But distrust between the two neighbors has combined with Indian apathy and inefficiency to prevent the dream from becoming reality, at least so far.
Here in Manipur state, 1,500 miles from New Delhi, the border feels more like an abandoned backwater than a potential metropolis. The narrow dirt streets that spread out from the main road in Moreh are patrolled by soldiers and stray dogs.
Legal trade that passes under the arch, from betel nuts to spare bicycle parts, is meager and largely local. But elsewhere across this porous and mountainous border, there is a much larger flow of smuggled drugs and timber, militants and weapons. Police and army officers stationed here accuse Burmese officials of supporting Indian separatist groups by allowing them to use camps just across the border as bases to stage attacks on Indian soil.
Residents note that Moreh has been on the federal agenda before, to little effect.
“They opened trade at Moreh in 1996, but the government didn’t make much effort to promote it,” lamented Lanjingba Khundongba, who formed the Manipur Chamber of Foreign Trade and Industry in 2009, in the hope that his tiny hill state on India’s fringes could finally join in Asia’s economic boom.
“Let us be a part of this global economy. We can survive,” he said.
A possible lifeline
Manipur is home to about 2 million people, and its sorry history illustrates the failure of the Indian government to turn rhetoric into reality. Its people look more Burmese than Indian and feel looked down upon and excluded by their countrymen. Its economy is dependent on transfers from the central government, much of which is allegedly stolen by local politicians and bureaucrats. A dizzying array of separatist groups has been fighting the state for decades, with varying degrees of support from neighboring countries.
Trade with Southeast Asia could be the lifeline Manipur needs. But in Moreh, there are no banks to provide letters of credit needed for foreign trade, no qualified customs clearing agents, no proper immigration facilities. Locals say that the army is involved in smuggling and that the government is corrupt.
In New Delhi, however, the mood is very different. After years of isolation, Burma’s opening to the world promises new opportunities for Indian business. Last year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made the first visit by an Indian head of government to the country in 25 years, signing several agreements to strengthen diplomatic and trade ties.