The “Look East” policy, targeted towards the economic development of North-East India in general and Assam in particular through providing land connectivity to the ASEAN markets, had been framed during the Manmohan Singh era which preceded the Narendra Modi era in Delhi. The Modi government had committed itself to continue the policy, though renaming it the “Act East” policy.
It was expected that land connectivity with the South East Asian nations would bring about far-reaching changes to the dismal economic scenario of the North-East. Not only would this open out the markets of those nations to products of this region, the Brahmaputra Valley would become a corridor through which products from India to South East Asian nations and vice versa would be transported. The spill-over impact in terms of transit infrastructure including the hospitality industry would serve to boost the region’s economy.
The Indian corporate sector, which had so far shunned the North-East, would see the strategic advantage of setting up manufacturing industries in this region since these would be closer to the ASEAN markets, which would lower transport costs. Establishment of industries would create jobs, thereby mitigating the huge unemployment problem afflicting this region.
But, most important of all, opening out towards the East would erase the sense of remoteness which leads to alienation. In the past the North-East, being strategically positioned between China, South East Asia and India, had enjoyed a geo-political centricity.
Since ancient times there had been trade and cultural exchanges between the Brahmaputra Valley and people of China and South East Asia. Facilitated by well-established routes, the accessibility provided by the Brahmaputra river corridor had also enabled traders from mainland India to utilise them for commercial purposes.
At the eastern edge of the Brahmaputra there were quite a few land routes to Burma (Myanmar), China and other regions of South East Asia, much used by traders, pilgrims and proselytisers. For instance, one land-extension of the Brahmaputra-Ganges link was the “silk-route” to China. From Sadiya at the easternmost extremity of the Brahmaputra this route traversed the Patkai Mountains to the banks of the Irrawaddy River, from where merchants going to Ava descended the river, while those going to the 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.”
Unfortunately, the Ahom dynasty, which had ruled the Brahmaputra Valley for almost 600 years, in the early part of the 19th century, beset by fierce assault of hordes of Maans from Burma, sacrificed the sovereignty of its realm by inviting imperial Britain to intervene. But the wily British, after comprehensively defeating and ousting the Burmese marauders, annexed Assam, because they saw it as the spring-board for the erection of 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 consequent annexation of the North-East by the British brought about a political, economic and psychological re-positioning of the North-East. The colonialists ended the sovereignty enjoyed by this region, united it administratively and judicially with mainland India and converted it into the Easternmost outpost of Britain’s Indian Empire.
For quite some time enlightened opinion in the North-East had been arguing that it is this psychological, claustrophobic feel of being boxed in from all sides except the West which had been responsible for many of the problems bedeviling this region, including insurgency. They had been asserting that a viable land outlet to South East Asia will go a long way to ensure that the North-East regains its past historical centricity.
The Manmohan Singh Government had finally been persuaded by such arguments into announcing the Look East policy. The idea behind this policy, of course, was to re-forge the age-old links binding the North-East to other Asian countries.
For many decades after India’s independence Myanmar stood as an impassable wall against such connectivity. The seizure of power in Myanmar by the military junta in 1962 had led to the cooling down of India’s cordial relationship with that nation, since the latter had tried to stand by its ideals of democracy.
The situation was further vitiated by the 1988 incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi. Thus, despite the awareness in Delhi that the space lost by India over its neighbour was being occupied by China, little attempt at rapprochement was made. Thus there was no possibility that the junta would allow a road to be built from India to Thailand and China through their country, let alone allow foreigners to traverse the route!
It had been only in the 1990s that the first moves towards mending fences with Myanmar commenced, with our nation refusing to go along with the West in imposing sanctions against its neighbour. Aung San Suu Kyi was cynically abandoned, and both nations stepped into the 21st century with more amicable relations than before.
International sanctions and popular internal protests induced Myanmar’s military again to take steps 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 wherein land connectivity between India, Myanmar, China and ASEAN nations could be conceived and our nation could announce the Look East Policy.
The then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his inaugural speech in the 10th India-ASEAN Summit at Phnom Penh in 2012, had announced an agreement between India, Myanmar and Thailand which set a time-frame 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” had been created, which decided at a meeting in New Delhi to establish connectivity from Moreh in India to Mae Sot in Thailand by 2016.
Unfortunately, Delhi had dragged its feet in implementation and, though over a decade has elapsed since the announcement of the Look East Policy, it is yet to be translated into reality! Sometime back, the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Development of the Ministry of the North Eastern Region had 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.
And now, given the dramatic developments in Myanmar, yet another setback has bedeviled the Look East Policy! Last February, in a repeat of the 1962 coup, army Generals seized control over Myanmar. At the moment the country is almost 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 cold storage and the window of opportunity it might have provided the North-East remain closed.
(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)