Myanmar’s bridge to somewhere

Myanmar’s bridge to somewhere

While the United States has only recently made tentative efforts to engage with Myanmar, India has, controversially, had decent relations with the country’s government for quite some time. Human rights activists criticized Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Than Shwe in 2012, calling it "unbecoming" for a democracy to welcome the Burmese military ruler.

At a time when relations are being renewed between Myanmar and the West, there’s been a flurry of recent activity along India’s 1,019-mile northeastern border with the country. The seven states of northeastern India are currently at their lowest period of insurgent violence in decades, and the shift in relations with their neighbor across the border could have enormous socio-economic implications for India, China and Southeast Asia.

On Feb. 22, India’s foreign minister met with Myanmar’s construction minister in New Delhi to speak about expanding both aviation and highway transportation between the two countries. The bridge in question would pass through the Naga region, inhabited by the tribal Naga people in the hilly district of Tamenglong in Manipur. For months, the United Naga Council — an organization based in northeastern India — had resisted such developments.

According to Samrat of the New York Times, several old routes cross the border between northeastern India and Myanmar. Some, like the World War II Stilwell Road, built under the U.S. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, had become "ghost roads," used mainly by Naga and Kachin insurgents to transport weapons and drugs, chiefly poppies to make and smuggle heroin across the border. But these roads have gradually returned to relatively law-abiding uses. Nonetheless, Indian officials claim Burmese authorities do not actively work to curb the flow of drugs and weapons into India.

In 1991, India’s central government implemented a ‘‘Look East Policy” to forge closer ties with the country’s eastern neighbors. Critics say that Indian officials have made little attempt to put the policy into practice, but now the government is clearly looking to pick up the pace. During its many years of self-imposed isolation, Myanmar’s only major economic partner was China, giving Beijing a strategic advantage in a nation that borders five countries.