India`s wild east unprepared for new Myanmar

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Manipur chief secretary DS Poonia and other officials at the border town Moreh on Wednesday.
MOREH, Feb 22: As dusk falls on a lonely police station in the eastern tip of India, a young policeman nervously keeps an eye on the Arakan hills above him, dotted with poppy fields.

Just 22 bumpy miles from the capital of Manipur, he and his colleagues are outnumbered by gunmen from a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, one of half a dozen insurgent groups operating near India`s border with Myanmar.

Last year, six policemen were killed a few miles away in an ambush authorities blamed on them.

Small groups of men with machetes on their belts can be seen in the winter twilight, openly climbing steep paths through the poppy fields, where valuable seed heads will later be harvested and taken to Myanmar for processing into heroin.

“There are many poppy fields in the hills here,” the policeman said in a hushed voice, refusing to give his name to Reuters for fear of reprisals from the men he said were armed rebels patrolling the fields above his office. Growers will either sell the seed heads to agents or openly in the local market , he said.

Opium and insurgency can make for a profitable if exotic business model, but it is not what India had in mind when it launched its “Look East” policy 20 years ago to link its markets to those of booming Southeast Asia.

Now as resource-rich Myanmar emerges from decades of isolation under military rule, India should be a natural partner, with ties stretching back to 3rd Century BC Buddhist emperor Ashoka and, more recently, a shared experience of British colonialism and World War Two.

BRIDGE TO SOUTHEAST ASIA

“Myanmar is India`s only bridge to Southeast Asia,” Myo Myint, Myanmar`s deputy foreign minister, told Reuters last week at a meeting of Southeast Asian diplomats in New Delhi to look at ways to speed up road, rail and telecoms connections with India. “India needs to come forward with assistance.”

Myanmar sits at Asia`s crossroads, sharing a western border with India, and a northern one with China. Thailand is its neighbour to the east and the Malacca Strait is on its southern flank.

The country of nearly 60 million people has emerged from a half-century of military rule and is courting the West while trying to wean itself from dependency on China for trade and investment. But despite a recent flurry of high-level visits between the two countries, India appears ill-placed on the ground to exploit Myanmar`s opening.

Reuters journalists on a recent trip to the Myanmar-India border in Manipur found a region where rebel groups deeply influence politics and business. Opium poppies are grown openly. Cross-border gun-running remains big business.

Manipur and the three other Indian states sharing the 1,640- km (1,020-mile) border with Myanmar were supposed to be India`s “Gateway to the East”. Instead, the area has become India`s Wild East.

Legal trade on the border has dwindled in the last five years to just 0.15 percent of total commerce between Myanmar and India. Checkpoints by security forces and rebel group supporters make the 120 km (75 mile) journey along rutted Highway 102 through the hills from Manipur`s capital Imphal to Moreh on the border a painstakingly slow — and expensive, too, from the “taxes” they impose on traffic.

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