This Article is written by Ritansha Lakshmi, student of Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida.
In 1991 the then Indian Prime Minister P.V.Narsimha Rao initiated a new chapter as the ‘Look-East Policy’ in Indian foreign policy model to develop political contacts, increasing economic integration and forging security assistance with countries of Southeast Asia. The Look-East Policy draws a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and position of India in the rapidly developing global economy. Since from the time of the foundation of the Policy India and ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) have embarked upon multiple bilateral, regional and sub-regional initiatives for the flourishing goal of the Policy. The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Initiative is one of the significant outcomes of such joint endeavours. MGC is a vehicle for ‘soft diplomacy’ in countries that have had considerable cultural influence from India. Both the Ganga and the Mekong are ancient rivers and the MGC initiative is indicative of the cultural and commercial linkages between the member countries.
Why/how was it introduced?
The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) is an initiative by six countries – India and five ASEAN countries, namely, Myanmar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. The proposal for the formation of the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) was finalized by the foreign ministers of the six members at the sidelines of the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Thailand, in July 2000. It was agreed that this grouping would be formally launched on November 10, 2000, at Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Lao PDR situated on the river Mekong, on the occasion of the Festival of Lights (very similar to our Diwali) – celebrated in Lao PDR and other countries of the region, when the First Ministerial Meeting of this Programme would be held in Vientiane, outlining the basic theme of the Cooperation, was signed by ministers representing the six member-countries. Initially, the name of the initiative was Ganga-Mekong Swarnabhumi Project (GMSP) but it was replaced to Mekong- Ganga Cooperation due to some discrepancies among the member countries. It is then named after Ganga and the Mekong which both are civilisational rivers. The key areas of cooperation under MGC are tourism, culture, education, as well as transport and communications, which aim to strengthen the ties between the peoples of the two regions and better understanding among the countries to enhance friendship, solidarity and cooperation; facilitating inter-state movement and transit transport of goods and people in the region; creating necessary infrastructural facilities in the Ganga-Mekong basin areas, and encouraging active participation in poverty eradication for rapid social and economic development of the Mekong region countries.
The working mechanism for MGC consists of the Annual Ministerial Meeting, the Senior Official’s Meeting, and Working Groups to discuss the objectives and aim of MGC.
The Mekong region is very important for India’s ‘Act East Policy’ for strengthening its economic integration with Southeast and East-Asian countries. India has accorded high priority to economic engagement with the MGC countries, working towards establishing seamless physical and digital connectivity, as well as capacity building under the Initiative for ASEAN Integration and Narrowing the Development Gap.
According to Press Information bureau [India-Myanmar Joint Statement during the State Visit of the President of Myanmar to India (February 26-29, 2020), the leaders discussed a wide range of bilateral, regional and international issues of common interest.
India reiterated its assurance to support Myanmar’s efforts for encouraging peace, stability and the socio-economic progress in Rakhine State through the Rakhine State Development Programme. Myanmar appreciated India’s provision of 250 prefabricated houses at three villages in Northern Rakhine State and relief materials for displaced persons in northern Rakhine in 2019. Both sides approved to accelerate the implementation of a set of 12 projects under the second phase of the Rakhine State Development Programme and to further strengthen their development support within the framework of High Impact Community Development Projects and Quick Impact Projects under the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation mechanism. The project was taken on by Indian companies – M/s Enertech Limited as contractor and M/s Hindustan Prefab Limited as Project Management Consultant. In this regard, they welcomed the signing of the Agreement on Indian Grant Assistance for Implementation of Quick Impact Projects (QIP) during the State Visit.
In late 2017, India signed a development programme for Rakhine State in Myanmar which was intended to assist the Myanmar government in Rakhine State to build housing infrastructure for displaced persons, which was appreciated not just by the government of Myanmar but also by the United Nations and other agencies.
India also reiterated its support for the recent steps taken by the Government of Myanmar to address the challenges in Northern Rakhine. India also expressed its support for the bilateral agreements signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh for the repatriation of the displaced persons from Rakhine State and hoped that Myanmar and Bangladesh would continue to work together for voluntary, liveable and speedy repatriation of displaced people currently in Bangladesh to Myanmar following their bilateral agreements. Caught between two neighbours Myanmar and Bangladesh, India has carefully balanced to maintain diplomatic ties. The Myanmar side thanked India for its understanding of the complexity of the issue and all its support extended to Myanmar.
Rakhine has been in the news because the Myanmar military pushed against the Rohingya who were forced to live in refugee camps in Bangladesh. One of the main purposes of India’s developmental work in Rakhine is aimed at creating hospitable conditions for the return of the Rohingya community — an ethnic group of Myanmar’s Rakhine province.
the Rohingya crisis’ is a tragedy that was in the making for over several decades and concerns the plight of hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the Rohingya-Muslim minority community in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Myanmar does not recognise the community as its citizens and considers them “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh. Recent violence in Rakhine State has displaced several hundred thousand Rohingyas within Myanmar and driven out some 700,000 of them to neighbouring Bangladesh after the military launched a bloody crackdown triggered by militant attacks on security posts in late August 2017. The United Nations (UN) has pronounced the violence against the Rohingya community as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing. The crisis has also acquired a security dimension with concerns being raised over the infiltration of Islamic extremism amongst the Rohingyas, who have grown increasingly desperate over their plight. The massive refugee outflow has created a serious humanitarian crisis that carries implications on regional stability and security.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement on the repatriation of the refugees in November 2017. Myanmar government state that they are putting in place mechanisms to receive back the returnees, and taking measures to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. Myanmar also signed an MoU with the UN to allow hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas to “return safely and by choice.
The presence of Nyi Pu, the Chief Minister of Rakhine, along with President of Myanmar, State Visit to India in February 2020 is precisely and figuratively a powerful statement. Four of the 10 MoUs signed related to his state. All were people-friendly projects planned to directly impact the locals and improve their daily lives.
From the above-mentioned discussion, it is clear that India will carry out more development projects in the Rakhine province of Myanmar. One of the main objectives of India’s developmental work is to create friendly and welcoming conditions for the return of Rohingyas community and lead to a lessening of tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Although India’s joint statement with Myanmar avoid a direct mention of Rohingyas community. It only harps on about the developmental assistance that India has given to Myanmar for “infrastructure development [in Rakhine state]under the Rakhine State Development Program.
It can be acknowledged that integration and collaboration among the member countries of Mekong- Ganga Cooperation Initiative are essential for successfully driving the initiatives and reaping the benefits out of it. In the journey towards cooperation, countries might have to confront several obstacles hindering the magnitude of solidarity but if confidence, mutual trust and mutual understanding among them persist, the aim of this initiatives can be achieved.