Dialogue  January - March, 2009 , Volume 10  No. 3


Manipur: Eastern Gateway of India


Pradip Phanjoubam*



The Indo-ASEAN car rally in 2004 is now a receding memory. The event which many had hoped would mark the opening up of India’s and more specifically, Manipur’s eastern door, is now in danger of fading away into oblivion. So many in the state as well as well-wishers of Manipur and the Northeast, believed that this event would be an important watershed in the history of the region. It may be coincidental, but it did add to the general sense of an approach of an epochal change that the developments in the regard seem to be close to a prediction in the Meitei books of prophesy, the Puyas that things would begin to fall back in place and prosperity return to the state after the “Nongpok Thong” (Eastern Door) opens up. I would elevate the prediction from merely the status of an occultist prophesy to one of intuitive economic vision, derived out of an innate understanding of Manipur’s and the Northeast’s history, geography and economic predispositions. The region lies at the junction between South Asia, South East Asia and Far East Asia.

     No wonder then that even the great science fiction writer of the past century, Jules Verne in his “Around the World in Eighty Days” saw why this is so when he made his hero Phileas Fogg travel from India to Hong Kong through the Yunnan Province in China bordering Myanmar. The entire region that we talk of belongs to one geographical belt. It is also no wonder why China has also taken such keen interest in establishing a bridge to the ASEAN using its Yunnan Province as its bridgehead. The series of “Kunming Summits” it has been holding is evidence. The Yunnan Province, of which Kunming is the capital, like the rest of this region is settled by people of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group, quite distinct from the Han Chinese, and it is a demonstration of China’s diplomatic prudence that it is seeking to take advantage of this commonality in its ASEAN push. It is interesting to note that India already has a connection with the Yunnan. The disused Stilwell Road built during the Second World War, connects Upper Assam to this Chinese province, again an indicator that even the West saw the need to treat the region as a cohesive whole.

     India, like China, has the northeast to make a similar bridge to the ASEAN and Manipur is, we must say, the right choice for a point of contact. As well known writer and northeast observer, BG Verghese, observed recently, if the western Gateway of India is in Mumbai, the eastern Gateway of India must be built at Moreh. This is no age for suspicion either, and we are sure if some kind of competition develops between India and China, it would and should be for economic opportunities alone and hence healthy. For Manipur and the northeast, this can turn out to be a big opportunity. Its geopolitical and geo-economic predicaments may suddenly change, after all the northeast can become the connecting hub between three huge and fast developing markets – the ASEAN, South Asia and Far East Asia.

       In history, the western and eastern doors were always very important for Manipur. Economic and military relations with neighbours have always been through these. Hence Cachar, Sylhet, Takhel, Tekhao in the west and Ava, Kege, Kabaw in the east, have been always a part of the place’s history consciousness. Unfortunately, because of certain momentous shifts in the course of history in the last century, one of these doors closed, putting to an end a traditional and historical trade route that once passed through it. That door is about to be opened, and Manipur may yet become the trade thoroughfare again it once was, ushering in with it the much need whiffs of fresh air, both psychologically and materially. Let there also be no mistake that opening the eastern door does not mean shutting the western one. Manipur and the northeast need both the doors wide open, and in fact as many doors and windows as there are. If possible, and we are sure it will become possible one day as the SAARC grows in scope and confidence, it should have a passage to the sea as well, which incidentally is not too distant from the tip of Mizoram or Tripura.

    Consider this. It is not too rare to hear of the narrow 22 km or so chicken neck corridor between Bangladesh and Bhutan that connects mainland India with the northeast, being used as an apt image to describe the alienation of the northeast from national mainstream. This 22 km of border is supposed to constitute only about two percent of the total boundary of the northeast. All of the rest of 98 percent are international borders. With China and Bhutan in the north, Myanmar in the East, Bangladesh in the South and much of the West. The physical picture is unambiguous. It conveys a stark sense of lack of contact, physical and spiritual, with subcontinental India. Many have indeed often argued powerfully how this physical condition portrays an inner psychological distance that is the destiny of the relationship of the northeast with the soul of India. From its lack of development to the numerous secessionist insurrections it is witnessing, have all been attributed in varying degrees to this distance.

