‘Look East’ policy: Another lost opportunity

A parliamentary standing committee reviewed implementation of the policy and expressed dissatisfaction at the slow progress made on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Project

‘Look East’ policy: Another lost opportunity
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Arup Kumar Dutta

The “Look East” policy, targeted towards the economic development of North-East India in general and Assam in particular had been framed during the Manmohan Singh era. Modi government had committed to continue the policy, though renaming it as the “Act East” policy.

Land connectivity with the South East Asian nations was expected to bring about far-reaching changes to the North-East. Transport and transit infrastructure and the hospitality industry were expected to boost the region’s economy. The Indian corporate sector was expected to see the strategic advantage of setting up manufacturing industries closer to the ASEAN markets and lowering transportation costs. Opening up the East was also meant to erase the sense of remoteness and alienation in the region.

Trade and cultural relations and exchanges between the Brahmaputra Valley and people of China and South East Asia had existed since ancient times. The Brahmaputra river corridor had also enabled traders from mainland India to utilise them profitably.

From Sadiya at the easternmost extremity of the Brahmaputra s ‘silk route’ to China traversed the Patkai Mountains to the banks of the Irrawaddy River, from where merchants going to Java descended the river, while those going to Yunnan Province of China travelled upstream. The Stilwell Road from Assam to Myanmar built by the British in the early 20th century traced the core contours of one such ancient “silk-route.”

The Ahom dynasty, beset by fierce assaults by hordes of Maans from Burma in the early 19th century, invited Britain to intervene. But after comprehensively defeating and ousting the Burmese marauders, the British annexed Assam, which they saw as the spring-board for building a tea empire as an alternative to China. The Eastward routes from the region were blocked, the age-old ties were severed and the North-East became isolated from South East Asia.

The Burmese invasion and the annexation of the North-East by the British brought about a political, economic and psychological re-positioning. The British united the region administratively and judicially with mainland India and converted it into the Easternmost outpost of Britain’s Indian Empire.

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Enlightened opinion in the North-East had been arguing that it is the claustrophobic feeling of being boxed in from all sides except the West, which lay at the root of many of the problems in the region, including insurgency. The Manmohan Singh Government had been persuaded by such arguments into announcing the Look East policy.

For many decades after India’s independence Myanmar had stood as an impassable wall against such connectivity. The seizure of power in Myanmar by the military junta in 1962 had led to cooling down of India’s relationship with that nation, since India chose to stand by its ideals of democracy and freedom.

The 1988 incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi further vitiated the relationship. While China crept closer to Myanmar, little attempt at rapprochement was made by India. The Junta would hardly allow a road to be built from India to Thailand and China through their country, let alone allow foreigners to traverse the route!

It was in the 1990s when the first moves towards mending fences commenced, with India refusing to go along with the West in imposing sanctions against Myanmar; Aung San Suu Kyi was abandoned, and both nations stepped into the 21st century with more amicable relations than before.

International sanctions and popular protests induced Myanmar’s military to usher in civilian rule in 2007. Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) party won overwhelmingly in the elections, thereby creating a conducive environment for the ‘Look East’ Policy.

Dr Manmohan Singh, during his inaugural speech at the 10th India-ASEAN Summit at Phnom Penh in 2012, announced an agreement between India, Myanmar and Thailand to complete the Trilateral Highway Project that would connect the North-East to nations of South East Asia as well as China. A “Trilateral Highway Project Task Force” was created, which decided to link Moreh in India with Mae Sot in Thailand by 2016.

Some time back, a parliamentary standing committee reviewed the implementation of the policy and expressed dissatisfaction at the slow progress made on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project.

The dramatic developments in Myanmar in the last few months have dealt yet another blow. Following the coup by the Army Generals in February, the country is in the throes of a civil war, with the armed forces killing protesting civilians in hundreds and converting Myanmar into a police state where secret arrests and torture are rife.

There is no telling how long this junta will last, or what Myanmar’s future would be, which means that, perhaps for many more years, the Look East or Act East Policy, will have to be put in the cold storage.

(Padma Shri Arup Kumar Dutta, a prominent social historian and writer based in Guwahati, is the author of some 35 books, among them 'The Kaziranga Trail' and 'The Ahoms') (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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