Mekong lesson for Northeast India

Pradip Phanjoubam

The following is an account of the author`s extended travel in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region nations, including Northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Yunan and Guangxi provinces of China in 2006, a trip for seven Indian journalists sponsored by the Asian Development Bank. The region today is flourishing and considered amongst some of the fastest growing economic regions of the world. This is how they entered the new chapter of development and economic development of their common regional homeland not so long ago. There are plenty of stories of tears too that accompanied this transition. But as they say, only the sweat the tears that went into the making of any project can make the laughters at the end of the journey all the more worth the while.

The days of `nation states` may not be over yet, but `region states` which Kineche Ohame predicted would replace them are taking birth, or are in the process of doing so. In any case, the understanding of `nation state` is in for a drastic alteration, so it seems.

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 are 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`.

The six together today form the Greater Mekong Sub-region, GMS, and the initiative to evolve them into one single economic unit is strongly backed by the Asian Development Bank, ADB, as well as Japan and China for their own economic and political benefits.

`The key is trust and respect of each other. Each of the nations has its own goals but the point is for all of them to know that all can gain and grow together by opening up to each other.` Liqun Jin, vice president of the ADB and a former vice minister in the Chinese government, said in an interview with this writer in New Delhi in the ADB India Resident Mission office.

Jin is optimistic that India too would come on the radar of GMS initiative sooner than later by coupling its own `Look East` policy with it.

During a brief but intensive tour of two of the major GMS nations, Thailand and Vietnam recently, it however became evident that India figures very little as yet on the consciousness of those working on the ground of this ambitious project.
eople do however fondly remember the Indo-ASEAN car rally that passed through September last year. The goodwill generated by such overtures is tangible, and it is only to be expected it will pay dividends in the long run.

The foundation of the GMS initiative rests on three visions, announced Rajat M Nag, Director General, Mekong Development, of the ADB, in a presentation he made during a two day summit on `Mekong Development Forum: Promoting India-Mekong Cooperation` in New Delhi on November 9 and 10, co-organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry, CII, and ADB. They are: Connectivity, Competitiveness and Community.

The project`s flagship programmes are: transport, trade facilitation, telecom, investment, energy, human resource development, environment, tourism and agriculture.

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 is also 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.

`Thoughts are being applied to introduce a common visa regime too for the GMS region in the style of the Schengen visa of the European Union.` Rajat Nag said.

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.

But the idea must be allowed to expand beyond the international border and ultimately couple up with the GMS. `In such an outcome, the entire corridor would become a land bridge between two growing economic super powers, India and China.` Rajat Nag said.

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.

Greater Mekong Sub-Region

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 Greater Mekong Subregion, GMS, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Yunnan and Guangxi provinces of China.

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. All of the vessel docked here when a team of eight Indian journalists visited it on an Asian Development Bank sponsored tour, were Chinese.

A score kilometers drive from this port is a point where two tributaries of the Mekong picturesquely confluence, dividing between them three countries, Thailand, Laos and Thailand. The panoramic view of the three countries on the bank of the same river makes the nomenclature, Golden Triangle, supposedly given by an American officer, extremely appropriate, and hence has stuck.

Down the same road, on the Thailand bank of the river, a state-of-the-art museum, `Hall of Opium Golden Triangle Park`, has come up and expectedly it has become a major tourist destination.

A third bridge is coming up on the Mekong River at Chiang Khon about 80 km from Chiang Rai, making a slight detour along the 2000 km highway connecting Bangkok and Kunming, the capital of China`™s Yunnan province, at an estimated cost of 34 million dollars. The bridge will allow this rapidly developing land trade route to skirt trouble-torn Myanmar and instead pass through Laos for 230 kms before rejoining the main artery.

This highway, of course is just one of the main routes, and considered important for it connects two prosperous regions, Thailand and Yunnan, and one which is already in service via Myanmar. But there are other corridors identified, notably two north-south corridors including this one, and two east west corridors running from Thailand to Vietnam.

The ADB, China and Thailand have each pledged 30 million dollars each for the construction of this detour through Laos. These countries, and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, JBIC, would also be footing most of the bills for the bridge too, while less well off Laos takes the easy ride. Japan`™s interest in the GMS is strong, and its second largest overseas chamber of commerce, after Shanghai, is located in Bangkok.

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. Even the SAARC strongly reflects this ethos. Most of all of its 13 summits so far in its 20 year life have been sparring forums for India and Pakistan. It thinks it is natural to induct Afghanistan as its eight member but Myanmar has hardly come on its radar.

It is not co-incidental that it was Nepal which threw in the spanner on the Afghanistan question in its recent Dhaka summit. How would Northeast India or East India, or for that matter Bangladesh or Bhutan, be excited about Afghanistan, as much as Pakistan or North India would be? The SAARC, so also India, must acknowledge the regional variations in interests and concerns.

Perhaps the need is to sub-regionalise the SAARC and identify subregional natural economic threads rather than seek to identify homogenous interests for such a large region. If Myanmar fails to excite Rajasthan, Afghanistan would not excite the Northeast either.

The need to prepare for an Asian integration is dictated by yet another related development. The plan for a web of trans-Asian highways is simmering in the office of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, ESCAP, United Nations, in Bangkok.

India is among the 27 nations to have put its signature on the agreement to develop this highway system, although it is still not among the 13 to ratify the decision. Unfortunately, Bangladesh still has not signed.

According to information from the ESCAP office, a total of 256 million dollars have been committed by member nations and another 186 is still required for the project to get going. The project will have four categories of roads and a design committee is ready to be set up.

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