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Interview with Vikram Misri Ambassador of India to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar

Name : Vikram Misri

Position : Ambassador of India to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar


How did you become an Ambassador?

Well, the first step naturally is to join the Indian Foreign Service, which I did in 1989 by appearing in a competitive examination that was conducted by our Union Public Service Commission for selecting officers of various civil services in India. I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Foreign Service, which was my preferred choice and, since then, I have served in a number of positions, both at the headquarters in New Delhi and in various countries abroad. In 2014, I was honoured to be selected as India’s Ambassador to Spain and Myanmar is now my second stint as an Ambassador.

Did you always want to be an Ambassador? If not, what was your childhood ambition?

Actually, I consider myself fortunate in having been able to realize a childhood ambition. Joining the Indian Foreign Service and representing India abroad was indeed something that had been in my mind since I was in middle school. I had flirted briefly with the idea of joining the Indian Air Force but my eyesight was not good enough for that! After earning my college degree and finishing my MBA, I worked briefly in the private sector but was not entirely satisfied with what I was doing. Eventually, it was my parents who played a big role in encouraging me to try and realize my childhood ambition and that are how I ended up where I am.

Does being an Ambassador involve parties and functions every night of the week?

Well, that is the popular impression, isn’t it?! Fortunately or unfortunately, the “party every night of the week” bit is a myth. We do get to attend many events, of course, but I am not sure that you can describe every one of those as a “party”. I should add that, as a diplomat, building contacts, engaging with one’s counterparts and local interlocutors and understanding the country one is posted in is included in our job definition and much of that happens at social events. So, believe it or not, when you see many of us pictured on page 3 of the newspapers, attending these events, we are actually working. It is not for nothing that diplomacy is often described as a 24/7 profession. Trust me, it’s not easy and we do welcome the occasional evening at home.

How many languages do you speak?

My mother tongue is Kashmiri. I speak, read and write English and Hindi and have a nodding acquaintance with Punjabi and Urdu. Among foreign languages, I can speak, read and write French. I can also speak just about enough Spanish to survive on the streets and in the supermarkets!

How important is it to have a talent for languages if you want to pursue a diplomatic career?

An aptitude for languages is essential in this job if you want to be really effective. Most diplomatic services in the world require their members to attain a certain level of proficiency in at least one foreign language if not more and many of them have structured programmes to impart this training to their officers. Obviously, it is not possible for everyone to speak multiple languages with a high degree of fluency, but my experience has been that displaying even a mild degree of familiarity with and knowledge of certain everyday phrases makes a difference with your foreign interlocutors.

When did you first visit Myanmar? What were your impressions then and how is it different now?

I first visited more than a decade ago, in early 2007, when I was accompanying my Foreign Minister on what was then a path-breaking visit in our bilateral relations. We visited Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw (which had just been built), Bagan and Mandalay. Of course, it was a different government at that time and the political and economic situation was quite different from what it is today. Myanmar was still under western sanctions at that time and the impact was reflected in the level of economic activity and the infrastructure development parameters. My next visit was in mid- 2012, when our then Prime Minister paid an official bilateral visit here. The changes induced by the government following elections of 2010 were already evident in terms of greater openness in the economy and many more international development initiatives taking shape. Today, of course, Myanmar has moved along to a new phase of its democratic transition, following the multi-party elections in 2015 and I think all stakeholders deserve credit for managing the transition and transfer of power in a stable manner. Even though many challenges remain, I am sure that they can be addressed and resolved by the government and people acting in concert and with the best interests of the country in mind.

What is your favorite thing about living and working in Myanmar?

My favourite thing about living and working in Myanmar is unquestionably the people of Myanmar. Quite apart from their nature, which makes it easy to make friends with them, it is their diversity that is so enthralling. Coming from an enormously diverse country myself, I feel entirely at home engaging with Myanmar citizens belonging to diverse ethnicities, faiths and regions and learning about their unique histories. I am also delighted that I have the opportunity to live and work in Myanmar a time when its people are engaged in a nation-building task of historic proportions that will impact many future generations. This is something in which not only all people of Myanmar have a stake, but also something in which all of Myanmar’s well-wishers have a stake as well. From India’s perspective, given the long border, the dense webs of people-to-people contact as well as linkages of history, faith and culture that we share, a stable, peaceful and prosperous Myanmar is in the interests of not only the people of Myanmar but also those of India. To have the opportunity to play a small role in contributing to the success of this nation-building enterprise of the people of Myanmar through our development cooperation mechanisms is something that I value enormously.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced since becoming an Ambassador?

One thing that you realize when you become an Ambassador (or assume any position at the head of an organization) is that you are no longer responsible just for doing your own job well, but also for ensuring that all those under your charge do their jobs equally well. The challenge then becomes exercising leadership and this can be done not only by setting an example through your own conduct but also by seeing how all your colleagues can be enabled to contribute their best in the overall interests of the organization that one is leading. I have always believed that the main job of leaders is to build more leaders and, since first becoming Ambassador about three years ago, I have regarded contributing to the professional development of my colleagues and enabling them to realize their full potential as my principal challenge. Frankly, nothing has given me more pleasure in this time than to see my younger colleagues rising to the challenge and giving a good account of them.

If you could give one piece of advice to people interested in becoming an Ambassador, what would it be?

Read and inform yourselves. First about your own country and then the world around you. The world is an extremely complex place and, even though you must have heard this cliché before, believes me, the world is changing. You need to have a sharp and keen sense of what your national interests are and how you can best mould the regional or international environment at any given point in time to dovetail with your national interests. The best way to deal with this is to prepare yourself by having an understanding of the key issues. In the world of diplomacy as in many others, knowledge really is power.

How would you evaluate the relationship between Myanmar and India?

India and Myanmar share historically close relations defined by shared traditions, faiths and linguistic and cultural linkages going back to the time of Lord Buddha. In more recent times, we have had the common experience of our struggle against colonialism, during which many of our leaders were in touch with each other. General Aung San, for example, stopped by in New Delhi to meet Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru before going to London in January 1947 for discussions on Burma’s independence and Prime Ministers Nehru and Nu shared an especially close relationship. We also value greatly the special regard that Her Excellency State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has for India, having lived and studied there when her mother was Burma’s Ambassador to India. Our two countries also share a unique people-to-people relationship among the communities that inhabit our shared land border that is more than 1600 kms long. This border is also perhaps Myanmar’s most peaceful border.

The shared traditions and histories of our two countries stand us in good stead as we seek to build a relationship to deal with modern social, economic, political and security challenges. Myanmar occupies a prominent place in India’s Act East and Neighbourhood First policies and the closeness of our relations is evident in the high level visits exchanged between the two sides. Last year, Their Excellencies the President and the State Counsellor of Myanmar paid State Visits to India. The State Counsellor visited India for the BRICS-BIMSTEC Outreach Summit as well. Within the last year, our External Affairs Minister, Commerce & Industry Minister, the Minister for Petroleum & Natural Gas and our National Security Advisor have also undertaken official visits to Myanmar to explore opportunities for bilateral cooperation in a host of new areas and our Foreign Secretary was here earlier this week for our annual Foreign Office Consultations. Our relations are multifaceted, involving numerous initiatives for cooperation in health, education, capacity building and culture. Development cooperation by way of building infrastructure is a particularly important aspect of our relationship. Through these initiatives, we aim to enhance connectivity within our shared region and contribute to prosperity and economic growth across the shared South and South East Asian region.

Can we talk about about bilateral trade between India and Myanmar?

India Myanmar bilateral trade in 2015- 16 was $2.01 billion. We are the third largest export destination for Myanmar and its fifth largest trade partner. In terms of investments, India ranks tenth with investment of $732.6 million till March 31, 2017. Though our trade figures showed a marginal increase over the previous financial year, our bilateral trade is much below potential. Lack of connectivity, lack of information and restrictions on the financial side have been major constraints in increasing our bilateral trade as well as investment. However, the situation looks set to improve now with the changes being wrought in the domestic policies of Myanmar and greater interest among the business community in India in doing business with Myanmar. The State Bank of India was granted a commercial license and set up its branch in Yangon in October 2016 and I am sure this will encourage greater exchanges. A meeting between the Commerce Minsters of India and Myanmar is scheduled to take place next month, at which various ways and means to promote trade and investment will be discussed.

How do you go about further improving relations between India and our country?

As I have said earlier, Myanmar is embarked upon a historic enterprise of nation-building that involves its ongoing peace process and national reconciliation as well as economic regeneration. India has important stakes in the peace process and it is for this reason that we were among the select few witnesses of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. We would like this process to succeed because a secure Myanmar is in our own interest as well. For this, we have shared with the Government of Myanmar our readiness to help in any way possible. There are experiences we can share and expertise that we can provide that would be helpful to various stakeholders in the peace process as they discuss different concepts and this is an important aspect of our relationship going forward. Equally important is the dimension of economic cooperation and development partnership. Indian businesses are increasingly interested in Myanmar and historic linkages between our two countries will play in important role in this area as well. As Myanmar reforms its laws and increases the ease of doing business here, Indian business interest will increase and become an important aspect of contributing to our bilateral relationship by bringing investment and transferring skills and technology to the local communities.

The greatest potential lies in the development sphere. Myanmar today needs to upgrade rapidly its infrastructure, especially in the areas of transport, energy and connectivity, both physical and digital. All these are areas where India can contribute along multiple axes, including business-to-business linkages as well as G-to-G arrangements. Our existing development cooperation portfolio with Myanmar is almost $1.75 billion, consisting of projects that are funded through grants as well as soft loans. These include projects in ports, roads, bridges, agriculture, railways, telecom and various human capacity building enterprises and instructional initiatives in English and IT. We are ready to engage on the next generation of infrastructure development projects in Myanmar. While doing so, we are conscious that these projects have to fit into Myanmar’s development priorities and align with its national interests. We are also careful that they are environmentally responsible, contribute to transfer of skills and technology to local communities and, most importantly, do not create unsustainable financial burdens. These parameters of our development philosophy echo those of Myanmar and we look forward very much to engaging with the Government of Myanmar on these matters and further strengthening our relationship.

Could you tell comment on Myanmar current Political Issues and Transparency and Accountability?

Is it a real democracy? I am an outside observer and it would not be entirely appropriate for me to comment on issues that are first and foremost a concern for the people and government of Myanmar. Of course, transparency and accountability are important principles and essential ingredients of a democracy. As a friend of the people of Myanmar and as a fellow democracy, the largest in the world, India is at once interested in the success of democracy in Myanmar and ready to contribute by sharing its experiences and expertise in various areas. We have indeed already undertaken some initiatives in this regard and stand ready to do more. I should also perhaps underline that even as the people of Myanmar embark on the path of democracy, they should be prepared to face the challenges that all democracies in the world face. Democracy has often been likened to a log raft, constantly buffeted by winds and waves, but always six inches above water and it is important that countries strive constantly to build and strengthen institutions such as a free media and an independent judiciary and enforce rule of law in order to reinforce democracy. I am confident that the people and government of Myanmar have the genius to do so.

What is your opinion on the current Myanmar Education System?

Myanmar is a fast growing economy with a demographic advantage. Investment in the education sector is essential to increase the capacities of the population so that it can contribute to economic growth. Myanmar also needs to translate its high literacy rate into employability of the work force. Institution building is the most important aspect of nation building and it would be in Myanmar’s interest to set up Centers of Excellence in relevant fields – medical, technical, IT, biotechnology, media and communications. It is also important for Myanmar to address the current gap in its higher education system and move to a K+12 school system as early as possible. This would open many more opportunities for its students for higher education in other countries, besides allowing its development partners to contribute at an earlier stage in post-school education.