      The only shortcoming of this perspective is, the question as to how much this chicken neck is a physical condition and not a political one, seldom follows as a natural interrogation. This is serious because the omission results in the obscuring a historical fact that the chicken neck is a residual fallout of colonial politics and administration, rather than a given, natural, physical feature. To be precise, how responsible is the Radcliff Line, the boundary drawn by the British colonial administration before they departed from India in 1947, the culprit behind the “distance” between the northeast and rest of India? Did this boundary commission have to have the northeast connected to India by a chicken neck? If the Radcliff Line did not make this chicken neck a chicken neck, would the alienation of the northeast that has almost become a cliché today, have been the same? Of course the chicken neck does expose another general mindset of the Indian leadership at the time the Radcliff Line was being drawn, and perhaps even today. They allowed the chicken neck to materialize, which it is doubtful they would have if say Gujarat were to be thus isolated by an international political boundary. No war has been fought over the Radcliff Line’s chicken neck, but one was over another border demarcating the northeast – the MacMohan Line.

     These lines did much more to alter the face and psychology of the northeast. Ever since they came into existence, the sea suddenly became remote, the Barak Valley came to be undermined considerably politically and commercially, thriving border trades became stiflingly regulated or else condemned to slow strangulation etc. Without going into the rigmarole of the justness or otherwise of these lines, for indeed they are a reality today not to be undone, at least not easily, one simple question beggars an answer. What was it like, or what must it have been like, before these lines were drawn, in the case of some of them, not much more than half a century ago?  This question is beginning to be asked in so many other situations everywhere in the post-colonial world, and with astounding results. Economic and cultural zones that transcend but do not disturb national boundaries are emerging. The Greater Mekong Sub-region, GMS, the Association of South East Asian Nation, ASEAN, the much heard of Track-II “Kunming Initiative” which envisages to create the BCIM, Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar economic cooperation and connectivity, to name just a few. One way of attempting to answer the question as to what it must have been like before the national boundaries came up, would be to have a look at the unofficial relations that still exists despite the boundaries. The popular unofficial trade routes, or smuggling and gun running channels if you like, is one such. Would making these routes official make a difference to the scenario and bring what is underground, overground, as much as make what is illegal, legal? The other approach would be to refer to the abiding memories of the time that still lingers on. Just as Cox Bazar and Mandalay are familiar names to unofficial traders, so are Dhaka and Chittagong to many first, second and even third generation Western education literate, in places like Manipur. Sylhet too is fond memory for many in Manipur who still have distant relatives living there.

    A lot more needs to be done yet for the Look East Policy to materialize. As for instance, the link roads need to shape to take the kind of traffic of freight and passengers any thriving trade route is expected to take. A trip to Mandalay during November 20 to 29 in 2004 revealed this reality starkly.

    It was a rough road in rough buses, but when many amongst our delegation decided to return from Tamu, the border town adjacent to Moreh in Manipur, complaining of bad tour arrangement and poor transport, I decided otherwise, as did 64 others. For one thing, I did not expect any royal treatment in Myanmar, not that the people would not be willing to welcome visitors, but they just were unlikely to be ready or have the infrastructure to give foreign tourists their worth. We were not tourists, but a delegation to participate in a seminar that was a culmination of the new bilateral understanding between India and Myanmar, but as it became increasingly clear, not many across the border understood this. For a transit town used to low budget tourists and border traders, we were just another lot of the same economy class. If we had been visa travelers, taking the air route to Mandalay via Calcutta, Bangkok, Yangon and then Mandalay, maybe the attitude would have been different. But I did not mind it at all for sometimes a lot more of a place is revealed to low budget travelers, than to 5-Star hoppers. As the passenger traffic increase, it is only to be expected that these rough edges would be polished up. Moreover, I just had to be part of the historic opening of the Eastern Door, an event which had always been a matter of extreme interest. The journey in this sense was also very much a time travel back to a period in history when Manipur was a kingdom, very much on its own.

     Our buses, beautiful Nissan vehicles, with engines in the back, would have been very comfortable if not for the modifications introduced to cater to the peculiar needs on this route as well as the terrain. The chassis suspensions of the buses have been raised at least two feet so that it needed an extra effort to board them. Midway into the journey we found out the reason why. From Moreh to Kalewa the road had been newly constructed by India so good and all weather, but beyond this point, up to another township called Mongya, a nearly 200 km stretch, there is hardly any road that can be called a road. Numerous rivulets and ravines that furrow the plains are often without bridges so that the vehicles actually have to descend into the riverbeds and climb out the other side. Especially during the wet season, it is quite imaginable that only buses with the kind of modification these buses have would be able to negotiate the terrain.

     The inside of the buses are also modified. The seats have been raised a good two feet. This is to make accommodation for freight. About two thirds of the buses, towards their ends are also without seats, again the space is for freight. These buses obviously couple up as passenger as well as freight carriers. It also indicates that the passenger traffic on this rout is less than heavy. On our way up, the buses were loaded with fertilizers. Outraged, we had them removed but soon found out no sooner how uncomfortable it was to perch on raised bus seats on long distance travel with your feet two feet about the floor. On our return journey, the floors below the seats were packed with detergent packets. We allowed this, the journey home was, to say the least, decidedly more comfortable.

