Democracy Springs in Myanmar

In order to get back on the global stage, General Thein Sein is reforming Myanmar from above.

Deaf to President Thein Sein’s orders and peace talks, troops in the borderlands of Myanmar continue to attack civilians. The military government, however, is taking steps to revolutionize the country from above. The international community has responded by lifting economic sanctions, and finally, as this article is released on April 1, by-elections will be taking place in which the newly-freed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi will be running in opposition to the government.

Myanmar, formerly Burma, has been on the threshold of change ever since the swearing in of its new government one year ago. The change comes after nearly half a century of military rule had kept Myanmar isolated from the world. In response, former opponents are warming up to the country, ending decades of economic sanctions.

The current transition is a return to democracy and civilian rule, and it is seemingly peaceful and bloodless despite being led by former military brass that were earlier part of the establishment that was oppressive and intolerant of dissent.

This gradual change is being ushered in after an election, albeit a flawed one. Only the official party mattered. Members of General Than Shwe’s government, all of them serving military personnel, resigned to contest the election.

What seemed like a clear military fait accompli for the people of Myanmar changed with Gen. Than Shwe retiring, which led to the rule of former general Thein Sein, now the president.

Recognition of the change has come from the United Nations.

“Dramatic positive changes” in Myanmar have demonstrated “an unprecedented level of initiative”, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar, told reporters at a press conference on February 24 after returning from a five-day visit to the country.

Nambiar said that political and economic reforms, the release of political prisoners, and a growing number of ceasefire agreements with local groups were key components of change one year after the new government was formed.

Part of the change has been efforts at reconciliation with northern rebel groups that have been waging armed struggle against the nation for too long.

Nambiar said he had discussed the related issues with relevant groups and academics but he had not met with any military generals nor had he met with members of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). He had talks with the Government Minister, however, who deals with that group, and he met with the Union Peace Committee, which seems confident that problems with KIO will be addressed.

Nambiar said that the Government’s commitment to the issue, seen in the signing of key ceasefire agreements and meetings with stakeholder groups, was among the key factors leading this shift.

He added, however, that Myanmar was “only at the beginning of its transition”, noting that this was his fourth visit in the past year. While international support was needed, the onus rests on the Myanmar Government “to ensure further positive developments to bring about real improvements to the lives of its people.”

The first test of that commitment is the coming by-elections, which will have taken place on April 1 of this year, for 45 seats in Parliament. Similar commitment will be needed to further social and economic development as well as peace and reconciliation efforts, Nambiar said.

His cautious report was accompanied by a call to the many countries that had imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar. The chance for continued progress in the country requires that “the international community respond robustly to people’s needs by lifting current restrictions” on the country. He added that “the people of Myanmar will expect the international community to step up”.

The United Nations is currently intensifying its efforts, including helping with the first national census taken since 1983. The United Nations Development Programme has suggested holding a donors’ conference later in the year to better coordinate aid and assistance.

During his visit, Nambiar said, he had met with Government interlocutors and other stakeholders, including academics and representatives from civil society and ethnic groups. The meetings resulted in many expressions of confidence that issues associated with the April by-elections would be addressed.

While the Government had not requested United Nations assistance for the by-elections, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pledged to send observers. The by-elections would be closely watched from the outside “to get an idea of the impartiality and fairness of the process.”

He also noted that the United Nations would likely be involved in assisting with the 2015 national elections.

Begun mid-2011, the internal, political changes and re-engagement with the outside world have had immense implications for Myanmar.

As the world community has cautiously welcomed the changes in Myanmar, the leaders of the ASEAN decided to give the chairmanship of grouping to Myanmar in 2014.

At that summit in Bali last November, U.S. President Barack Obama also announced that he would send Hillary Clinton to Myanmar — the first visit by a US Secretary of State in more than 50 years. The historic visit took place on December 1.

The twin announcements were in recognition of the political reforms and reconciliation process that the new Myanmar government has initiated.

Myanmar is beginning to see an end to its long phase of isolation. That augurs well for its people and for the nation itself that has missed playing its rightful role on the global stage.

General Thein Sein, president of Myanmar.

