After five decades of military rule, Myanmar needs to overcome many challenges, including the ethnic issue, in its journey of political reforms

The first and historic congress of the National League for Democracy has just ended in Yangon. Expectedly, Aung San Suu Kyi was re-elected its Chairperson. Together with seven other Indians — all keen students of Myanmar affairs — I met Ms Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw for an hour-long discussion the day before the congress began.

The week-long stay in Myanmar was an invaluable opportunity to study the web of complexities that defines the country’s politics and foreign policy. Our visit covered Yangon, Naypyitaw and Mandalay. We interacted with academics, political leaders, and representatives of business, media and civil society. We participated in a seminar, a collaboration between Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Affairs (MISIS) and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). Mutual openness and cordiality helped us explore issues that were uppermost in our mind.

I was returning to Myanmar after a gap of nearly two years, a perfect context to appraise the journey of ‘new Myanmar’ following its transition from authoritarianism to a kind of democracy in March 2011. I had four main questions; the journey helped me discover their answers.

Reform — story so far

After five decades of military rule — ‘the wasted years’ as an old journalist friend depicted them — the country has made substantive progress in executing its reform strategy. The plan may have been conceived by the Army, but in its implementation President Thein Sein has played the key role. In this, he has been helped by several factors: reconciliation with Ms Suu Kyi, assertiveness of Parliament led largely by Speaker Thura Shwe Mann, invisible support extended by the Army and synergy with other political forces. Mr. Thein Sein has moved forward on all three planks of reform — political, economic and administrative, achieving more progress than anyone imagined two years ago.

But the journey ahead is fraught with uncertainty and even dangers. Challenges facing the nation include the perennial ethnic problem that leaders starting from Aung San, ‘the father of the nation,’ had tried to address. Success eluded his successors because, unlike him, they favoured the Burman majority’s interests over those of ethnic minority groups. At our meeting marked by exceptional warmth and openness, Ms Suu Kyi told us that she was waiting for ‘an invitation’ from the government in order to contribute to the current dialogue process. Considering that armed conflict between the Army and Kachins and Muslim-Buddhist clashes in Rakhine state have already extracted a heavy price, the government’s failure to involve all sides, especially the country’s most popular and charismatic leader, meant only one thing: politics was trumping national interests.

Although the Constitution bars her from becoming President (as she had a foreign national as spouse), no issue excites greater interest in Burma today than this: will Ms Suu Kyi become the President in 2015 when elections are next due? All those attending or watching the party seemed anxious for a credible answer. Some claimed that a landslide for the NLD was inevitable if elections were free and fair, while others observed that the ruling party, USDP, would get “at least 50 per cent.” More than one interlocutor articulated a common belief that Myanmar should emulate the ‘Sonia Gandhi model’ that is, Ms Suu Kyi should be content as party chief and find a leader acceptable to her and the Army as the next President. Who could that be: President Thein Sein, Speaker Shwe Mann or a dark horse?

Ms Suu Kyi appeared to have become more pragmatic and practical, showing that her immediate priority is to win over the mainstream Burman constituency and to reduce the Army’s negativity towards her. While attempting this, she also seemed anxious to retain the confidence of ethnic groups, evidently a tough balancing act. We asked her if “political support was building up” for her advocacy of constitutional reform that inter alia might remove the legal constraint on seeking the top office. She pointed to a recent remark by Mr. Thein Sein that “if people want,” constitutional reform could be considered. As of now, the presidency seemed somewhat distant but she was set to play an increasingly central role in politics.

Engaging the world

The Burmese are happy that their country, isolated earlier, is now the object of unprecedented international attention. Sanctions have been relaxed. Economic reform measures have been producing results gradually. A construction boom is visible; foreign cars are easy to import; Yangon roads have never been so congested. New embassies are opening up. Foreign delegations are galore. At the famed Karaweik Palace floating restaurant in Yangon, we watched classical Burmese dances, along with a large number of Japanese and Korean businessmen. The quality of the cuisine has improved vastly.

In our dialogue on strategic issues, Burma’s narrative remained partially unchanged, that it was a country surrounded by two giant neighbours — China and India, and Yangon desired friendly relations with both. But more freedom was visible now. Transcending the conventional narrative, experts asserted that they felt anxiety about Myanmar’s relations with China but not over its relations with India. Nonetheless, the Chinese footprint, especially in the business sector, was prominent. A businessman in Mandalay told us that China was ‘just beyond those hills’ and consequently he could secure needed goods within a day or two, whereas imports from India took much longer. Proximity to China coexisted with growing disquiet over Burma’s dependency. Yet, there was a new recognition that the country had other options, other suitors. Delegations from western countries have generally been in exploratory mode even as Japanese, South Korean and Thai business houses are busy securing new linkages and contracts.

Deputy Foreign Minister Zin Yaw observed that 2014 would truly be the ASEAN year as Myanmar becomes Chair and hosts two ASEAN summits and ‘a mini summit’ of 18 foreign ministers of member-states of East Asian Summit. So, regional and international interest in Myanmar is sure to grow rather than decline.

India, in years ahead

Reconciliation between the government and Ms Suu Kyi, though still imperfect, has paved the way for closer India-Myanmar relations. The period since October 2011, which witnessed numerous VIP visits including two visits by Mr. Thein Sein, the historic visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the important visit of Ms Suu Kyi, has proved to be productive for bilateral relations. For the momentum to be sustained, however, India Inc needs to adopt a more forward-looking mindset. New opportunities are coming up even as the competition heats up. The challenge is to sustain creative endeavours. The Indian business community, as Ms Suu Kyi conveyed to us, should be respectful of the Burmese sense of dignity and serve as ‘responsible’ investors. They should offer capital, technology, capacity-building and products in accordance with Myanmar’s needs rather than as an imposition from outside.

Governments and strategic communities have been making their contribution to relationship-building. It is time for India’s corporate leaders to leverage new possibilities that may not appear again.

Postscript: A member of our delegation was an alumnus of Lady Shri Ram College. When I mentioned this to Ms Suu Kyi, she gave her a warm hug, demonstrating the power of people-to-people relations.

(A former ambassador to Myanmar, the author is Director General of ICWA. The article reflects his personal views)