Established in 1992, with sponsorship from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the GMS has been an umbrella scheme for regional infrastructure development. The Myanmar delegation attended all GMS meetings, but its projects were rarely implemented in the country because of internal difficulties and international sanctions.
Though it participated in all sectors of GMS cooperation, Myanmar did not get any financial aid for projects because of sanctions, an ADB document said.
As per the GMS plan, Myanmar is key to a link-up with Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and even China, India and the rest of South Asia.
Geographically, Myanmar is a perfect connecting point linking the two major houses of growth in Asia –I ndia and China – but physical infrastructure for such a link-up is not tangible in many parts of the country.
Road links from China to Thailand via Laos’ Route No 3 to facilitate transport from Yunnan to Bangkok were completed years ago. Travelling on land from Thailand via Laos’ Route No 9 to Vietnam was also made possible several years ago, while bridges across the Mekong River to the eastern parts of Southeast Asia have been ready for a while now.
Yet connecting the west of Thailand to Myanmar has been difficult because of the existence of battle zones. Border checkpoints are sometimes open, sometimes not, while border trade has been in the hands of smugglers for a long while.
The establishment of the Mae Sot-Myawaddy special economic zone has been in the pipeline for a decade now. Though it is reviewed from time to time and many governments in the past have told journalists that this project would see the light of day under their watch, nothing has really become of it so far.
Indeed, the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border only just opened last December after a long closure.
As for the idea of linking Thailand with India via Myanmar, strategic partners have discussed it regularly, but nobody knows how to get it started.
The GMS Development scheme has successfully completed several infrastructure projects in the Mekong region over the past two decades, and now – as it celebrates its 20th year – it has decided to put Myanmar on the top of its agenda.
Myanmar is undergoing reform both economically and politically. In its most recent report, the ADB predicted that this country would be the next rising star if the momentum of reforms went in the right direction.
Economic sanctions imposed by the West as well as international financial institutions, including the ADB, have been either relaxed or suspended, if not totally lifted, to ease the inflow of capital.
Many countries have shown their readiness to pour funds into nearly all sectors in Myanmar. In fact, China already has many investment projects, perhaps too many, in the country, while Thailand has picked up the Dawei project as a key agenda to build up economic ties and connectivity with Myanmar.
GMS countries have also asked the ADB to analyse and provide additional information on the economic prospects of the economic-corridor extension, including the port on the Andaman Sea and a link to India.
Now, the one challenge Myanmar faces is maintaining peace long enough to allow for trans-border development and connectivity that is of benefit to all stakeholders.