    Myanmar is in many ways at odds with itself. This awkwardness becomes evident soon. The buses, so also most other vehicles, are right hand drive just as ours, but the roads are also right hand drive, unlike our. Apart from making driving judgment less accurate, it also left us getting off into the middle of the road every time the buses stopped for a stretch of leg. This would have been inconvenient and even dangerous on a busy highway, but the road to Mandalay from Tamu is far from this. Traffic, both of passenger buses or freight trucks were conspicuous by their absence all along the route right up to Mongya. Beyond Mongya, towards Mandalay some traffic become visible. One other thing which we have come to take so much for granted — high tension electric wires — were also missing conspicuously. In certain visibly more prosperous townships there was power, but these were from small home generators.

       Myanmar’s currency is the Kyat. It must be one of the most unstable currencies in the world. At the moment it sells at the rate of Rs 100 to Kyat 2000. Four years ago, when I made a trip to Tamu, the rate was Rs 100 to Kyat 750. A few more years earlier it was Rs 100 to Kyat 350. This made it extremely comfortable for India travelers for everything becomes so cheap. Wages are also extremely poor. A senior professor gets about Kyat 20,000, the equivalent of Rs 1000. A doctor gets around Kyat 15,000 or Rs 750. In fact there are many professions with sub Rs 500 salary. Within the country, this is just enough to pull along. But foreign travels, even to India, by the average Myanmarese national is beset with obvious hurdles.

     The plummeting of the Kyat is understandable, for the strength of the country’s currency is linked to the health of the country’s economy. While the Indian economy grew at the rate of 7 percent over the past few years, Myanmar’s has been more or less stagnant. The status of the Kyat also provides an interesting contrast to the Nepalese rupees or the Bhutanese Nu, two economies which are doing no better, or even worse than the Myanmar. The currencies of these two countries have been virtually de-linked from their national GDPs and instead have come to take a piggy back ride on the strengthening Indian economy. As for instance, between 2001 and now, the Nepali rupee has gained against the Indian rupee. It was Rs 100 (INC) to Rs 170 (NC) in 2001, against Rs 100 (INC) to Rs 160 (NC) now. This is despite the fact the Indian rupees gain considerably against the dollar over the same period. The benefits Bhutan and Nepal are reaping of being a surrogate of a larger economy I suppose.

     The status of the Kyat also makes you reflect on some aspects of the Indian economy. Although there is justifiable criticism against it for not fostering equitable development in all its varied regions, there are visibly other mechanisms for some semblance of an equitable distribution of national wealth. Government salaries of employees in the most prosperous state in the country, say Maharashtra, would be more or less the equivalent of those of very poor deficit economies like Manipur. It is bad that the states are not taught to fish so that all can eat forever, but the consolation is, at least the states are provided the fish if they do not have it. If the real health of Manipur’s economy were to be the deciding factor of the place’s salary structure, government employees would not be earning more than their counterparts in the state’s fledgling private sector.

      There are also certain political implications of the new developments.

In this age of information, there was hardly anybody willing to part with information in Myanmar, especially if the information is political in nature. All become tightlipped if the query is about the lady most in international news, Aung San Suu Kyi.

      A local man, who became a good friend said by way of a caution that the mention of the lady’s name can land you in serious problem including prison. While he was thus off guard, I did manage to get him to say something very revealing. To the question if she would come to power if free and fair election was allowed, his prompt answer was, yes. To another question before he put on his guard again, he said it is unlikely there ever would be another election in the near future. Maybe not even in Suu Kyi’s lifetime.

     Except for the forced amnesia about Suu Kyi, life otherwise is very pleasantly normal in Mandalay, at least outwardly. We did not stay long enough or travel wide enough to know the nuances of dissident political undercurrents in the country. Otherwise, petty crime rate is low, although official corruption we were told is notoriously high. People of both genders, young and old are out on the streets till late into the night going about their everyday businesses and living out life as they have always known it to be.

    Contrary to expectation, missing throughout the journey was the overbearing presence of the military. In fact, the presence of the olive green would be much more in the streets of Imphal or Kohima.

No armoured vehicles, no long military convoys, no foot patrols. While we were there, we literally forgot we were in a country ruled by a military dictatorship. We did see some military personnel on our way back.

      The vehicle we were traveling in had the second tire puncture about 10 km from Sikhanji town towards the dusk of November 28. Our bus being the last in the convoy of three buses and a Tata Sumo vehicle, were left stranded on the road for a long time. Some us then decided to take a lift to Sikhanji and get help.

