Dialogue  July-September  2007, Volume 9  No. 1


Look East Policy: Implications Beyond Trade and Commerce for Northeast

Pradip Phanjoubam*

This landlocked region needs to open up as many doors and windows. This is why the Look East Policy which is on India’s policy anvil is of importance to the northeast region. The region is landlocked, but equally important as this fact is the question of how it came to be so. How did it come to be connected to sub-continental India by just a corridor wedged between Bangladesh and Bhutan, now often referred to as the “chicken neck”? In many ways, if there is anything as a literal, physical manifestation of what is often referred to as “colonial modernity” the northeast predicament must be it, for the shape of its political map, was indeed predetermined by certain colonial confines. Its northern boundary is the controversial McMohan Line, its southern boundary is the Radcliff Line, and its eastern boundary were very much the gradual but definitive outcome of the Treaty of Yandaboo, which too carried a colonial stamp. These were the boundaries that shut off the northeast from its natural elements, made the sea suddenly distant, age old trade routes stifled, alienated it from its neighbourhood and not the least created the “chicken neck” corridor that connects it to the rest of India. This forced confinement would have rob the region of its spirit and disoriented a great deal of its sense of purpose. Perhaps the perennial problems the place festers with are a symptom of the unnaturalness of this turn of political history.

It is unlikely that the international boundaries around the northeast entity can be redrawn. To expect it thus would be un-pragmatic if not foolhardy, notwithstanding the fact that they were not drawn with the region’s consent in the first place. The “Look East Policy” then, viewed from this perspective is a way of unwinding to the extent possible without disturbing any international diplomacy equilibrium, some of the claustrophobic confinement that the northeast has been condemned to by a certain brand of politics of a certain era. Trade, in our opinion, is only one important part of the story, for there is also an equally important strand of the same story that tells of a way to get the northeast breathing freely in its organic environment, and in the process restoring some of its lost inner spiritual self.

Such a policy could also serve as the much needed safety valve to release the steam welling up within the region. The Greater Mekong Subregion, GMS, initiative should provide a valuable picture of what can lay in store if handled well. Six former bitter rival nations along the basin of the mighty Mekong River, Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Thailand, Myanmar and the Yunnan and Guangxi provinces of China have indeed become the latest to decide to sublimate past antagonism into mutually beneficial channels of economic cooperation and reap in the process what is in their common parlance, “peace dividends”. I did a tour of these countries in 2005 sponsored by the Asian Development Bank, which is one of the prime movers of the initiative, besides Japan and China.

The GMS experience

To dwell on the GMS experience a little more, since its inception in 1992, the project has done miles in infrastructure development as well as confidence building. The GMS countries have been recording strong growths, Vietnam topping with a steady 7 percent. In all 5.2 billion dollars have been sunk into 19 infrastructure projects, and another 115 million dollars in 110 technical assistance projects. The results are visible, both in terms of physical infrastructure, notably world class roads, but also more subjectively in the sense of optimism all around among officials as well as the ordinary men and women on the streets.

The sense today is of a region on the move. One stop custom houses are being worked out at the borders so that trucks are not harangued by the need to complete tedious official formalities of two countries at every border crossing, driving licensing norms are being formalized so that they become recognized throughout the region etc.

The underlying logic behind the push for the evolution of economic regions and corridors is that the forces that led to the formation of the political reality of “nation states” with their hard, precise, zealously defended political boundaries, are seldom in congruence with natural economic regions. In fact, the case more often has been for the former to segmentize these natural regions, diminishing the economic strength and potential of each of the political units. The new outlook seeks too break these political barriers, at least in the economic spheres.

The idea of economic region forming a broader contour covering many nations is not new. The European Union had shown the way late in the last century, so have the ASEAN and to a much lesser extent the SAARC. Within the country, the idea of the North Eastern Council, NEC, the apex development agency looking after the eight northeastern states including Sikkim, is an articulation of this spirit. As a regional entity, the northeast is rich in resources and developmental potential, but as individual states, all of them remain incapacitated and condemned to a state of stagnancy and underdevelopment.

