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In 1991, India was constrained to formulate its ‘Look East’ economic policy, after many decades of looking west. The disintegration of the USSR and serious economic problems in the country were major determinants of India’s Look East Policy. The policy was framed out of economic necessity so as to integrate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member states and East Asia, as the entire Asian region was rapidly developing economically. It was also believed that by ‘Looking East’, it would be possible to bring about development of India’s North Eastern Region (NER) and thus end the insurgency in the region. India realized that for the Look East Policy to succeed, India must improve relations with Myanmar. This was done simultaneously and by 1994, India and Myanmar signed a Border Trade Agreement and had made concerted diplomatic efforts to improve relations. India then became ASEAN’s full sectoral dialogue partner by 1995; launched the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in 1997, which included the Bay of Bengal littoral countries as well as Bhutan and Nepal, and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation Initiative; and signed various trade agreements with the ASEAN, Myanmar, Thailand and Singapore amongst others both at the institutional level and singularly with these nation states.


India also became party to the Comprehensive Asia Development Plan (CADP) wherein Asian connectivity was planned and approved by the concerned governments of ASEAN countries and India by road and rail, by sea and by air. These plans included the Construction of a Trans Asian Highway and a similar Railway network. More or less in the same time frame, the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project was also conceived and approved. Further road connectivity was approved through Mizoram from Champhai in Mizoram to Tiddim in Myanmar.


In 2014 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Act East Policy to substitute the Look East Policy, as he felt that the latter was not working effectively and so as to upscale India’s engagement and trade with the ASEAN and East Asia. It was also realized that with India having a 1450-kilometre (km) border with Myanmar, it was the gateway to the region. Thus, if trade was to pick up in volume, creation of adequate and seamless cross-border and maritime infrastructure was imperative. Furthermore, if India’s North Eastern region (NER) was to be developed, this trade must be accelerated overland in a positive manner, notwithstanding the existing cross-border trade carried out by the locals in the form of so-called head loads. In this context, it must be mentioned that currently trade across the India-Myanmar border is officially permitted only of selected items of local produce in the form of head loads, however in actual fact a tremendous amount of illegal trade is taking place. Hence, it becomes essential to examine these infrastructural projects.


The Trilateral Highway (Asian Highway 1 – AH 1)


A highway connecting Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot on the Thailand border via Myanmar was first proposed in Yangon in April 2002. The length of the four-lane highway was to be approximately 1,360 km. India has also proposed extending the highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The proposed approximately 3,200 km route from India to Vietnam is known as the Asian East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC).


In order to fulfil this plan, sections of existing roads that need to be upgraded and linked (all other sections were already operational as national highways) are explained below:


Moreh–Tamu–Kalemyo–Kalewa section –  This 160 km long India-Myanmar Friendship Road, linking Moreh–Tamu–Kalemyo–Kalewa, was opened on 13 February 2001, and it now forms a part of AH 1. It was constructed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and was transferred to the Government of Myanmar in 2009. The related agreement between India and Myanmar stipulated that India would widen and repave the existing roads in the area, while Myanmar would upgrade the single-lane bridges along the route. Myanmar however was unable to carry out their upgradation work. In 2012, India agreed to repave the existing highway and upgrade all 71 bridges that Myanmar had not upgraded. Myanmar stated that it would instead upgrade the Yargi-Monywa section and link this road to the existing motorway between Mandalay-Naw-Pyi-Taw and Yangon. Unfortunately, even by 2015, Myanmar had not done so and India then agreed to upgrade the stretch from Moreh to Monywa. An alternate alignment for the stretch between Mandalay-Naw Pyi Taw and Yangon was also proposed by Myanmar.


Kalewa–Yagyi section – During the visit of the Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw to India in 2016, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed with the Indian Government (GOI) under which India would fund the construction of 69 bridges in the Tamu–Kyigone–Kalewa section (149.70 km) of the highway, and also upgrade the Kalewa-Yagyi section (120.74 km). India agreed to fund renovation of 73 bridges that were built during World War II. India and Myanmar also agreed to speed up construction of the highway. By November 2017, the BRO had completed upgrading the 160 km Tamu–Kalewa–Kalemyo section in Myanmar at a cost of US$27.28 million. In August 2017, the Government of India also allocated US$256 million to upgrade 1,360 km of the highway from Moreh in Manipur through Tamu, Myanmar to Mae Sot in Thailand. On 6 September 2017, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) awarded a US$180 million contract for construction of the Kalewa-Yagyi stretch. The 120 km stretch is to be upgraded to a two-lane road to be completed in three years by April 2021.


Myawaddy–Thinggan Nyenaung–Kawkareik section – The 25.6 km long Myawaddy-Thinggan Nyenaung-Kawkareik section of the highway was inaugurated by officials of Thailand and Myanmar on 30 August 2015, reducing travel time between Thinggan Nyenaung and Kawkareik from three hours to 45 minutes. Construction on the section had begun in 2012.


Ein Du–Thaton section – In February 2017, Myanmar approved upgradation of a 68 km section of the road between Thaton in Mon State and Ein Du in Kayin State. The upgradation would be financed by Thailand at a cost of US$ 51 million. Under the project, the road would be widened and its surface improved. Myanmar also requested Thailand to assist in the development of other sections of the highway.


Moreh ICP (Integrated Check Post) in India is now functioning. Tamu is the border town on Myanmar’s side. Border crossing and ICP between Myanmar and Thailand is operational. A trial run of passenger vehicles on the highway up to Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar, was carried out in November 2015, in which Indian vehicles travelled on the Imphal–Mandalay–Bagan–Naypyidaw route and back, with Myanmar’s vehicles joining the Indian vehicles on the return journey. Moreover, a car rally was flagged off by the governments of the three countries from New Delhi.


Agreements – In 2015, India proposed a trilateral Motor Vehicle Agreement to facilitate seamless movement of passenger and cargo vehicles among the three countries. As of date this awaits the approval of the Government of Myanmar. In early 2018, a visa agreement was signed for the citizens of two nations to travel by road for education, medical assistance, tourism and other purposes. In September 2017, India proposed an Imphal-Mandalay (India-Myanmar) bus service after India and Myanmar sign the motor vehicle agreement.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.