Following years of hiatus due to political instability and the COVID-19 pandemic, India is prioritizing ways to resume the implementation of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project. This is a significant regional connectivity project aimed at establishing a road link between the three nations. The 1,400-kilometer highway begins in Moreh in India’s Manipur state, passes through Myanmar, and ends at Mae Sot in Thailand. The project was approved at an India-Myanmar-Thailand ministerial-level meeting in 2002, construction began in 2012, and now around 70 percent of the project has been completed. The India-Myanmar Friendship Road, which forms the first segment of this highway, starts from the border at Tamu/Moreh to Kale township and Kalewa in Sagaing Region.
A complicating factor is that the international boundary of India and Myanmar divides the homeland of many ethnic groups in both countries. There has been a longstanding boundary dispute as well as communal ethnic conflict in the regions since the two nations’ respective independence from British in 1947-48. Ethnic conflict in Myanmar and India’s Northeast region has created hurdles to the completion of the trilateral highway project.
The repercussions of the recent communal conflict between the Kuki and Meitei peoples in Manipur and the 2021 military coup in Myanmar have placed a particular strain on the project. Without ending more than seven decades of ethnic conflict and the Spring Revolution that emerged in the wake of the 2021 coup, the military junta in Naypyidaw cannot hope for the stability and the long-term developments that they desire, even if they maintain good relationships with neighbors like India. Indeed, the success or failure of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project very much depends on the ongoing territorial-based ethnic conflicts in India’s Northeast and the Spring Revolution in Myanmar.
India and Myanmar have a complicated history. New Delhi was the one Asian government that openly supported Myanmar’s student-led democracy movement in 1988 and at the same time, officially condemned the then military government for its bloody crackdown. This stemmed from a tradition of idealism in Indian foreign policy, which posited that the largest democratic country in the world, the country should support democratic movements not only in Myanmar but around the world. However, this approach was soon changed by the government of Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao (1991-96), which adopted a more pragmatic approach in its policy toward Myanmar.
The same pragmatism has conditioned India’s approach to Myanmar since the military coup in 2021. New Delhi has supported the junta by supplying military equipment including arms and other economic projects. India is working with the junta on a controversial project known as the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, linking eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport of Rakhine State in Myanmar. In May, military officers from the two sides held an opening ceremony for the project in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State in western Myanmar.
In addition, In April of this year, India hosted a meeting of the so-called track 1.5 process on Myanmar, which claims to have the goal of promoting constructive dialogue. India’s government, however, invited only the junta’s representatives rather genuine representatives from other stakeholders.
In December of last year, India joined Russia and China in abstaining in the vote on a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a stop to the flow of arms to the Myanmar military. India has also shown a willingness to assist in the Myanmar military’s genocidal policies toward the Rohingya people by paying for the construction of prison camps in Rakhine State, which they were to be held in if they agreed to return from refugee camps in Bangladesh. Furthermore, India allows the junta to participate in their military exercises and holds frequent meetings with Myanmar army officers.
The Kaladan Multi-model Transport project and the trilateral highway project are both segments of New Delhi’s Act East Policy, which seeks to leverage Northeast India’s close cultural and ethnic ties with Southeast Asian nations and, in part to balance China’s influence in the regions. However, without a solution to the problems in India’s Northeast and northern Myanmar, India cannot effectively “act east.” Indeed, India arguably cannot do so without dealing with its own issues in the Northeast and dealing directly with revolutionary groups in Myanmar.
The NUG’s Golden Opportunity to Build Trust With New Delhi
As mentioned, security concerns and ethnic tensions in both India and Myanmar are currently a hindrance to the implementation of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project. The political upheaval and security situation in Myanmar remain a particular significant concern. Chin State, Sagaing Region, Magway Region, and Karen State, where majority of the work is under progress, are engulfed in conflict between the junta and a number of longstanding ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and newer People Defense Forces (PDFs) that have been formed since the coup.
The PDFs are the armed wing of the opposition National Unity Government (NUG), which is spearheading the nationwide effort to overthrow the military regime that seized power on February 1, 2021. As of October 2022, the NUG claimed to have consolidated an estimated 300 PDF battalions with 200 to 500 troops each. Many more Local Defense Force (LDFs) are waiting to be NUG-affiliated.
Inside Myanmar, a large proportion of the projected highway routes pass through EAO- and PDF-controlled areas and regions, such as in parts of Chin State, Sagaing Region, and Magway Region. These areas have been centers of resistance to the junta and the sites of some of the most intense armed clashes between the junta and the resistance groups.
In November 2022, there was reports of attacks conducted by PDF troops on vehicles and disruption of transport routes. The number of attacks escalated in 2023. This has led to concerns about the safety of the contractors, workers, and drivers working on the highway, as well as passengers using those sections that have been completed. If the political situation in Myanmar remains unresolved, the completion of the project seems improbable.
The recent unrest in Manipur has only added to the challenges facing the project. India’s Manipur state shares a 398-kilometer-long, heavily forested, and porous international border with Myanmar; most insurgent groups active in the Northeast have their main bases and training centers inside Myanmar. This has long been one of the most difficult conundrums for both New Delhi and Naypyidaw.
In July 2023, S. Jaishankar, India’s minister of external affairs, traveled to Bangkok to participate in the 12th Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand. He separately met his Myanmar counterpart, Than Swe, to discuss various joint projects, especially the trilateral highway project and the challenges faced in its implementation.
“It has been a very difficult project mainly because of the situation in Myanmar,” Jaishankar commented during his trip. “And one of our priorities today is to find ways to resume this project, how to unlock it, and how to make it because large parts of the project have been built.”
Given the challenges facing the project’s completion, India should undertake an urgent reassessment about its approach and policy toward Myanmar. Successful implementation of this highway calls for India to establish close ties with the NUG and its affiliated PDFs/EAOs, given that the project runs through many areas under the latter’s control. This situation shows clearly that New Delhi can no longer remain bound to working with the junta but should broaden its approaches to EAOs and the NUG. Conversely, Myanmar’s resistance forces, including the NUG, now have a golden opportunity to begin building trust and working with New Delhi.