Possible but difficult for Guwahati to be a trade hub, feels Bertil Lintner
Journalist, author and strategic consultant Bertil Lintner has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades and feels that Guwahati has changed and developed. However, he feels it would be difficult for the government to turn the city into an international trade hub. Lintner talked exclusively to G Plus to explain what the state requires to be a trade hub and much more.
What changes have you noticed in Guwahati since late 1970s?
It is a new city now. In 1970s it was a very sleepy place, not much traffic, most of the buildings as far as I remember were red bricked and life moved at a very slow pace. Now it is a booming city. It’s development has been mind boggling.
The Assam government is thinking of making Guwahati a trade hub for all the ASEAN countries. Do you think it is possible? If so, what could be the strategy according to you?
Yes, it is possible, but difficult. Firstly, the infrastructure has to be improved. Roads, railways, airways should be going to Myanmar, and Myanmar would be the gateway for India to South East Asia. There has to be regular flights to destinations beyond the sub-continent. If you are talking about trade, you will have to find out what you are going to trade. What kind of goods will be exported and what will be imported. Those items are limited here. From Myanmar it is mainly beans and pulses and from Assam probably textiles, clothes and medicines. But the real challenge is to establish proper trade channels along the borders. For instance, China has a major Stilwell Road, gas and oil pipelines and high-speed trains to Myanmar which enables smooth trading between the two countries. India too requires similar infrastructure.
But in Manipur, there is a market (Ibama market), which is flooded with Chinese goods that find its way through Myanmar. So, the market is there.
What do you think about the Act East Policy? How is Myanmar reacting to the policy?
Well, the thing about the Act East Policy is to develop infrastructure in this (northeast) part of the nation. Now, there are only three routes to reach Myanmar from India. The old Stilwell Road, which is in very bad shape and then you have the Moreh in Manipur and Champa in Mizoram. The terrain in Champa is very difficult and not at all viable for trade, which leaves us with Moreh in Manipur. Manipur is difficult in terms of building infrastructure because the local contractors would not come to work with the 20 different revolutionary outfits in play. So, unless the government solves these issues, the infrastructure will not be developed and the Act East Policy cannot be implemented.
Are there any prospects for Assam in terms of tourism from the South-East Asian countries?
Yes there are and I can think of a lot of aspects in developing the same. If I recall properly, there was a to and fro flight between Assam and Thailand with the hope that Thai tourists would visit this part in search of links of their ancestors and descendents in Assam. But that failed because Thai people are not all that keen for history.
What the governments in the Northeast can tap into is adventure tourism. White water rafting, trekking, fishing and several more tourist activities are yet untapped in this region.
There are only three routes to reach Myanmar from India. The old Stilwell Road, which is in very bad shape and then you have the Moreh in Manipur and Champa in Mizoram. The terrain in Champa is very difficult and not at all viable for trade, which leaves us with Moreh in Manipur. Manipur is difficult for building infrastructure because of the 20 different revolutionary outfits in play.
The governments are organising quite a number of festivals here to attract tourism and project the culture of this region, but these are not attracting many foreign tourists. Moreover, most of these happen once or twice a year and we can’t expect the tourists to match their schedules accordingly.
You are known as an expert in conflict reporting. Do you think Assam and Northeast will ever be free of militancy? What is the solution according to you?
We must first look at the level of violence in this part of the country. In the 70’s it (insurgency) wasn’t that much. Well, in Nagaland and Mizoram, it was; in Manipur, it was just starting. 1980s and 90s can be termed as the worst decades. It was then that we saw the rise of militancy in Assam which affected the life of the people in the entire region. Then an accord was struck at Mizoram, but Nagaland, Manipur and Assam remained same. Today, the situation has improved in terms of security and peace policies. The worst state still remains Manipur, which will remain the same for a long time, but Assam’s condition has changed significantly. ULFA-I still remains a force to be reckoned with, but their base is in Myanmar. From there they do cross-border raids, in Manipur and Nagaland, but have never managed to reach Assam.
It is a known fact that most of the rebel groups of Northeast have formed bases in Myanmar. Why do you think it is difficult for both the countries – India and Myanmar – to oust these rebel groups? Is Myanmar government providing shelter to these rebel groups?
The Myanmar government isn’t providing shelter; they are just turning a blind eye to them because they have other more pressing agenda in their kitty. The Kachin Army is demanding for a Kachin state and more recent is the pressing crisis of the Rakhine state. Rakhine state consists of not only Rohingiyas, but a lot of Buddhists who call themselves the Arakhine Buddhist Army. They don’t (Myanmar Army) care about the ULFA-I or NSCN – Khaplang or the Manipuri insurgent groups. Both the countries had talks over this issue, but no action. That is only because it is not their priority. They are involved with their own internal security threats.
They had joint operations with the Indian Army, but no result. There were coordinated operations too, but no result yet. Once, the Indian Army went inside Myanmar to launch a strike too, but could not pass the border areas.
Are there any immediate threats of Rohingya refugees entering India?
A few of the refugees have entered India in Hyderabad, Jammu and Delhi. How they got there nobody knows, but they did. However, it is very possible that a bulk of these refugees will enter India through the northeast. This is the most logical argument. I mean, Bangladesh is one of the most populated countries and the Rohingiyas don’t have anywhere else to go. The only reasonably sparsely populated areas of Bangladesh are the Chittagong hills but the native hill tribes will not allow the Rohingiyas to settle there. So, the only way out is here.
It is very possible that a bulk of the Rohingya refugees will enter India through the northeast. This is the most logical argument. I mean, Bangladesh is one of the most populated countries and the Rohingiyas don’t have anywhere else to go.
There were hundreds and thousands of refugees coming into Bangladesh and they are trying hard to survive. But I will not be surprised if they try to move from Bangladesh in the next one year because there is nothing to survive there. The camps are like cities with almost a million people. They have no work and nothing to eat besides smuggling people from here and there. Logically, they would try to move on. Now, besides their dialect of Chittagong, there isn’t much difference from people living here. So, if they live in Bangladesh and learn the Bengali and then come here, who can differentiate them from the local lot?
Talking about the image of India, do you think after 2014 when BJP came to power, the image has improved?
Hard for me to say, but the profile of India has changed in terms of being very outward looking. Modi had been an active traveller which is making progress. It spoke substance about this nation when he (Modi) challenged China and formed allies with Japan. Look at the Dokhlam dispute. China didn’t really need that at all. But what is more important is that India very quickly reacted to that crisis and found its way out too. It was a hard approach to the problem, but the question is would anything else have worked? There always is diplomacy, but I don’t think it could be a solution to crisis as such.
India coming out of the One Belt One Road, what kind of impact would it have on the country’s economy?
India is developing very fast. In fact, it is one of the fastest growing countries in the world and it is bound to have an effect. In terms of economic influence, political influence to some extent, but most importantly regional influence, India has managed to gain a great extent on those (influences). China is talking about its One Belt one Road project and the historic Silk route and these are very exciting in terms of economic interest. But the last time China had ever ventured on the Indian Ocean was in the 15th century.
Can you speak a bit about your upcoming new book ‘China’s War with India’ and give us a sneak peak on it?
The publishers are trying to make it India’s China War, but I am trying to prove them wrong as it is actually China’s India War. But, my next book is going to be about the Indian Ocean and you will know about the clash of interests between the different countries. It was an explorer called Zheng Ho, who was a Muslim eunuch from Younun who travelled all over South Asia into Africa and with his fleet of junk and returned with elephants, zebras and other animals which the Chinese never saw. Then came the Ming dynasty which concentrated more on riverine navy, then the exploration and that was the end of Chinese venture on Indian Ocean until now.
Now that China is venturing on Indian Ocean, it means a clash of interest with America, India, Australia and France. France controls 2.5 million square kilometres of trade in Indian Ocean. This is something I am going to write about in my next book.