       After a long wait, a crowded local mini bus came along and stopped for us. We boarded it to find civilians and military personnel traveling together. The atmosphere was informally cordial with civil and military passengers making rooms for each other, helping unload each others luggage at stops etc.

     The seeming normalcy is unmistakable. One of Mandalay’s striking features is the number of eating places it boasts of, most of it with a beeline of customers. The culture of eating out seems very much a part of the average Myanmarese.

      At dinner time we were surprised to see the street outside our hotel in central Myanmar fill up with make-shift eating places consisting basically of a bench or two and table, with hurricane lamps augmenting available lights from the street lamps and shops along the street. A kiosk where the cooking is done either on coal lit briars or else two burner gas stoves, stand by each of these outdoor eating arrangements.

The place, at its peak hours between 8 pm and 9 pm becomes so crowded that you literally have to walk sideway so as not push over somebody. The fares offered are also basically meat of beasts and fowls, roasted or cooked, boiled rice, salads etc.

     The real taste of a place is, as they say, in roadside eating places and we did sample the food on this street, and it was to say the least, sumptuous, that is if you have no scruples about what meat you palate.

The normality of life kept a question returning to mind. Is the resistance against the military regime wearing out? Is the Nobel Peace laureate, Suu Kyi, destined to fade away? She has been under house arrest for a decade now and only recently, in total disregard of international opinion, the military junta extended her detention term by another year.

     According to the sections of the media which have access to the members of her party, the National League for Democracy, NLD, she is unlikely to be released ever.

    The question that follows is, what is it exactly that is making the military dictatorship so cocky and contemptuous of world opinion. Is it under no pressure to play a fair game in making the people decide who should run the country?

     The more pertinent question is, and disturbing for sympathizers of the pro-democracy movement in the country is, are the Myanmarese leaders set to do another China where an event as murderous as the Tiananmen Massacre was kept under wraps and those responsible actually have come to the fore of international attention both in economical as well as political terms? Would the Myanmarese leaders also succeed in keeping the dictatorship going and win back the world by a gradual but steady liberalization policy?

     As of today, it is difficult not to doubt this can actually happen. Welcome as the Indo-ASEAN car rally may be, event such reinforce the basis of this doubt.

    For indeed, the abiding impression that first time visitors like this writer return with is that Mandalay is a city rearing to go. There is already an increasing traffic of dollar and euro spending tourists arriving in the city. Most of these we bumped into at restaurants and tourists spots were Germans. There were many British amongst them too.

     Obviously prospecting a growth in First World tourism, modern 5-Star hotels are springing up. Most of these, like the “Sedona” which overlooks the magnificent moat and fortification of the “Glass Palace” and the “Mandalay Hill Resort”, are investments from ASEAN countries like Singapore and Thailand. Opposite our hotel, a 3-Star standard accommodation that sells for approximately 15 dollars a room, is a massive 25-storey shopping complex under construction at hectic pace, obviously again a foreign investment in the cash strapped country.

      In short, the feeling is, there is an economic churning building up in Myanmar, and fate willing, it just might rise again.

     The answer to the million dollar question, what is giving the Myanmar military junta the confidence to thumb its nose to its critics around the world is, the continued business interest the world, most specifically those in the region it belongs to, the ASEAN, China, India, Japan and indeed many European countries.

     It is interesting in this light that it was when leaders of the ASEAN during the two-day summit they held in the Laotian capital Vientiane late November 2004, intimated Myanmar to improve its human rights record and begin the process of democratization that the latter announced its decision to extend Suu Kyi’s detention by another year.

     It gauged the ASEAN countries’ interest in its natural resources well and rightly assumed they would not abandon it for a mere ideal as democracy. As it is, most of these countries are far from being shining examples of democracy or champions of human rights themselves.

      Myanmar has also been thumbing its nose to the West in like fashion. The manner the military regime then removed Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, a known moderate with too much ear for protests from the West is just an example. He was replaced by a known hardliner with little sympathy for the pro-democracy movement, Soe Win.

      It is also not, it seems, overly worried that pressures from the West, particularly the US, would mount beyond a point, having accurately read the superpower’s foreign policy priorities which grade its adversaries in terms of their status as “rogue nuclear” states. Myanmar does not have a nuclear program so it feels safe from US scrutiny on this front.

      Democracy in Myanmar then seems still a far cry, that is, unless the pressures and sanctions on it come from its regional neighbours first and foremost. The developments in the recent times definitely does not suggest this is about to happen. Even India has joined the frantic prospecting of the country, with its own strategic security and business interest in mind. No matter how much it is against our moral sense of propriety, the Myanmar junta may end up having the last laugh.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati