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SOURCE: Hindustan Times

Foreign secretary Harsh Shringla and Indian Army chief Gen MM Naravane are set to visit Myanmar on Monday, the first time an Indian delegation to the neighbouring country has included both officials, for discussions to take forward ties in areas ranging from security to connectivity.

This will be the foreign secretary’s second foreign visit, after a trip to Bangladesh in August, since the Covid-19 outbreak and the army chief’s first such visit amid the restrictions related to the pandemic, people familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity.

The visit comes against the backdrop of India’s five-month border standoff with China. New Delhi has been working steadily to boost ties with all countries in the neighbourhood barring Pakistan, and has announced a slew of initiatives ranging from currency swaps, budgetary support and connectivity projects to help other states in the region to overcome the economic impact of Covid-19.

The visit will also come four days after the India-Myanmar foreign office consultations, which were conducted virtually by Shringla and permanent secretary U Soe Han on Thursday.

During that meeting, Shringla announced that the two sides are working to operationalise Sittwe port by the first quarter of 2021 while the tendering process for 69 bridges for the trilateral highway, also involving Thailand, will begin soon.

India’s assistance to Myanmar currently stands at $1.4 billion, and New Delhi will provide debt service relief under the G20 debt service suspension initiative to Myanmar from May to December to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Despite the challenges caused by the Covid pandemic, we are working towards operationalising the Sittwe port by the first quarter of next year. With respect to the 69 bridges on the trilateral highway, I am happy to inform you that we will soon be moving forward with the tendering process,” Shringla said.

Sittwe port is part of the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project, which is crucial to India’s plans for the landlocked northeastern states to access the Bay of Bengal through Mizoram and to provide alternative connectivity to Kolkata without having to use the circuitous Siliguri corridor.

The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway has been held up due to problems associated with the stretch in Myanmar and the construction of the bridges is expected to speed up work on the project.

Security cooperation between India and Myanmar also figured in Thursday’s meeting, with Shringla describing it as robust. Both sides are sensitive to each other’s security concerns, he added.

Myanmar’s handing over of 22 Indian insurgents was “deeply appreciated” by India as it sent a “strong message of deterrence to inimical elements on both sides”, he added. Shringla requested Myanmar for the early conclusion of an extradition treaty, a mutual legal assistance treaty on civil and commercial matters, and an agreement on the transfer of sentenced persons.

As part of defence cooperation, an Indian team for deployment of meteorological squadrons will travel to Myanmar this month, and India will receive Myanmar’s representative at its maritime Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean.

The situation in Rakhine state also figured in the meeting. India recently entered into trilateral cooperation with Japan in Rakhine, under which it will create infrastructure for 15 schools. “Our efforts towards ensuring an early, safe and sustainable repatriation of internally displaced persons to Myanmar will continue,” Shringla said.

This issue assumes importance as Bangladesh had raised the issue of one million Rohingya refugees it is hosting during the virtual meeting of the Joint Consultative Commission (JCC), which was co-chaired by external affairs minister S Jaishankar and his Bangladeshi counterpart AK Abdul Momen on September 29.

Momen had expressed the hope that India, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council during 2021-22, will play a “more meaningful role for a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis, including their early repatriation to Myanmar in a safe and sustainable manner”, according to a statement from Bangladesh’s foreign ministry.