There are lessons to be learnt in the area of conflict resolution too from the GMS experience. It would be a welcome miracle if the actualization of economic regions can come to supersede the obsession with political boundaries and closed ethnic identity perimeters which have been the roots of many feuds in the northeast. There is no reason why such a miracle cannot happen. But this will entail a development agenda that empowers the people by opening up opportunities, and building capacities that will enable them to reap the fruits of these opportunities. This coupled with administrative guarantees of identity safeguards should make a potent medicine. After all, what is freedom beyond the guarantees of these basic dignities? Development policy initiatives must hence be able to see beyond the immediate. Insurgency as alibi for delaying or denying development, would amount to accepting defeat even before entering the ring. The dreary official chant that it is a necessary condition for peace to precede development in northeast must be reversed. Development must not be allowed to be held at ransom at any cost.

Taming of Mekong

Today, the mud brown, rough waters of the mighty Mekong River have been tamed somewhat. It is today navigable for a greater part of its great length of over 4000 kms giving livelihood and hope to the population along it in six nations of the GMS.

The river has also become a major route for commerce between the six nations. It can today take 300 tonne vessels during the monsoons, although on the average 150 tonne loads is normal. During the dry season 50 tonne vessel are safe. A loaded vessel takes one day to reach Thailand from Yunnan but upstream journey time is one and half day. China took the trouble as well as footed the expenses of blowing up many of the dangerous rapids along its meandering course. Its reward is, no other nation knows the river bed grid better than it does.

While the grid map can be shared, the confidence that came along in the process of harnessing the river cannot be, overnight. It cannot be a coincidence that nearly all of the freight vessels on the Mekong and their crew today are Chinese. The river is still dangerous for those who do not know it well and only Chinese vessels engineered with the river in mind, and their crews feel safe on it, said a Thai custom official at Chaing Rai, Thailand’s northernmost city bordering China, Myanmar and Laos.

A river port with modern loading and unloading facilities is coming up at Chaing Saen in the vicinity of Chiang Rai and situated almost at the heart of the Golden Triangle, a name that conjures up images of opium fields and drugs mafia.

Is Myanmar then paying for its political uncertainty? It probably would have, if not for its extremely strategic location and the richness of its minerals, especially its reserve of natural gas and other fossil fuel. The GMS nations, especially Thailand and China, have not banished the country from their minds and are continuing to extend infrastructure into it in the belief that the nation would sooner than later open up to its neighbours. Thai officials expressed the wish that India would reciprocate too and the two countries would meet half way in Myanmar.

For the moment, India seems still remote from this perspective. First, because Myanmar remains a huge blackhole to be bridged in any scheme of linking up the GMS with India. Second, because the thrust from India to put into effect its own “Look East” policy is still not serious enough, partly because of the many insurrections in its Northeastern states.

Right now, the focus of all GMS countries seems to be Yunnan. All of them want an access to this growing market, and a little reflected halo from an increasingly prosperous province. According to figures made available, Yunnan’s economy in the past few years have been recording a 9 plus growth rate. China has also been preparing for such an outcome for years with its own “Kunming Initiative” whereby it sought to understand more comprehensively, not just the economy but also the inner spirit of the GMS region and the rest of South East Asia.

If China has used the geographical and ethnic similarities between the Yunnan and the rest of the GMS countries to reach out to them without inspiring any sense of unease or awe, India too can do it with a similar “Northeast Initiative”. The Northeast can and would vibrate practically on the same wavelength as any of these nations. But this should be no cause for insecurity that the Northeast would prove disloyal to the nation. The Yunnan example should spell this out loud. Develop the place, unleash its natural potential by allowing it to follow the paths of least resistance, and a lot of the troubles should disappear. India needs to be a little less obsessive with its western borders and neighbours, and shed a little of its unease at looking east.

Our Eastern Door

The Indo-ASEAN car rally in November 2004 marked an important watershed in the general outlook of much of the northeast. In Manipur it was almost a symbolic initiation of an epochal change that the developments in the regard seem to be close to a prediction in the Meitei’s book of prophesy, the Puya that things would begin to fall back in place and prosperity return to the state after the “Nongpok Thong” (Eastern Door) opens up. But the occultist prophesy may have come from an intuitive economic vision, derived out of an innate understanding of Manipur’s and the northeast’s history, geography and economic predisposition. 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, it must be admitted, 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. 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 reopened, 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 would 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.

