Observer Research Foundation Mumbai

Ideas and Action for a Better India

A Burmese Spring? – by Kshitij Neelakantan

Skeptics have been left confounded by a series of political events in Myanmar that point to a radical shift in the orientation of the ostensibly civilian leadership. For over two decades now the country has been an international pariah, denied access to most major foreign markets and resources in concerted attempt to impose western democratic ideals upon the Burmese polity. This has had little effect on the military’s resolve to tighten its grip on the national politics thus far. However, recent events seem to indicate a reversal of this trend, carrying with it significant implications as to the distribution of power in this crucial bridge between South and South-East Asia. It behooves the Indian government to closely track these developments as they occur and seek to capitalise on the new diplomatic avenues that are sure to emerge.
For much of the outside world, the state of politics in Myanmar has been exemplified by the travails of the leader of the opposition, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. Her party, The National League for Democracy (NLD), has been officially banned since they won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections; a result that was rejected by the military. Since then, she has been a virtual prisoner of the ruling hierarchy, alternating between periods of house arrest and exile, with all of her public interactions closely controlled by the government. Given her talismanic status among the local citizens as well as western leaders, the government has been had pressed to find ways to limit her political power while maintaining a civilized façade. Other dissidents do not enjoy that privilege – Amnesty International estimates that there are over 2000 political prisoners currently languishing in prison.
In addition to the aforementioned external pressures, the past few years have seen a buildup of internal pressure that the military initially failed to acknowledge, and has struggled to deal with since. A removal of fuel subsidies in 2007 that saw prices double almost overnight resulted in widespread protests around the country that steadily built up momentum. The brutal suppression of a series of peaceful protests led by the country’s Buddhist monks drew widespread ire and condemnation from foreign leaders. 2008 saw the southern coast of the country battered by Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the highly fertile Irrawaddy Delta region. Among the damage caused by this cyclone was the destruction of the rice crop in this region, which in turn fuelled further discontent with the government’s response to this disaster.
The past year has seen the lifting of many restrictions that were once considered non-negotiable. These include the removal of many censor board restrictions as well as the lifting of Miss Suu Kyi’s house arrest. The rhetoric of President Thein Sein, who shed his General’s uniform to take his role as a ‘civilian’ leader, has also seen a marked shift towards a more populist and reconciliatory tone. Indeed, in August he held a landmark meeting with Miss Suu Kyi where he tried to convince her of the sincerity of his reforms. Since then, her previously tightly controlled public appearances have greatly increased in number and she has even been allowed to meet a succession of foreign dignitaries.
President Sein also notably halted the construction of the Myitsone Dam on the northern reaches of the Irrawaddy River. This project has been controversial since inception, given its widespread ecological and sociological disruption (47 villages would have been submerged, displacing over 10,000 people), along with the fact that 90% of the power generated there was to be exported to China. Most surprising of all was the reason he quoted for this decision – President Sein is purportedly following the ‘wishes of the people’. Most recently, on October 11th the government announced the release of over 6500 prisoners.
These moves point to a concerted effort on the part of the Burmese leadership to appease local dissidents with the promise of reform while reversing international perception by courting Miss Suu Kyi, with the ultimate aim of re-introducing her into the political process. Such a move would, of course, also serve to legitimise their own rule over the country, and hopefully see the lifting of crippling foreign sanctions.
These sanctions have driven the Burmese straight into the welcoming arms of the Chinese, who have been trying to expand their local sphere of influence by leveraging their economic might. Certainly, the Myitsone Dam decision indicates a rejection of Chinese neo-imperialism. The government has made a gutsy first move by upsetting its principal foreign investor in the hope of attracting others who would seek to compete with China. The ball is now in the Western nations’ court. The implication is that if they want to encourage this process of openness, they will have to step in to provide the injection of capital and technology that the country so desperately needs. Failure to do so could result in Myanmar being forced into an ever-closer relationship with China.
These developments are of crucial significance to India, which has many strategic interests in this region on which little progress has been made. India has enjoyed a good relationship with Myanmar over the last 20 years or so, especially with regard to deals to supply oil and natural gas to serve India’s energy needs. However, Chinese expansionism has seen India’s role increasingly sidelined as they have taken the lead in major infrastructure developments like ports, roads, railways and dams. India can serve multiple strategic purposes by stepping in to provide this infrastructure assistance, which the Burmese government would welcome given its apparent suspicion of Chinese motives.
The cultural friendship between the people of India and Myanmar far predates the formation of both nation-states. The civilisational ties between the two people can be traced back several centuries, and are rooted in a shared social, ethnic, cultural and religious history. The best illustration of this is the vibrant Buddhist community in Myanmar, which shares a close association with Indian Buddhist traditions and indeed looks up to India for being the land of the Buddha with so many historical sites of significance. In light of this overarching perspective, the current state of cautious aloofness between the countries is only an aberration, not the rule.
As an influential neighbour with a strong democratic tradition, India can play an active role to help Myanmar along its path to democratisation. This would help further India’s ambition to be seen as a regional and global power while securing closer ties with the government and people of Myanmar. Such a buildup of relationships, not just between governments, but also between peoples, is an integral part of India’s strategy to counter Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean along the line of its so-called ‘string of pearls’ policy. The Indian government’s reticence to involve themselves in Burmese affairs stems from an anachronistic need to not be seen as friendly with an oppressive regime. Now, there is an opportunity to promote the universal values of freedom and democracy, while simultaneously achieving strategic diplomatic objectives.
Progress along this path will help India to deal decisively with the insurgencies that plague the remote and mountainous North-Eastern States like Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Currently, these movements seek refuge in the bordering areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh which lie outside the reach of the Indian security machinery. Some success has already been seen on this front after the administration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ejected several paramilitary groups from Bangladesh. Having nowhere left to hide, they had no option but to come to the negotiating table.
This could be the first step of a larger plan to revive the stagnating economies of these states. Given the remoteness of the NE States and their unfavourable terrain, infrastructure developments in this region have been woefully inadequate. Closer integration of trade and transport links with the neighbouring areas of Myanmar and Bangladesh could help unlock the significant economic potential of these regions by channeling supplies and efforts through these lands. There would be benefits on both sides, as ports like Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe in Myanmar would become the main carriers of trade from this region. Closer economic and personal ties between the people of all three countries in this region would also help bring help achieve the social stability and economic prosperity that this region has lacked for so long.
Certainly, the road ahead is arduous and fraught with risks and complications. A few moves in the right direction do not constitute a reversal of decades of aloofness. The government of Myanmar will need to continue their reform agenda to match the grand ambitions of their rhetoric. False dawns have come before, and the military junta has a prior history of small reforms followed by swift reversals. The disputed 1990 elections came about after a sustained social movement that began in 1988, and even the recent elections in 2010 (boycotted by the NLD), which is the source of President Thein Sein’s mandate, took place in part due to the aforementioned 2007 protests. Of the 6500 or so prisoners to be released, only 200 will be those held in prison on grounds of political dissent. Aung San Suu Kyi herself refuses to re-enter mainstream politics until every political prisoner is released, preferring to be seen as a martyr to the cause rather than prematurely legitmise the administration of Thein Sein.
The western developed nations are the intended audience for this highly orchestrated show of openness. However, that does not preclude India from exercising its influence in the region to promote the cause of democracy and liberalism in Myanmar. The benefits of India’s involvement can be realised by both sides in a very real and tangible manner. But before this can happen, the Burmese must do more to convince outsiders about their conviction in this new-found reformism. The onus is on them to prove that this is not yet another false dawn.


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This entry was posted on 19/10/2011 by in Kshitij Neelakantan, ORF Mumbai.
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