India wishes Bangladesh to join the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project (IMT Highway), which envisages connecting South Asia and South-East Asia to achieve the broader agenda of Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
The ambitious three-nation highway is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the region that will connect India with Thailand through Myanmar is a central plank of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East Policy” which seeks to boost trade and connectivity with Southeast Asia.
The 3,660 km long IMT Highway will be linking Moreh (India) – Bagan (Myanmar) – Mae Sot (Thailand) and expects completion this year.
Meanwhile, India has completed 50 per cent of the construction of the 120 km Kalewa-Yagyi stretch in Myanmar to the level of an international highway and rebuilding 69 bridges and adjacent approach roads on the highway.
India and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plan to extend this route to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (which is operational since 2015).
The development economists predict the connectivity will generate annually, an estimated US $70 billion in incremental GDP and 20 million in incremental aggregate employment by 2025, and India has offered US $1 billion line-of-credit for the India-ASEAN connectivity projects. It is at the centre of transport diplomacy among ASEAN countries.
In 2015, India proposed a trilateral Motor Vehicle Agreement – MVA with Myanmar and Thailand for the seamless movement of passenger and cargo vehicles among the three countries.
In December 2017, Myanmar stated that it needed time to review all of its connectivity agreements, before proceeding with the MVA.
The hiccups by Myanmar immensely delayed the Imphal (India) – Mandalay (Myanmar) bus service despite India and Myanmar have signed the MVA in 2018.
On 14 July, top officials sat in the South Block in New Delhi to look into physical possibilities to link Bangladesh to the highway project.
At the India-Myanmar Border Connectivity meeting, a report was presented by the Land Ports Authority of India (LPAI) and discussed modalities to connect Bangladesh.
Prabhat Kumar, Special Secretary of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) at the high-level meeting said that if Bangladesh is connected to this highway, it will serve as a unique commercial link between the whole of South Asia and Southeast Asia, reported Dhaka Tribune.
Bangladesh has expressed its eagerness to join the IMT highway to boost regional connectivity for greater economic gains with South East nations in 2020.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina first expressed her interest in land connectivity with Thailand via Myanmar during their virtual summit with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in December 2020, reported the Daily Star.
She expressed keen interest in the ongoing India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway project and sought technical support from India for Bangladesh to connect with this project to enhance connectivity between the regions of South Asia and South East Asia, said a joint statement.
Hasina is expected to follow up with Modi on the formalities of joining the IMT Highway project and other pending issues when she meets up for a bilateral parley with her Indian counterpart in coming September to attend the 18th G20 summit of heads of states and governments in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, India and Thailand have agreed to include Bangladesh in the trilateral highway project.
Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen has said New Delhi and Bangkok are happy to have Bangladesh in the Trilateral Highway project.
Well, Bangladesh is waiting for a proactive nod from Myanmar. The neighbouring country has yet to react to Dhaka joining the project.
Earlier, Bangladesh wished to join the Bangladesh China India Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, which unfortunately has made no progress. Also, India skipped the Belt and Road Forum which led to the exclusion of the BCIM Corridor from the list of projects covered by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At any rate the BCIM predates the launch of the BRI by China.
Remember a senior Chinese diplomat in Kolkata boasted of introducing Bullet Train from Kunming to Kolkata via Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2015, reported by Press Trust of India (PTI).
The diplomat assured that the much-vaunted BRI is not envisaged by China to conquer the world or its neighbourhood, instead, the bullet train project would be implemented through consultations and discussions Nevertheless, the project has never seen the light of the day.
Keeping the Chinese plan, Bangladesh agreed to railroad connectivity with the so-called Trans-Asian Railway, which was supposed to connect India-Bangladesh-Myanmar-China and it seems has lost its steam.
Recently, Bangladesh has scrapped the construction of a 129-kilometre railway track from Dohazari to Gundhum, bordering Myanmar and instead, the budget was diverted to lay a high-speed railway track to the sea resort holiday destination in Cox’s Bazar from the port city Chattagram.
The crisis of 1.2 million Rohingya refugees living in squalid camps in the southeast of the country has frozen the relations between the two countries. Thus, the land and railway connectivity with Myanmar was dropped for the time being.
It is also understood, that the construction of railway tracks through Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state will be challenging. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar forces) is fighting a multi-headed insurgency with armed ethnic rebellions and newly raised nationalist resistance forces.
The armed insurrections intensified after the ouster of a democratically elected Prime Minister Aung San Suu Kyi by the military junta in February 2021. The Nobel laureate Suu Kyi has been sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar, the three neighbours, have shared a history, especially when the British Raj dominated the region. Therefore, these neighbours can easily improve their relations in multi-dimensional aspects by promoting cooperation, writes Jubeda Chowdhury, a researcher on regional issues.
She further says, if the Bangladesh-Myanmar-Thailand-India Trilateral Highway project and the BCIM corridor were integrated, ASEAN members could access the markets of Bangladesh, northern-east India, and the Himalayan landlocked countries of Bhutan, and Nepal.
First published in the India Narrative, New Delhi, India, July 20, 2023
Saleem Samad is an award-winning independent journalist based in Bangladesh. Views expressed are personal. Twitter: @saleemsamad