K. Yhome, a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, divides Myanmar’s period of isolation into two phases.

The first phase of isolation was a self-imposed one that began when General Ne Win took power in 1962 in a military coup and lasted till the late 1980s. The country’s political, ideological, ethnic divides deepened and sharpened during this phase.

The second phase of isolation was imposed from outside by the international community, particularly the Western countries, against the military regime’s oppressive rule. The West continued its political and economic sanctions on the country for failures in its human rights record.

The result of the sanctions was that the long-standing ethnic and social issues of the country only worsened. Myanmar found itself getting sucked into the economy of China as the northern neighbor emerged as a key business partner.

“Despite growing wariness about increased Chinese presence, the Myanmar leadership did not have many options in the face of the isolationist policy of the West,” notes Yhome.

The country had tried to partially open up its economy in the late 1980s by engaging its neighbors — joining sub-regional groupings and ASEAN by 1997. That improved the lot of the Burmese people very little, but helped to highlight their plight to the world.

By the end of the 20th century, long years of economic mismanagement had turned the country, once the world’s largest exporter of rice, into one of the poorest in the region. The unending ethnic conflicts in the country had become the world’s longest civil war, and for many years, Myanmar held the position of the world’s largest producer of illicit opium.

Every problem associated with these issues — refugees, internally displaced persons, human rights violations, poverty, human trafficking, gun running, drug smuggling, etc — only grew with time. The cumulative impact of these developments on the country’s politics, economy, and society had been disastrous.

A lower-class vegetable market in Myanmar.

The changes today indicate that Myanmar’s isolation is starting to give way to a more open and transparent system. These developments are also early indications of what direction the country might take in the coming years.

Broadly, the reform initiatives currently underway are aimed at correcting both its internal long-standing political deadlock and addressing the imbalance in its external relations.

Ever since the new government was sworn in last year, major reforms have been pushed through that are trying to break away from the country’s past. The aim is to build a new identity based on progress and peace based around strategic neutrality — a core principle of the country’s foreign policy since its inception that had been weakened, if not compromised, during its isolation.

Myanmar is a classic case for demonstrating how internal and external dynamics are closely interlinked and how internal change has direct external implications. Given the nature of this intrinsic link, the process of change has been long overdue to bring about much-needed reforms — political reconciliation and economic and social development. Simultaneously, the process will help redefine the country’s identity, projecting it as a progressive nation.

As Myanmar attempts to build a new identity for itself, this will not only help map out the country’s domestic future but will also allow realignment of its ties with external powers. Given the rapidly-changing regional geopolitical dynamics, Myanmar wants to redraw its political and strategic image with the hope that this will provide the flexibility it needs in its strategic choices.

The pace of change may not be to the satisfaction of the West, but the change is being accepted internationally. Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors have accepted Myanmar’s offer to host the next meeting of the ASEAN.

As well, the strategy of peace is having its impact within Myanmar. Five ethnic armed groups, including two major Karen and Shan rebel organizations, held peace talks with a government delegation at the Thai-Burmese border, and three informally agreed to a ceasefire, according to sources. The Karen National Union and Shan State Army-South met with a Burmese government delegation led by Aung Min, the minister for railways, who was sent by President Thein Sein.

The Rise of a Nobel Laureate

Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech to supporters at the Hlaing Thar Yar Township in Yangon.

Freed from house arrest on November 13, 2010, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has positioned herself to stand for a seat in parliament in the April elections. Suu Kyi was freed two years ago as Myanmar itself began is current path to freedom.

President Sein spoke with her in March of last year, soon after taking office. A photograph of the two, standing under the portrait of Suu Kyi’s father and independent Burma’s founder, sent out the right signals.

Suu Kyi’s might have become Prime Minister in 1990 when her party, The National League for Democracy (NLD), had swept the polls. The reigning military junta, however, responded by putting Suu Kyi in what turned out to be the first of several long spells of detention for the next two decades.

On 18 January 2012, Suu Kyi formally registered to contest a Pyithu Hluttaw (lower house) seat in the Kawhmu Township constituency in the special parliamentary by-elections to be held on April 1st.

Her decision and that of her party, the NLD, to participate in the parliamentary by-elections is a clear sign of the level of political reconciliation that is taking place in the country.

Exactly one year after her release from nearly two decades of house arrest, Suu Kyi seems be on the threshold of a new role in Myanmar — still in opposition to the military-backed civilian regime but no more standing outside the political system that it has set up.

The government changed the rule that required political parties to “preserve” the military-drafted 2008 Constitution; they are now expected only to “respect and obey” it. This change has paved the way for Suu Kyi’s NLD to register as a political party.

Indications are that the regime is thinking of setting some 600 political prisoners free. If it does so, it will make the decision easier for the NLD. The party boycotted last year’s elections, but it is now widely expected that Suu Kyi will contest the general elections in December and thus enter Parliament.

On the first anniversary of her release, the Nobel laureate told journalists that the Myanmar regime had taken some steps towards political reform. She described recent developments in the country as “eventful, energising and, to a certain extent, encouraging.”

She has been cautious but positive in her reaction. One of these signs, she said, was a statement by the Speaker of the Parliament’s Upper House, Aung Khin Myint, that he recognised the results of the 1990 election.

Suu Kyi’s move towards reconciliation with the same people who imprisoned her is not a sign of weakness on her part. Clearly, the iconic leader who made great personal sacrifices as she spearheaded the pro-democracy movement would not have responded to the regime were she not convinced that an opportunity now exists to unshackle Myanmar from a past that had kept the country isolated and led to the impoverishment of its people.

She was chosen for the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence in 2002, but it is only now that the Myanmar government has allowed her to accept the award carrying a prize of $100,000. On November 16 — the United Nations Day of Tolerance — UNESCO arranged a video conference with Suu Kyi for handing over a cheque for the amount, while announcing the awardees of the 2011 UNESCO- Madanjeet Singh Prize.

Signs of Change

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Burma's President Thein Sein last year.

The Thein Sein regime launched the process of reform with the realisation that the previous model of authoritarian governance had become untenable and unsustainable. The regime needs Suu Kyi’s participation for its own political credibility.

The Myanmar military still has the power to call off the reform process, but its positive attitude to the changes that President Thein Sein has ushered — radical, by Myanmar’s standards — suggests that it is on board.

The military, however, continues to maintain the same power structures. This creates a difficulty in enacting reforms; deaf to President Thein Sein’s orders and peace talks, troops in the borderlands continue to attack civilians and do not exist within the same absolutist chain of command.

Even so, the changes in Myanmar represent its best chance to emerge from a five-decade-long wilderness.

There are still key issues to be addressed, however. Suu Kyi has mentioned the plight of both political prisoners and ethnic minorities as well as the need for rule of law and an independent judiciary in the country.

A government-appointed human rights body has urged the president to release political prisoners or transfer them to prisons close to their families, signalling such action may be imminent. Myanmar’s three state-owned newspapers published the open letter from National Human Rights Commission chairman Win Mra calling on amnesty “as a reflection of magnanimity”, or to transfer political prisoners in remote prisons to facilities with easy access for their family members.

Labor unions have been granted the right to strike. Some political prisoners have been released. An unpopular dam project on the Irrawaddy was suspended — the authorities preferring to side with furious locals rather than Chinese investors. These are slow but happy tidings for Myanmar.

The atmosphere in Myanmar is optimistic and the role of the media is expanding, an important development for a liberalizing country. And while the number of Burmese who know how to use the internet is still extremely small, the increasing prevalence of cheap internet cafes may change this.

The pace of change at the beginning of 2012 has been dizzying. The government of Myanmar and the Karen National Union signed a cease-fire agreement, which could lay the groundwork for ending what has essentially been a 50-year civil war. While there is no question that advancing national reconciliation with minority groups will continue to be a key challenge, the cease-fire is a major move in a positive direction.

The next day, the most significant release of political prisoners by the new government occurred — 651 prisoners were released, including leaders of the “88 Generation Students” group who protested against Myanmar’s military junta in 1988.

Within a day of these developments, the United States restored full diplomatic relations with Myanmar. As a next step, both governments will exchange representatives at the Ambassadorial level.

During her December 2011 visit, Hillary Clinton reportedly made the lifting of economic sanctions and the flow of economic assistance conditional on four steps being taken by the Thein Sein Government: release of the remaining political prisoners, improvements in human rights, starting the peace process with the ethnic minorities, and breaking-off Myanmar’s relations with North Korea with a full accounting of the alleged assistance from North Korea in the nuclear field.

Seeking a Place under the Sun

The Shwezigon Pagoda exemplifies the old glory of Myanmar in Bagan.

The Shwezigon Pagoda exemplifies the old glory of Myanmar in BaganEven as the international community keeps a close watch on the internal reform processes in Myanmar, the new government has been sending out significant signals that it wants to redraw its geopolitical identity with the desire to re-engage the international community while preserving its interests and identity as a neutral player.

This is indicated in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post by Zaw Htay, a Director in the Office of the President of Myanmar. It confirms this thinking of the new leadership in Myanmar and provides a sense of the desire of the new leadership on how they want their country to “be viewed in the international stage”, by “regain[ing] its rightful position” as a “regional powerhouse” and “without outside pressure and influence” because the country “can stand on its own”.

In regards to its neighbor China, Myanmar has been aware of the dangers of getting close to a power whose rise remains uncertain. The op-ed urged the U.S. to “facilitate Myanmar’s connection with the outside world at the critical juncture” and referred to the suspension of the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam as a “signal to the world”. Apparently, Myanmar’s decision to postpone the dam has irked Beijing.

Zaw spelled out how Myanmar is seeking to break away from China and at the same time to ally itself with China’s traditional rivals, Vietnam and India. Zaw warned that “if the United States neglects this opportunity, Washington will part ways with the new order in the Indochina region”.

In analysis of the situation, the East Asia Forum reported the following:

Although it is important to applaud Burma’s progress, we must remember that in the midst of recent reforms, the Burmese government has managed to evade accountability for its past crimes against humanity. States such as the US, which have vocally supported a UN inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma, are now giving the government ‘a chance to demonstrate they have their own approach toward achieving [accountability]’. Conflict continues in the borderlands and released dissidents still have a criminal record. Pardoned journalist Sithu Zeya said he had been ‘released with a rope around [his] neck’. Whether the Burmese government seizes this opportunity to face up to its past misdeeds and begin the process toward national reconciliation remains to be seen.

The West, especially, the U.S., has a clear agenda of ‘advancing’ Myanmar’s transition and doing it through pro-active participation. American diplomat Suzanne DiMaggio co-authored with Ambassador Priscilla Clapp, formerly the Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Burma, a recommendation of “6 Things the US Should Do to Spur Change in Myanmar”:

1. The most urgent task for the United States and the broader international community is to empower the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to help Myanmar’s leaders with macroeconomic reform and economic development strategy.

2. The United States and the international community must provide a rapid infusion of assistance to higher education and technical training to fill the capacity gaps created by the decades of neglect and the deliberate dismantling of Myanmar’s higher educational institutions.

3. The Naypyidaw government urgently needs advisory assistance to support the policy and legislative reforms that are under way. For example, a mechanism that could provide ready access to information on international experience and best practices across the spectrum of changes being contemplated should be a priority.

4. The United States should respond positively to requests from Myanmar’s parliament for inter-parliamentary exchanges and discussions to help the country develop effective structures and procedures to strengthen the legislative branch.

5. The U.S. government must address its myriad financial sanctions on Myanmar to ensure that they are not working at cross-purposes with public and private assistance efforts. The April 1 by-elections in Myanmar will be a fair litmus test of whether it is time to revisit U.S. trade and investment sanctions.

6. It will be important for donors, including the United States, to coordinate activities in order to avoid overwhelming Myanmar’s weak institutions with a plethora of duplicative assistance programs.

On the other hand, the ASEAN region is more optimistic about one of its members. As former Malaysian diplomat Deva Mohd Ridzam describes in the New Straits Times, “the opportunity that Myanmar represents for stability and prosperity in Southeast, South, and East Asia and the world at large is enormous”.

Ridzam offers the following in analysis:

The road ahead is challenging but progress made to date has been impressive: changes to labour laws, right to peaceful protest, a freer media, emergence of civil society groups, release of political prisoners and negotiations with armed ethnic groups. It is all about nurturing consensual politics.

External actors should not unduly pressure Thien Sein and Suu Kyi for the sake of their strategic interests or agendas. Now that [the two] are beginning to work together, it is also about time for the international community to step back. It is senseless for outsiders to constantly measure developments in Myanmar by external standards.

No country should try to insist on a carbon copy of its own form of democracy on Myanmar. It has to be home grown. And the outside world must encourage whatever home-grown initiatives in Myanmar. That is the only path for success and dignity.

The China Factor

A Chinese New Year lion dance at celebrations in Yangon, Myanmar, in 2011.

The relationship between China and Myanmar is often referred to in Burmese language as “paukphaw” (fraternal). China and Myanmar celebrated the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations in June 2010 when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Myanmar. Myanmar, at that time Burma, was one of the first countries to recognize the Peoples Republic of China on December 17, 1949 and established diplomatic ties on June 8, 1950. In 1954 China, Myanmar, and India jointly proclaimed the Panchsheel (or the five principles of co-existence) which became the basis for their international relations and was adopted by the Non-Aligned Movement. These principles were included in the Sino-Burmese Joint Declaration of June 29, 1954.

This sixty-year relationship has progressed steadily with frequent exchange of high level visits. China was perhaps the sole country which did not condemn the crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising in Myanmar in 1988. Myanmar reciprocated identically on the Tiananmen incident in 1989. Since then, China has supported Myanmar, diplomatically, economically, and militarily and has recently surpassed Thailand as the largest investor in Myanmar.

The relations were marred in 1967 when there were anti-Chinese riots in Yangon and the Chinese embassy was stormed. There was also a setback in the relations in August 2009 when the Myanmar military action in Kokang close to Chinese border caused an influx of over 30,000 refugees into China.

China made deep inroads into Myanmar by supporting the military regime and keeping the country well supplied in the face of western economic sanctions. China invested in every sector in Myanmar’s economy and supplied defense hardware ignoring criticism.

Over the year, however, China has deepened economic cooperation with Myanmar while U.S. and European sanctions had been in place.

In an analysis dated October 4, 2011, Reuters reported that “Economic relations are booming. Bilateral trade rose by more than half last year to $4.4 billion, and China’s investment in Myanmar reached $12.3 billion. There is a strong focus on natural resources and energy projects.”

China has taken up several infrastructure projects. In late 2009, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. started construction of a more than 1,000-kilometer pipeline to transport oil and natural gas from Kyaukpyu Port, on the Bay of Bengal, to Kunming in China’s Yunnan province.

“A key objective is to secure an import route for oil from the Middle East and Africa that bypasses the Strait of Malacca. It has taken on an added security importance because China relies more on oil imports amid growing energy demand,” The Asahi Shimbun said in a report from Singapore in January.

Indian security analyst B. Raman wrote in The Indian Defence Review in February that “China will continue to be an important factor in Myanmar for some years to come because of the economic dependence on Beijing and the close links between the armies of the two countries. Until the Western countries remove the economic sanctions and aid from the West and the international institutions start flowing in again thereby enabling the Government to dilute its dependence on China, the Government cannot afford to ignore the likely concerns of China.” Beijing is widely perceived as being upset with the reforms launched by the Thein Sein regime, its reaching out to the West, and the decision of the Myanmar Government to suspend the construction of the $3.6 billion Myitsone dam, a big hydel power project by a Chinese company in the Kachin State to supply electricity to Yunnan.

Reuters reports that “China is unlikely to give in easily over the project, which is part of a broader scheme to build seven dams, the majority of whose power will feed its booming economy.”

Raman explains the Chinese stand thus:

Beijing’s concerns relate not so much to the domestic political reforms as to the decisions of a strategic nature that may be taken by the Government under prodding from the U.S. that could dilute the strategic primacy enjoyed by China in Myanmar. Vietnam and Myanmar are two countries of major concern to China from the point of view of its national security, and Beijing will be closely monitoring the developments relating to the relations of the two countries with the U.S. and India.

The Indian Dilemma

India, after long years of criticism from the West for its policy of trading with the military rulers of Myanmar, has earned grudging acceptance of its approach. This is best summed up in an editorial comment by Policy Research Group:

As Myanmar’s next door neighbor, India has every reason to feel elated at the turn of events. Conventional wisdom had suggested that Delhi should, as a democracy, support the Burmese icon of democracy, Aung San Sui Kyi, and keep away from the Junta. But India has not hesitated to engage with the military junta. Not because China has become a big factor in Yangon ( Sino-Myanmar trade has zoomed to $4.4 billion and Chinese investments in Myanmar have crossed $12 billion mark in 2010) but because of the considered view that people of the impoverished country should not be made to suffer and any engagement with the ruling establishment would ultimately percolate down to people.

If UNESCO and the world community are in Myanmar, India, it would seem, is already ahead. A $100 million easy credit was announced last year when Myanmar President Thein Sein visited New Delhi. A number of agreements were signed and some more projects are on the anvil with Indian assistance.

India has finally given out signals to Myanmar and to the world that it values good and close ties with Myanmar that is its bridge to China and to the whole of Southeast Asia.

Indeed, India, like China, has had to bear the brunt of criticism by those imposing sanctions on Myanmar for keeping up good relations with the neighbor and assisting its development.

Both the U.S. President George W. Bush during his 2005 visit to New Delhi President Obama when he visited in 2010 chided India for its close ties to Myanmar despite continued human rights abuses.

But unlike China that largely ignores criticism, India has done considerable diplomatic tight-rope walking and has remained sensitive to criticism at home and abroad ever since it changed course in the 1990s.

Initially, India vocally supported the pro-democracy forces led by Suu Kyi. Subsequently alarmed by the Chinese inroads to Myanmar however, India’s public stance went silent on the suppression of dissent by the military rulers.

So complex was the situation that India’s awarding Suu Kyi the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding came amidst a major anti-militant joint operation on the Indo-Myanmarese border. Myanmar immediately withdrew its forces to convey its anger.

During the first-ever State visit to Myanmar by an Indian president in 2006, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam inquired about the then jailed leader Suu Kyi in his own inimitable style.

“How is your daughter?’ he asked Gen.Than Shwe who had jailed her and had earned notoriety for suppressing every type of freedom and keeping the country isolated.

Gen. Shwe was surprised. He had not expected Kalam to read one of his statements referring to Suu Kyi as “like my daughter”. Kalam told the general gently: “In India, we respect our daughters.”

The message was needed because India was engaging the military junta, assisting Myanmar in its development, and in the process, becoming unpopular with the Western world.

India requires Myanmar’s help in countering militancy in the northeastern region and in return for help, has taken up developing a port, building road, and other projects.

India has legitimate security concerns along a 1,645 kilometer border. Militancy and even insurgency have been ongoing in that isolated northeastern region. It has secured Myanmar’s limited, but crucial, cooperation in combating it.

Myanmar has neither encouraged militancy nor taken an overt pro-China line — two points on which India regards it as a good neighbor. As there are close cultural and geophysical ties, New Delhi has not been apologetic about its role in Myanmar. Its conscious policy to stay engaged with the junta is driven by three strategic and economic factors: the increasing influence of China that has cornered most of the infrastructure projects in that country; the location of Myanmar that makes it a terrestrial link to India’s northeast and gives it influence over Indian insurgent groups; and, most importantly, oil and gas which Myanmar has in abundance.

Like Bangladesh and Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbours, India has walked the diplomatic tight rope by defying the West. Myanmar was one of the few issues on which it earlier disagreed with the United States. Hence, it was hardly surprising that New Delhi ignored the mild rebuke Obama delivered during his visit.

While agreeing to “work with like-minded countries to make a peaceful outcome possible” in Myanmar, India refused to be part of any move, even if sponsored by the United Nations, to impose sanctions on the military junta that ruled its “close and friendly” eastern neighbor.

India did not rush in with condemnation of the 2011 election, calling it “an important step towards national reconciliation process being undertaken by the government of Myanmar.”

Subsequent events have proven India right.

The Indian stance contrasts those who support sanctions and even want them tightened. While Western governments protest against Myanmar’s military rulers, their multinational corporations have been doing business in Myanmar.

Indeed, despite sanctions, Myanmar, with its largely untapped natural resources, has been able to attract considerable foreign investment from German Siemens, American oil and gas multinational Unocal, Japan’s Mitsubishi and many more.

According to Burma Campaign UK however, over the last decade an increasing number of international corporations have left Burma or declared their unwillingness to consider operating there — Burton, British Home Stores, Liz Claiborne, C&A, Ericsson, Heineken, Phillips, Levi Strauss, Apple, Pepsi Cola, Reebok, and Fosters amongst them.

Some companies asserted that their decision to do so was taken for ‘business’ reasons whilst others have made explicit their concern regarding the political and human rights situation in Burma.

India also needs Myanmar for access to its own northeastern region where links are sustained by a precarious 23km corridor aptly called “chicken’s neck”. India needs to reach out to that region both through Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Its failure to conclude the Teesta water sharing treaty with Bangladesh during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Dhaka visit stalled the talks for India’s access to the northeast. This has made the Myanmar route, albeit more difficult, an important alternative.

During General Thein Sein’s most recent visit to India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a credit line of $500 million to boost Myanmar’s infrastructure and secured commitments for more projects and areas of cooperation with Thein Sein.

As India’s contact with Southeast Asia is almost entirely through sea and by air, it is Myanmar that provides a road link and has potential for a rail link as well. These are both needed for the two neighbors to link with the Asian Super Highway and the rail network that is aimed at linking Europe with Southeast Asia via South Asia.

To be part of the two networks, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Thein Sein discussed the Moreh-Mae Sot road that would connect India and Thailand via Myanmar in addition to accelerating plans for the Mekong-Ganga Corridor, identified to enhance connectivity and industrial activity with the Southeast Asian region.

India will be engaged in many more projects in Myanmar, including two hydel projects. The upgrading of Sittwe port is another major project India has undertaken with the hope of finding access to it in future.

Summing up the General’s visit to India, former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, Rajiv Bhaia wrote, “Let us be clear: Myanmar is important to us for economic as well as politico-strategic reasons.”

Speaking at an elegant banquet she hoested, President Pratibha Patil captured India’s sentiment aptly as she observed: “When we look eastwards, we first see Myanmar.” She stressed that Myanmar occupied “a central place in our vision and approach of rebuilding of our Eastern connections.” Toasting her on fruit juice, President Thein Sein used simple words in Myanmar language to convey that his government placed “a special emphasis” on the policy of maintaining good and friendly relations with India. He also expressed “high appreciation” for India’s Look East policy.

Myanmar: Where India and China Meet

Myanmarese living in neighboring Thailand view India and China in the same light as the biggest beneficiaries of long years of military rule and hold that view also where the Thein Sein regime is concerned. In an article titled “Burma Peace May Rest on Indian and Chinese Greed”, The Irrawady, a magazine published from Bangkok, reported the following in March:

Both India and China — boasting almost half the world’s population between them — stand to profit enormously from progress in Burma’s tumultuous border regions. The most direct route between the industrial zones in China’s center-east to India is via Burma and Bangladesh, thus avoiding the inhospitable Himalayas and unstable Tibet. Despite bombastic rhetoric from India about China’s ‘string of pearls’ ambitions in the Bay of Bengal, the true picture is in fact far more complex. In 2008, China emerged as the largest trading partner of India and the nations have also attempted to extend their bilateral strategic and military relations.

Going into recent history, one finds that China has always been a key factor in India-Myanmar relations due mainly to Myanmar’s strategic location and to India’s and China’s clashing security and strategic interests.

With implementation of the 1914 McMahon Line Agreement in 1918, the India-Burma northern boundary was set near the Talu Pass. China contested this when it signed the Boundary Treaty with Myanmar in October 1960, but despite Chinese opposition, India still considers the Talu Pass demarcation valid. Furthermore, India and Myanmar agreed on their land border in December 1967, with the exception of the three-way border between China, India, and Myanmar. In March 1984 both India and Myanmar successfully concluded a maritime boundary agreement.

China has begun building a naval base on Myanmar’s Coco Island, much to India’s distress, and China and Myanmar have agreed to establish a 30,000-square-mile offshore economic zone to facilitate exploitation of natural resources to their mutual benefit. This will, however, affect India’s maritime and economic interests.

Growing Pakistan-Myanmar ties are also of concern to India. Increasing links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and Myanmar’s intelligence agency serve Pakistani interests, as Pakistan considers Myanmar to be a safer base from which to launch militant activities in northeastern India.

The India-Myanmar relationship presents a complex scenario, given the Sino-Myanmar, Sino-Pakistan, and Pakistan-Myanmar triangle of relations. To counter this, India is keeping tabs on developments and has launched a multipronged diplomatic effort both to engage and contain Myanmar.

A street in Meiktila, Myanmar, where old and new come together.

Myanmar became a full member of ASEAN in 1997 despite American opposition; the same year, India was admitted as a full dialogue partner. ASEAN has allowed both New Delhi and Yangon to increase and expand economic, commercial, and trade ties. India will also gain greater access to ASEAN markets: India’s trade volume with ASEAN member countries has increased since India joined, first as an observer in 1993 and then as a full dialogue partner. Undoubtedly, Myanmar understands that given India’s industrial, technological, military, and nuclear capabilities, it is able to influence the politics, economy, and security of Southeast Asia. India and Myanmar now have better opportunities collectively to address the security, defense, and strategic issues confronting Southeast Asia, since India is also a member of ASEAN’s Regional Forum.

Good India-Myanmar relations might gradually help reduce Chinese influence on Myanmar. Although China and Myanmar have drawn closer in their common goal of launching an antidemocratic movement, Myanmar does not want to remain isolated from the world and seems eager to cast off its pariah image. In pursuit of greater international ties, Myanmar’s military regime has become more pragmatic. This is likely to prompt New Delhi and Yangon to cooperate in areas of mutual concern and interest, especially in the areas of cross-border insurgency, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and threats to the security and economic interests of both countries.

There is also the India-China ‘competition’ or ‘race’ that is widely perceived and debated when it comes to Myanmar. It is best summed up by a review of Thant Myint-U’s “Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia Where China Meets India” by retired Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar. He notes:

Thant gives a tragic portrayal of Myanmar, which is under compulsion to seize opportunities arising largely out of China’s phenomenal rise. But Myanmar has a personality of its own and is entitled to its dream of being more than a mere Silk Road and deserves to play role in the global village. If China is making headway in Myanmar, it is because it is careful not to attempt to make that country a resentful satellite or be prescriptive towards it. Thant says, “Beijing’s Burma policy has been dictated first and foremost by what will help Yunnan’s economy move forward … [Myanmar] occupies a critical space on China’s south-western flank, right next to its densest concentration of ethnic minorities … In general, it seems that a mix of pragmatic considerations is shaping China’s Burma policy.

Thant sums up the great game thus: “Neither India nor the countries of south-eastern Asia have so far been able to compare with what China has been offering and able to deliver. India is no further from Mandalay or even Maymyo than China, but contemporary Indian influences are practically non-existent … Will India ever become the ‘balancer’ of China in the region? … From a distance, China’s and India’s stated desires to find new links to and across Burma seem straight forward, [and] the question is only of their relative prowess. But here [in Myanmar] it was clear that it wasn’t all about Beijing and Delhi, and that Burmese fears and desires will also be a major factor in determining the future.

Surely, India can afford to be cool and at peace with itself. Its pattern of growth and development offers a marvelous experiment that has no parallel in human history. And it merits appreciation without having to be compared with China’s trajectory. While travelling in Thant’s company, it becomes obvious that in remote regions of Myanmar, where China’s businessmen feverishly gather timber, jade, or rubber, India’s ‘soft power’ permeates the air, despite neglect by Delhi.

The road ahead for Myanmar is very long and the journey may not be very smooth in the short or medium term, but both the people and the government of the day have the will and determination to go forward hand-in-hand.

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