Look East Strategy

What must the government then prepare for? First, it must have to be in shaping the orientation of the “Look East” policy itself. The fundamental question must be to work out a modality by which the backward northeast region is given a lift in its effort to find an economic leg and close in the development gap that exists between it and the rest of the country. In this sense, the new shift in the vision must not be just about building an economic bridgehead between India and the ASEAN, but also of providing real, tangible opportunities to the communities in the northeast that the people here can take the best benefit from. To be specific, the entire enterprise must not be allowed to culminate in a scenario in which the local communities find themselves in the unenviable position of the dogs barking helplessly and meaninglessly at the passing caravans. Such a scenario, rather than solve, can only accentuate the present stalemate and ennui the northeast region is caught in.

This having been said, the next step would have to be to work out strategies to steer the course of events in the desired direction. This can be done first of all by encouraging local industries and trading to prepare to avail of the new opportunities through appropriate incentive structuring mainly by the extension of imaginative and purposeful institutional credit facilities to local entrepreneurs. This will be absolutely vital as the biggest stumbling block before the local enterprises and businesses at the moment is low investment capabilities. The second strategy would have to be to introduce government regulations in businesses and enterprises with the objective of maximizing local involvement. This could be done by making local partnerships essential in business undertakings and investments that take advantage of this new foreign policy. The degree of this regulatory mechanism can be calibrated on a time scale drawn against projected dates of success in entrepreneurial confidence local enterprises and trades would have gained.

When the required level has been reached, it can perhaps be phased out. The important thing to be kept in mind, in our opinion is, in the beginning the political agenda of opening up and uplifting the northeast must have primacy over immediate business returns. Once the political objective of instilling confidence in the northeast region has been achieved, all the other accepted laws of business anywhere can be allowed to take over.

Democracy in Myanmar

One other problem in all Look East initiatives can be Myanmar. But as of today, at least in matters of their policy towards the military junta in Myanmar, India and China seem to agree. Although understandably it will be quite sometime before the two can open up their hearts totally to each other in the backdrop of the war the two countries fought in 1962, it can be without any hesitation said that the relationship between them are not the same anymore. Noticeably, China’s attitude has visibly undergone a sea change in recent years. The country’s gesture in recognizing Sikkim as an integral part of India two years ago and erasing the erstwhile kingdom from its own map was an important watershed. China has since extended its hand of friendship in a big way yet again by backing India in its bid for a seat in the Security Council, the United Nation’s elite club of the rich and powerful nations. Two decades ago, such a gesture would have been unthinkable.

The two countries’ Myanmar policy, it would have been noticed by all, is very much like their policy towards another common Asian neighbour, Nepal. This Himalayan kingdom, it will be recalled, was in the throes of a pro-democracy as well as a Maoist movement. India as a democracy should have aligned with the pro-democracy upsurge and Communist China with the Maoists. Neither of these was true and both had seemed equally comfortable with the monarchy, at least until the equations changed, and their policies overtly suggest status quo in the country was just fine.

The same is the case with regards to Myanmar. There is little space for morals and principles in diplomacy, and India has made this absolutely clear by reiterating its stand that it does not matter who is in power in Myanmar for India would adjust to whoever comes to power in the country. A thing of caution here ought to be, such optimism in its diplomacy misfired so badly in Bangladesh earlier on. It liberated the country from Pakistan, but its assumption that the gratitude it earned by the act would be able to buy unconditional friendship proved so disastrously wrong. China too has been on a similar diplomatic track. It wants a land corridor to the ASEAN through Burma, as does India, but the latter has another vital interest. It wants a Bhutan type operation against anti-India insurgents from the Indian side camping in Myanmar territory with the active cooperation of Yangon. It must however be remembered that this brand of politics that sees a friend in anybody who is in power can be dangerous as demonstrated by India’s experience in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Likewise the anti-India sentiment in Nepal runs unimaginably high today. The violent, week-long anti-India carnage in Kathmandu some years ago, triggered by just one inconsequential “fictitious” comment supposedly made by Bollywood film star Hritik Roshan should be proof enough.

While the immediate concerns of stemming violent insurrection is understandable, we are of the opinion that the long term objectives cannot be lost sight of. It is a statistically proven fact (UNDP’s annual report 2002 on Human Development) that democratic nations seldom go to war with each other and that lasting peace can result only when accountable and genuine representatives of the people chart out common diplomatic routes. Towards this end, it will not help merely paying lip services to Swu Kyi’s cause or democracy in Myanmar.

Democracy be damned

This said, what is life like in Myanmar? A visit to Mandalay city two years ago revealed some remarkable aspects of life in Myanmar. 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.

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.

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.

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 there are no signs that she will be freed in the foreseeable future. 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.

        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.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati