from the border with truckloads of cycle parts brought all the way from Jalandhar. Till then Myanmar’s economy depended heavily on this clandestine trade for its light engineering goods. That was before the Chinese got into the business and also for pharmaceutical products.
High-priced imports from Myanmar included “agar”, in great demand in the Arab countries because of its supposed aphrodisiac qualities and Burma teak. These were brought to the Indian side and then sent to different cities and major ship building yards, at a higher price.
Before signing the trade accord, “agar” was replaced by “No 4 heroin” from drugs factories of the Golden Triangle and when the Supreme Court banned the movement of forest produce outside the North-east, the teak trade came to a halt. Its place was taken over by light Chinese engineering products like mini-hydro turbine sets, mini-generators and blankets.
The trade pattern has not changed much as of the 40-odd traders who obtained export-import licences for formal and legitimate trade across the border, only four are operating when reports last came in. And by that account the purpose of signing the formal trade agreement between the two countries seemed to have failed as traders have apparently opted for the more “friendly head loads” trade to the formal ones, which also involved a lot of paper work.
Then came Modi’s announcement that India was not only going to look but also act. Perhaps he was wary of the increasing Chinese overtures to Myanmar and also hoped to secure its own domestic security. It is common knowledge that almost all the Indian, read Manipuri/Assamese and Naga insurgent goups, are now holed up in Myanmar with their liaison offices based just across the border at Tamu.
They had lost their base in Bangladesh following the takeover by Sheikh Hasina at Dhaka. Chairman of the United Liberation Front of Asom, Arabinda Rajkhowa, was arrested and so was Manipur’s United National Liberation Front supremo RK Meghen from Dhaka. India did give shelter to Burmese dissident student leaders when the military government cracked down on them in the late eighties. There was a Burmese refugee camp on the campus of the 8th Bn Manipur Rifles in Leikun in Chandel district and also a New Delhi office at the residence of India’s then defence minister, George Fernandes.
So it was obvious that the Myanmarese government would call for a quid pro quo situation, which still continues even after the democratic movement is said to have succeeded.
There are three areas to begin with — the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Imphal-Mandalay bus service and the Kaladan Multi- Modal Transit Project. Also in the pipeline is to have a Trans-Asian railway line connecting mainland India with the Myanmarese railway grid through Moreh via Imphal.
But so far the Manipur portion of the Asian Highway is limited to a few signboards put up across sections of National Highway No 39, which links Moreh to Numaligarh in Assam. It simply reads “AH No1”!
According to former vice-chancellor of Manipur University and economist, Amar Yumnam, the Centre is not at all sincere when it comes to the question of developing the North-eastern region so much so that they are willing to violate international protocols to which India is a signatory, such as the Paris Declaration of Climate Change and cites the delay in the expansion work of the Imphal-Moreh section of the highway.
He further stated that while the Look East Policy of the earlier Congress regime was a bluff, Modi’s Act East Policy is an extension of that bluff and that no proper mechanism has been worked out so far for tying up the South-east Asian economies with that of the North-eastern states.
Erendro Leichombam, a Harvard-return and leader of the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance, and a critic of the BJP, told The Statesman that no one knows about the exact nature of the Act East Policy and at best it could be like the BJP’s “Ache Din” which no one knows anything about.
He continued that that although 41 memorandums of understanding, involving more than Rs 5,000 crore, were said to have been signed between the Manipur government and various representatives of the private corporate sector last year, no one knows the exact details of these agreements, and at best the bulk of them could be “conmen” with zero investments, simply out to make a fast buck by posing as genuine with a certificate issued by the Manipur government. And he also warned the Centre that if the plan is to benefit the businessmen of Gujarat by building a bridge over Manipur and the Northeastern region, they would oppose it tooth and nail.
When Modi announced the change of name of the Look East Policy to Act East Policy in 2014, people in the region were jubilant and some even said it was a Great Leap Forward of the former Soviet era. They were expecting the setting of up of several ancillary units and container trucks driving up from Bangkok and Singapore to pass through the North-east en route to Delhi and all the way up to Tehran.
But that seemed to have been turned into a nightmare as even the composite checkpost at Moreh, the construction of which started in 2006, is yet to be completed. And traders who bring in merchandise from Myanmar are still subjected to a strip search of their vehicles by the Assam Rifles en route, all in the name of counter-insurgency operations.
And as far as the common man on the road is concerned, all these talks about Looking East or Acting East are nothing but just talking East.
The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman