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No talk on politics please: We are Burmese

Nava Thakuria
THE recent visit of a Burmese delegation comprising government officials, leaders of different chambers (of commerce) and traders to Northeast India emerged as a major opening for not only bilateral trade but also people-to-people contacts between India and Burma (now known as Myanmar). But the tight-lipped attitude of the delegation regarding the present socio-political crisis in Burma came out as an amazing experience for the journalists based in the region. The members of the delegation were scared of talking any issue related to the pro-democracy movement led by Nobel awardee Aung San Suu Kyi there. Even they felt uncomfortable to discuss about the recent Indian initiatives in Burmese projects. If one showed his ignorance about such initiative, another avoided it with the argument that 'it was a higher level issue'.

The 31-member delegation that included three government officials namely Thaung Kyaw (deputy director of directorate of border trade), Tha Ra (deputy general manager of Myanma Economy Bank) and Aung Min (director of life stock breeding) started their business trip by the land route entering India through Moreh-Tamu gate on February 28 (mentionable that land route is prohibited for Indian tourists to reach Burma). In Manipur, adjacent to Sagaing division of Burma, the Burmese delegates met a number of government officials and businessmen. Besides the business interaction sessions, the team paid visit to historically important places like Kangla fort, Second World War cemeteries and Ima Keithel (women's' market) in Imphal, the capital of the north-eastern state of India.

The team members had more sessions in Asom (earlier known as Assam), where they interacted with local entrepreneurs and trade bodies in Guwahati. With an aim to enhance the trade relation between Northeast (in particular) and Burma, a trilateral memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed on March 4, where three trade bodies representing Asom, Manipur and Myanmar had joined hands. Emphasising the growing participation of the business communities from both the countries, the agreement was inked by the ITFAA, the Indo-Myanmar Border Traders' Union of Manipur (IMBTU) and the Union of Myanmar Border Trade Chamber of Commerce, Myanmar (UMBTCC).

"We have decided to work together in boosting bilateral trade between Northeast (India) and Myanmar involving more entrepreneurs and concerning trade bodies," said ITFAA secretary Rajeev Das, who was one of the signatories in the MoU. Without revealing more about the MoU to the media, Mr Das only informed that the office bearers of all the three trade bodies decided to organise a series of meetings, first one preferably within next three months at Moreh to exchange views about the ongoing bilateral border trades.

Earlier the team had successful discussions with All Assam Students' Union alongwith Asom Unnati Sabha representatives in Guwahati. AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya, while welcoming the delegation to the Northeast urged them to support the recent initiatives by different organisations in Asom to reopen the historic Stilwell road that connects China with India .
The Second World War-famed road originates at Ledo in Asom and crosses through the Pangsau pass in Myanmar finally reaching Kunming, the capital of China's Yunnan province in the south. Like many others, the student body also looks at the road as the means for improving trade between India and Southeast Asian countries. The major portion of the 1726-kilometer road lies within Burma (1,033 km) with 632 km in China and a small stretch in India(61 km). Unfortunately, the road inside Burma is not developed and in many places the road reportedly becomes unusable.

"Our visit is inspired by our government primarily for improvement of bilateral trades with Northeast. And it is nice to have all these positive views here," said Thaung Kyaw, a senior official to Burmese Directorate of Border Trade. He also added that they were interested in importing the efficient tea technology from Asom that might help them to boost their production of the beverage in Burma. Their other areas of interest included herbal medicines, timber, textiles and fish farming in both the countries.

During the third leg of journey, the delegates met the Mizoram chief minister Zoram Thanga on March 6. The chief minister emphasised on better co-operation between the two countries to deal with the ongoing unlawful activities in border areas. He also requested the delegates to initiate establishing tourist centres at Rih lake and Buannel hill inside their territory. After attending few other sessions with local traders at Aizawl, the Burmese team left India on March 7 through the Champhai-Rih border point that touches Chin province of Burma.

It was, in fact, the first business delegation from the military-ruled country to visit Northeast since India and Burma signed a trade agreement in January 1994. The agreement came into effect in April the following year. It initiated border trade facilities through two points namely Moreh-Tamu and Champhai-Rih. An integrated check post at Moreh to manage both cargo and passenger movement across the border is on the card. In his recent visit to Manipur, the Indian commerce minister Jairam Ramesh disclosed about the Rs 700 million (70 crore) project that is expected to provide modern infrastructure facilities and better connectivity at the border post.

Meanwhile, both New Delhi and Nay Pyi Taw (new capital of Burma) had set a target of $1.0 billion trade in 2006-07 while their bilateral trade in the FY2005-06 totaled $570 million. Moreover, India has been ranked as the second-most important market for Burmese exports. The principal exports from Burma to India comprises of rice, fish and prawns, timber, plywood, maize, pulses, beans etc. On the other hand, India's primary exports to it include dairy products, textile yarn, pharmaceutical products, fertiliser, machinery and other apparatus.

Of course, the team was too shy to speak to media persons. They were really scared of talking of a single word reflecting the political situation in Burma . The Southeast Asian country is ruled by a group of generals under the banner of State Peace and Development Council. The SPDC head senior general Than Shwe, acting as the country President, is responsible for detaining National League for Democracy chief Daw Suu Kyi under house arrest for the last consecutive three years in Rangoon. The SPDC regime prevents the Burmese citizens to demand any democratic right inside Burma. The country is identified as one of the worst human rights violator in the globe.

Even when asked about their comments on New Delhiā€™s continued financial aid to Burma, they got worried. They were informed about the recent increase of aid to Nay Pyi Taw by New Delhi this year up to US $18 million, but nobody showed keenness to explain their views. The team leader, Hla Maung, president of Indo-Myanmar Borders Traders Associations wrapped up the issue only saying that it was a high level thing (to react on). Mentionable that India has increased the development aid to Burma from Rs. 445.7 million (44.57 crore) [US $10 million] in 2006-07 to Rs. 804.1 million (US $18 million) in 2007-08. The Indian finance minister P. Chidambaram proposed it while presenting the national budget in Lok Sabha recently.

Moreover, the delegates expressed ignorance about the multi-model Kaladan project, under which the Mizoram capital Aizawl is planned to linked with a Burmese port in the Bay of Bengal. The US$212.4 million Kaladan project, which has already been approved by the Burmese military rulers implies on the development of the Sittway port and also improvement of waterways and road transport to connect it with Mizoram. Completion of the project is expected to facilitate the landlocked Northeast to connect with Sittway, the capital of the western Burmese province of Rakhine , also known as Arakan, which is less than 400 km away from Aizawl.

The local trade bodies had of course appreciated the initiative of Burmese team to visit Northeast and expressed optimism in enhancing the bilateral trade ties. Y. Dilipkumar Singh, chairman of programme implementation committee, Indo-Myanmar Border Traders' Union asserted, "This kind of initiative will definitely enhance bilateral trade. It will finally help the traders from both the countries to reap the benefits from governments' incentives." His observation was complement by Rajesh Das, an office bearer of the Industries and Trade Fair Association of Assam, claiming that the interactive sessions with the visiting Burmese delegates were really stimulating and pragmatic.

The author is a Guwahati based journalist and the editor of Natun Somoy. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.