x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Opium and insurgency not what India had in mind in emerging trade with Myanmar

A border with Myanmar was supposed to be India's "Gateway to the East". Instead, the area has become India's "Wild East".

While both countries are keen for legal border trade, such as these Myanmar charcoal labourers, India appears ill placed on the ground to exploit Myanmar's opening.
While both countries are keen for legal border trade, such as these Myanmar charcoal labourers, India appears ill placed on the ground to exploit Myanmar's opening.

MOREH, INDIA // As dusk fell on a lonely police station in the eastern tip of India, a young policeman nervously kept an eye on the Arakan hills above him, dotted with poppy fields.

Just 35 bumpy kilometres from the capital of India's Manipur state, he and his colleagues are outnumbered by gunmen from a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, one of half a dozen insurgent groups operating near India's border with Myanmar.

Last year, six policemen were killed a few kilometres away in an ambush authorities blamed on the group.

Small gangs of men with machetes on their belts could be seen in the winter twilight, openly climbing steep paths through the poppy fields, where valuable seed heads will later be harvested and taken to Myanmar for processing into heroin.

"There are many poppy fields in the hills here," the policeman said in a hushed voice, refusing to give his name for fear of reprisals from the men he said were armed rebels patrolling the fields above his office. Growers either sell the seed heads to agents or openly in the local market, he said.

Opium and insurgency can make for a profitable business model, but it is not what India had in mind when it launched its "Look East" policy 20 years ago to link its markets to those of booming South-east Asia.

Now as resource-rich Myanmar emerges from decades of isolation under military rule, India should be a natural partner, with ties stretching back to the 3rd century Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, and, more recently, a shared experience of British colonialism and World War II.

"Myanmar is India's only bridge to South-east Asia," Myo Myint, Myanmar's deputy foreign minister, said last week at a meeting of south-east Asian diplomats in New Delhi to look at ways to speed up road, rail and telecoms connections with India. "India needs to come forward with assistance."

Myanmar sits at Asia's crossroads, sharing a western border with India, and a northern one with China. Thailand is its neighbour to the east and the Malacca Strait is on its southern flank.

The country of nearly 60 million people has emerged from a half-century of military rule and is courting the West while trying to wean itself from dependency on China for trade and investment. But despite a flurry of high-level visits between the two countries, India appears ill placed on the ground to exploit Myanmar's opening.

Manipur and the three other Indian states sharing the 1,640km border with Myanmar were supposed to be India's "Gateway to the East". Instead, the area has become India's Wild East.

Legal trade on the border has dwindled in the past five years to 0.15 per cent of commerce between Myanmar and India. Checkpoints by security forces and rebel group supporters make the 120km journey along rutted Highway 102 through the hills from Manipur's capital Imphal to Moreh on the border painstakingly slow - and expensive, from the "taxes" they impose on traffic.

The sleepy border town of Moreh had dreams of being a major international trading centre, a key station on the ambitious Trans-Asia Railway that will enable containers from east and South-east Asia to travel overland across India to Europe.

But work on the US$900 million (Dh3.3 billion), 125km stretch of the railway is two years behind schedule and has only progressed a short distance. Costs are soaring.

Moreh is a major smuggling centre where outlaws move around freely. Heroin from the Golden Triangle, guns and gem stones go westward; raw opium, tiger bones and rhino horn move east.

"Since 1995, nothing substantial has taken place. The border area is like a 17th-century tribal village," said N Mohindro, an expert on trade in the state. "It is all about drugs and guns. People can make money so easily."

Some of this business is in the hands of Indian insurgents who run their operations from the Myanmar side of the border. Several of Myanmar's own rebel groups are also based in the area.

A US diplomatic cable from 2006 released by WikiLeaks described local politicians either in league with the rebels or supporting them for financial reasons.

It wasn't always this way. Until the early 1990s, Myanmarese flocked across the border to buy Indian-made consumer goods. But as China's workshops cranked up and offered cheaper, more durable products, the market shifted to the other side of the fence.

India, which fought a border war in 1962 with China, has watched with mounting concern as Beijing steadily increases its influence around the rim of the Indian Ocean.