Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first bilateral visit to Myanmar beginning Tuesday is significant for several reasons. India’s northeastern states share a 1,600-km border with Myanmar, where the hardline military junta still wields considerable power. India considers Myanmar as a gateway to Southeast Asia, and hence a critical part of the PM’s Act East initiative.
Modi’s arrival in the capital Naypyidaw on a three-day visit coincides with escalating violence in the coastal Rakhine state, where the army has launched a massive offensive against Rohingya insurgents, forcing thousands to flee to Bangladesh. This is likely to impact several infrastructure projects initiated by India, including the ambitious Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which aims to connect the ports of Kolkata and Sittwe seaport in Myanmar by sea, then through boat to Paletwa in Myanmar through the Kaladan river, and to Mizoram by road. Sittwe is in Rakhine state. There’s a trilateral highway project connecting India’s Northeast with Myanmar, for which India sanctioned $256 million in August. The 1,360 km highway will start from Moreh in Manipur through Tamu, Myanmar to Mae Sot in Thailand, and on to the markets of Southeast Asia. India is funding the renovation of 73 WWII-era bridges along the route. India plans to extend it to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, as part of what it describes as the East-West Economic corridor.
All these projects have been in the doldrums for political and economic reasons, and Modi’s visit may help resolve some of the bottlenecks. New Delhi believes development of Rakhine state would ease the ethnic violence there. Modi, expected to meet President Htin Kyaw and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, is also likely to offer help with modernising Myanmar’s naval assets, including its navy and coast guard. But his primary challenge will be to convince Myanmar that it is a more reliable partner than China, which is aggressively courting the country.