Articles > A Promising Trilateral:
A Promising Trilateral: India-Myanmar-Thailand
The Diplomat, September 14, 2017
By Roshan Iyer
It’s time to revive the free flow of people, capital
and ideas around the Bay of Bengal.
India and Myanmar released a joint statement after a visit
by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Naypyidaw,
Myanmar. Connectivity was highlighted with eight mentions of
road construction projects, bridge restorations and work on
port infrastructure. The statement also contained six
mentions of joint India-Myanmar technical and capacity
building initiatives in the sectors of industry,
agriculture, English language and Information and Technology
Relations that hinge on connectivity and people to people
exchanges would bode well for India’s Act East Policy and
Thailand’s Act West Policy. Today there are strong
possibilities for trilateral cooperation that would serve to
the interests of all three countries, but the focus must
remain on the trilateral and not deviate back to the
From former ambassadors to top level academics, there is no
dearth of calls for the revival of historic ties between
India, Myanmar and Thailand. The region around the Bay of
Bengal once benefited immensely from the free flow of
people, capital and ideas.
However, mismanaged decolonization, the enforcement of
artificial borders and the rise of anti-immigrant and
nationalistic sentiments uprooted centuries of organic
integration across the region. Today, India, Myanmar and
Thailand (IMT) should look to identifying those areas in
which the seeds of a 21st century form of regional
integration can be replanted.
The Trilateral Highway
Conceived at an IMT Trilateral Ministerial meeting in Yangon
in 2002, the crux of this trilateral relationship centers
around the construction of a 1,360 km highway from
Moreh-Tamu on the India-Myanmar border to Mae Sot on the
Myanmar-Thailand border. The 2017 Indo-Myanmar joint
statement mentioned that “construction work would shortly
begin on reconstruction of bridges on the
Tamu-Kyigone-Kalewa Road and on the Kalewa-Yargyi sector of
the Trilateral Highway.” The deadline has now been set for
It is important to note that the project already missed its
first deadline in 2015 and India has consistently faced
difficulty in implementing its projects in Myanmar. The
frontier regions of the region are not an easy place to
build roads as the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) car
rally of 2013 demonstrated, long stretches are motorable but
suffer from landslides and steep, hostile terrain which are
especially problematic during monsoons.
However, India does have the capacity to take on such
projects, the Border Roads Organisation, a wing of the
Indian Army constructed and maintained the road from Tamu to
Kalemyo-Kalewa road (160 km) between 1997 and 2009.
Additionally the Asian Development Bank supports
connectivity projects in the region such as the USD$100
million it provided for the 66 km Karaweik to Eindu road in
Kayin state of Myanmar. Both are positive signs for Indian
connectivity projects in this area.
The importance of the IMT highway cannot be understated as a
permanent asset for the three countries. There is already
considerable talk on expanding the road to Vietnam. On a
sub-regional level the possibilities of creating a
development corridor with rural development projects,
special economic zones and exclusive economic zones would be
a boon to the people of the region. A Motor Vehicles
Agreement allowing for the free movement of vehicles between
the three countries would be another logical step on
completion of the highway.
Capacity building and academic cooperation are touted as
another avenue for strong cooperation between IMT. Keeping
with the theme of the trilateral, it might be wise to expand
the Indian training and teaching programs in Myanmar to Thai
nationals as well. However, these programmes must be handled
with great care in order to avoid common pitfalls.
Participants have complained about difficulties with the
Indian accent as well as low quality teaching, these can
have an extremely damaging impact on the expansion of such
Another area of importance could be the establishment of a
trilateral Mutual Recognition Agreement of each country’s
university standards and degrees. In fact the India-Thailand
joint statement released in 2016 after a visit by Thai Prime
Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha to India explicitly
states that “the two leaders agreed to work together towards
mutual recognition of degrees, research collaborations and
training of teachers.” If put in place, over time perhaps
this could be expanded to Myanmar as well.
Connecting the region’s people will serve another purpose.
The median age in Thailand is 37, considerably higher than
the average age of 27 in India and Myanmar, at the same time
India has a considerably larger population than either of
the others. Allowing for the movement of young people across
the region could help mitigate negative effects of an aging
population in Thailand as well as the issue of job creation
for youth in India. Such a strategy will only work if there
is a level of trust, acceptance and familiarity with the
people of the three countries.
A Trilateral Tomorrow
There are certainly areas for strong collaboration between
IMT. However it is important to maintain quality standards
as well as deadlines with each initiative. For India,
successes on the IMT front can be tied into the Bay of
Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic
Cooperation (BIMSTEC) of which Myanmar and Thailand are
members. It might also be wise to seek out the support of
Japan which can function as a midwife providing not only
financial assistance but also ensuring strict measures of
quality of initiatives and projects.
Meanwhile, the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state of Myanmar
cannot be ignored. More than a humanitarian issue, the
presence of significant Muslim populations in India and
Thailand might flame internal political fires that could
potentially derail further collaborations with Myanmar.
The focus on delivering promised projects should remain the
focus for India within the grouping. It is also crucial to
keep cooperation in the non-economic focusing on
connectivity, movement of people and academic cooperation
for now before taking on more ambitious initiatives such as
a Free Trade Area. As of now, the New Delhi, Naypyidaw and
Bangkok must remain committed to playing a facilitative
trilateral role to bridge the region once again.
Roshan Iyer is a Research Assistant at CUTS International
working on the regional integration of India’s neighborhood.
The views expressed in this piece are personal.
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