Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint recently sat down with Manipur Chief Minister Mr N. Biren Singh in Imphal, Manipur, India to discuss the historical changes taking place on both sides of the India-Myanmar border as the two countries improve their connectivity.
This exclusive interview was held at the start of the famous Sangai Festival 2018 in Manipur.
Thank you for taking the time to see us Chief Minister. You have been in office now for about 18 months. What have been your priorities during this period?
It is my pleasure that you have been here to interview and this might be the first of its kind in the history of Manipur. Actually, my government for the past 18 months, my priority was the coexistence, the relationship between the communities in the state to gain trust again. And the second is the central government policy towards the rest of the Southeast Asian countries. It was the Look East Policy earlier but after the coming of the Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi it has been converted to the Act East Policy. And I am also looking to have the relationship between Myanmar and India improved more. And I am in a neighbouring state, from India, I want to make myself as a bridge to fill up the gap.
My understanding is you are the first BJP chief minister in Manipur. And I was reading I believe the India Today survey ranked you as third best chief minister in the whole of India. Why do you rank as one of the best chief ministers?
Actually that was very new to me also as I did not have the knowledge of that kind of service going on or something. But my priority was the relationship between the communities within the state were not good due to some incidents and demands to the Centre. But my priority was I don’t know any politics but I have to serve the people.
My primary duty was to serve the people, to tell the people, the government is there. We are their government. So I started my work. I adopted two or three new innovative ideas. … Admittedly, when I came to power I started, go to the hills. Manipur is backed by two compositions geographically. One is the valley base. Valley base is very small, only 10 per cent of the total areas. But the population is 60 per cent of the population lives in the small area. But the hilly area is very vast. The population is only 40 per cent. So between this gap, because of inequality in terms of development. … So I propose to the central government to have equal development in Manipur, topographical area, we need topographical needs approach so that people in the valley, thickly populated, one village to one village, we can connect by spending only ten crores after constructing a bride or making a road. But in the hills village to village is very far and the terrain is there so it cost fifty-two hundred, so the hills were really underdeveloped. So that kind of thing I started.
Fortunately, the central government accepted my proposal and they have kept one special funding, a hill area development fund for the whole country, similar to the Manipur type… … and out of 82 districts… like I started go to hills to regain the trust and the love of the hill people. I started holding cabinet meetings in the hill areas, and I started taking up development works with them. Men to men contact. Number one.
Number two, I started meeting people every month, every tenth of the month, I declare it that is will be the hill leaders’ day. Whoever comes from the hills, the civil society, the leaders, can meet me here at my bungalow. And on the 15th of every month, I declared people’s day, so whoever in the state can approach me and can come meet me, from morning to evening. Every month I am taking it.
Then another idea was. people are not getting the help the government has, the schemes, the development work, horrible, it is not reaching out to the grassroots, so I decided the government should go down to the village, so I started to go to villages.
Apart from the budget issue, what are the other challenges for you in terms of implementing the development projects in the state?
You see, after I started this go to village, every Tuesday of every month, all the officials of the government will go down to the villages. They will identify the village, beneficiaries, might be from the health scheme … … It has benefited a lot those who are not able to bear access to health care or something. Now two lakhs has already gone into the needy peoples.
Coming to the point of your question, the budgeting equation is not enough because the budget mainly depends on the resource of the state. But being a small state, we are not having enough revenue. But even then the schemes of the central government, which is providing to the states, is helping lots here …… housing quotas, power connection. So the central schemes are helping in the development of the villages. That is one thing benefiting to us.
Maybe Myanmar which is made up of many nationalities could learn from what you are doing. Allow me to go into the specifics of Manipur and Sagaing Region, a border areas, which I think is a very important land bridge for India’s Act East Policy. You have been instrumental, along with the central government in New Delhi for opening this historic border gate. Now we can travel from Tamu to Mori and Imphal and New Delhi and Bangkok. And same thing, Indians and Manipuris can travel to Yangon. I traveled this road when I came.
How was it?
It was very good. At that time we reached India on the same day. So my question is how would you see this border opening in the next three or four years for the benefit of people from Sagaing and for the people of Manipur?
I am told by one of my doctors … there are many peoples who are having chronic disease, regarding the eyes, blindness or something, cancer-type disease, I am told. So what I am planning, I have discussed with my health care colleagues from the state and from Delhi, we are planning to have one medical hub nearby in Mori, for health care, because health is very important. So I want to extend the health care facility force to the Sagaing people and it will happen soon. I am actively considering with some of the investors, and secondly, the business, we have started no. We are very lucky after Prime Minister Modi comes … has opened, weeks ahead, I had a meeting with the personnel … I said you should not give any kind of harassment to any of the citizens who come from Myanmar or anybody … you can the visa and documents… … relationship will met with the hospitality of the country. Being an Indian, being a Manipuri, we should have hospitality, culture and love towards the visiting peoples. So that was the idea.
And, coming to your question, we need sharing of the gap, what Sagaing region needs, I have to understand, and if I have something which I can help to the Sagaing area, then definitely I will approach to the Centre. I came to know that around thirty-six businesses about to complete, and it will be slowly integrated. Like this, if you need medical, if you need education, if we need something, then interactions are very important. Accordingly, I am ready to help.
One of the wishes for many Myanmar people, because many of them are Buddhist, so they want to go to Bodh Gaya, across the border. In the past they fly from Yangon to Kolkatta to go to Bodh Gaya, which is expensive for many of them. So now, since the border is open, they want to travel across the border to Bodh Gaya.
That is one of my dreams. That is one of my dreams and one of my priority tasks. I also discussed when I visited to Yangon some senior Buddhist people I met and they also visited here. And I assured them that I would construct a Buddhist pilgrims way for people coming from Myanmar, they can stay here, and our airport is an international airport. And I also requesting to the central government to have at least once a week flight, which can go to Myanmar, Thailand, once a week … and find them from Sagaing, from everywhere in Yangon, everywhere from Myanmar, if you have come down here in Imphal, you can stay here where I am proposing to construct one Buddhist pilgrim house, you can stay here, and you can catch the Indian Airlines or whoever, because the direct flight has come, you can directly go to the Bodh Gaya from here. So that kind of facility you have to create, and in this regard, I want some official request, official demand from His Excellency through me or directly to the central government. That will help very much, I believe.
That is very good news for many Myanmar people who really wish to got to Bodh Gaya in less time and on a less expensive level. Regarding the Act East Policy, my understanding that India has been pushing a lot to have the Act East Policy successful more and more and also Myanmar is willing to cooperate and work together with India for success. One of the areas is infrastructure development, roads, bridges, with assistance of India and Manipur, the bridges and roads are being built on the Myanmar side. Do you think we could do more for strengthening connectivity so that the Act East Policy will be successful and more beneficial to the people?
We should do more. It is only the beginning. We could do more. Up until now, this plan has already started, and almost completed, and the widening of the road is going on. On the official level, identifying whose idea, business or transport And secondly, I don’t know right now it has been started or not, but as far as my knowledge is concerned, there was some agreement, some bus service, Mandalay-Imphal, not yet open. So that kind of thing should be operational. So I will make pressure to the central government and from your side also, from the Myanmar side also, it is better to keep pressure, so meetings, frequent meeting, interacting, it will make the relationship better.
I would like to go into the Sangai Festival where the chief minister of Sagaing along with three ministers come and join to witness the friendly football match between Manipur women’s football team and Sagaing women’s football team, and the Delhi football team. Can you tell us about the Sangai Festival which is widely broadcast in Myanmar through the TV channel?
Actually, I am very impressed and I was very surprised that big ministers and delegates agree to visit Manipur. That is my heartfelt welcome. And, you know, I am very happy because it is part of the Act East Policy that we want so if these type of things continue then automatically relations will improve. So I am happy you are coming with your full team.
Myanmar is playing well. I saw one girl, she played the in the team, Impressive. So this time, I am very grateful to the Myanmar authorities, the Sagaing Minister and other officials, and I want to thank you because you are preparing everything under one roof, actively taking part in joining both countries.
How many countries are you expecting for the Sangai Festival and how many people will attend, starting on 21 November?
This time is very, very big. For the state, we are celebrating in three places. One is the birthpace of the Sangai, the capital city Imphal, and the border areas of Nagaland. … And we expect not less than ten countries … the Princess of Thailand is also coming, the US Ambassador is also coming, many more … the Indian Minister of Defence will also attend.
What is the meaning of Sangai? Many Myanmar people want to know the meaning of Sangai?
Sangai is a kind of deer… The peculiarity of the sangai is it lives only in the floating biomass … the area where they live has already declared been declared a national park … They only live in the floating biomass, only in the lake, not in the hills … so this is the only variety, only one of its kind in the world. This is the only deer of its kind in the world, you cannot find it anywhere else in the world. The population of sangai it was earlier, we were afraid of losing this. Now it is approximately two hundred and forty and above, so growing.
On a personal note, you were a footballer, you were a journalist, now you are into politics and you are a very successful politician. How have you found adjusting to this life?
You know, I got a benefit as a sports person. I got a benefit as a journalist. So you know, sports is team work, because I cannot go alone and I cannot do anything, with help of the teams we do well, we play and share the event, that I adopt in the politics. So those ideas I got from the team work. Those ideas I got from there. In sports, you cannot hide permanently. During the games you can hide, but after the games, excuse, forgive, forget, so that kind of thing I adopted.
Journalism means, we try to find out the truth, we try to book the culprit, we try to focus the writings, we try to suppress all the bad things, because mainly journalism do focus on the betterment of society. I may get threat but the people get benefit. So that kind of career is really something.
That is a very interesting philosophy. You use your sportsmanship in politics. You use your writing and truthfulness in politics. That comes from journalism and sports. That is very interesting.
It is a very fruitful to me.
Is there anything else you would like to convey to the people of Myanmar and the people of Sagaing Region?
The neighbouring state, the neighbouring country, there is a saying, in our custom, better to have a good neighbour than a bad driver. That saying is true til today, since the democratic system comes in Manipur through India. The democratic movement in Myanmar, we do support. This is the people’s right. So we really want to have a good relationship with the neighbours. And the Myanmar people are really very noble, very friendly, and I was really very happy when I was in Yangon. I met his excellency of Yangon, how he introduce me and how the people cooperate … So I already told you I want to make myself as a bridge to fill up the gap between India and Myanmar. And secondly, Sagaing is our immediate neighbour, the bettering of Sagaing is the bettering of Manipur.