India’s Myanmar policy and Manipur perspective: common issues
At present, with lots of misgivings among the locals towards many of the national policies, Manipur has failed to make an effective contribution to India’s Myanmar policy and vice versa. It remains a matter which needs serious rethinking by stakeholders. From the Manipur perspective, India’s AEP is almost synonymous with that of its Myanmar policy. Many of the issues (both positive and negative) that come into the spotlight in Manipur’s emerging relevance in the AEP point toward Myanmar, an aspect which can no longer be sidelined. Issues of both hues, negative and positive, form an unavoidable part of Manipur dynamics in India’s growing Myanmar policy. Likewise, New Delhi’s interest in the state is based on issues of immense national concern, extending beyond the national boundary. The same is likely also true for Myanmar. Another relevant aspect here is the impact of the state and its cross-currents on the overall foreign policy of India towards Myanmar. The natives still consider the policy an imposition for security and strategic reasons that has not taken the locals on board. Some issues need to be viewed closely before considering any of the likely implications of Manipur and its externalities on the foreign policy measures, and vice versa.
Cross-border trade: the maze
The sudden closing down of the international transit gates along the Manipur-Myanmar border since 10 March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the simple fact of how fragile India’s foreign policy is in this part of the country, as the cross-border trade and people’s movement came to a complete standstill. At one time, the starting of the border trade at the Moreh-Tamu point was considered to be a significant event in India’s Myanmar policy. The
Manipur dynamics in India’s Myanmar policy 235 opening of this border trade in April 1995 brought Manipur directly within the purview of India-Myanmar relations, and beyond. In the immediate aftermath, Moreh started as the most important centre for border trade with the entire people of Manipur hoping for the ensuing economic prosperity. It changed from being a non-descript place to a well-known location in the entire Northeast of India. However, the volume of trade at the Moreh-Tamu border point, which gave a very positive picture in the initial years, gradually showed an overall declining trend although there have no longer been restrictions on tradable items since 1 December 2015.4 The volume of trade, which was INR 623.6 million in 1997-98, dropped to INR 7.7 million in 2017-18, not in India’s favour (Taneja et al. 2019; Khathing 2005, 51-57). What could be observed of the border trade is a zigzag, unbalanced and non-uniform pattern.
Besides, the Moreh-Tamu border trade has negative multiplier effects with far-reaching implications. Another side of the picture is that Moreh’s official trade is only a fraction of its large and flourishing informal trade, with transactions in narcotics, small arms, precious stones, gold, electronic items and wildlife products with different origins. An estimate of the annual volume of unofficial trade comes to about INR 12 billion (Bose 2018). The primary reason for this large-scale illegal traffic is that Myanmar does not impose any rule of origin or other restrictions on third-country goods in transit (Verghese 2002, 189). Moreover, given the non-conducive situation in Moreh, business has gradually shifted to Tamu’s Namphalong market. Adding to this is the excessive Chinese presence in the border trade. There is an onslaught of business groups, coming from as far as Yunnan. Products from the most sophisticated electronic goods to the simplest vegetables like garlic are brought to Manipur through the Moreh-Tamu transit from China.
Overall, the fact remains that, though barter trade has been abolished and border trade has shifted to normal trade, it has nevertheless failed to bring the minimum expected gain to the local people of the state. There is no coordination among the different Central authorities working in the state. The absence of a proper controlling authority with the right mechanisms for the control of whatever little benefit there is in terms of formal trade also adds to the problem. The stakeholders are at their wits’ end with harassment and interference from the authorities themselves. Besides, with many blockades, strikes and open intra-factional and other conflicts, sometimes bordering on communal flare-up, a subdued but tense situation prevails in Moreh. And most of the projects touching this area are in disarray. The fact remains that the situation of the Indo-Myanmar border trade could be a fulcrum for India, which could move either way, as a positive contribution or a declining negative trend.