Postcards of change

“Until people’s limitless energy is unleashed, India-Myanmar relations may not scale new heights.” PM Narendra Modi with the Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

“Until people’s limitless energy is unleashed, India-Myanmar relations may not scale new heights.” PM Narendra Modi with the Counsellor of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan  

New Delhi should capitalise on the momentum from recent state visits by Myanmar’s top leadership to forge a strategic partnership with the country

Two state visits from Myanmar in less than two months — by President Htin Kyaw in August and State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi in October — have strengthened India-Myanmar relations. Ms. Suu Kyi’s participation in the BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit in Goa highlighted Myanmar’s pivotal importance as the land where South Asia, Southeast Asia and China intersect. These developments necessitate a holistic look at Myanmar.

Invitation to participate in a conference in Yangon last week on “India-Myanmar Relations: Federalism at Work” provided a valuable opportunity to this writer to interact with a cross-section of the Burmese elite. Our conversations covered the larger issue: what drives Myanmar today and where it is heading.

Long road to reconciliation

The decisive victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in November 2015 and Ms. Suu Kyi’s emergence as the de facto leader of the government in April 2016 represent a historic transformation. After five decades, the generals have taken a back seat — but without loosening their grip on core elements of power, i.e. defence, home affairs and border security. The civilian government works with the military, without controlling it. The people’s voice, Ms. Suu Kyi, has become the government’s public face and top representative at major international meetings.

The NLD-Army relationship has become stable. The shared understanding is that the party would operate within the 2008 Constitution and, in return, the military would allow it to govern. If “redlines” of each side are respected, no serious difficulty is anticipated. However, neither full democracy nor shift to federalism can be introduced without constitutional reform. The NLD has elected to postpone that battle to another day. Happily, political liberties, including “freedom from fear”, are a reality now.

Criticism of the government and Ms. Suu Kyi’s leadership has begun to surface. Myanmar watchers maintain that decision-making is getting concentrated in one pair of hands. New ministers have not impressed people. The second rung of leadership in the party or Cabinet is yet to be created. Parliament is dominated by NLD MPs, but they are under tight control of the party leadership. Consequently, the parliament is not as effective in supervising the executive as it was during President Thein Sein’s era.

The initial hope of the people that a shift to democracy would quickly enhance the quality of their lives is now blended with hard reality: political change does not accelerate economic progress automatically. Nevertheless, the Myanmarese people, patient by nature, are willing to give sufficient time to “Ma Suu” to produce results.

Securing national peace and reconciliation is the government’s top priority. It is a laudable but challenging goal, given the tragic history. Trust between the majority Myanmarese community and ethnic minorities as well as between the military and ethnic armed groups remains low. Buddhist-Muslim equations, notably in the Rakhine State, have become more complex following recent armed attacks on border posts in Maungdaw. The 21st Century Panglong Conference, held in early September, was a good first step, but a long and difficult road lies ahead. Reconciling conflicting positions will test Ms. Suu Kyi’s political and diplomatic skills to the limits, especially as internal problems are linked with China’s motivations and actions.

The Chinese embrace

Ms. Suu Kyi quickly discovered that high-profile foreign policy engagements yield rich political dividends. She readily chose the role to be Myanmar’s chief diplomat. Given her credentials and position in Myanmar, foreign powers — China, the U.S. and India — have had little difficulty in treating her as the real head of the government. India scored a notable gain by having the honour of hosting both the President and the State Counsellor, a privilege not yet extended to others.

However, Myanmar’s most-talked-about foreign relationship is with China. This is not surprising, given the solid political, economic and defence cooperation China has built up over the years. But the China connection is stamped with growing unpopularity. Many Myanmarese recognise that a substantial relationship with China, moulded by potent factors, is inevitable, but also believe democratic Myanmar has “other options” that it must leverage fully. This explains why the Suu Kyi government has adopted the Thein Sein line of a balanced and “non-aligned” foreign policy. A notable difference between the present and previous government is that the former is more anxious to pursue a friendly approach towards Beijing.

In this context, the time for a crucial decision is approaching fast. The government-appointed commission on the Myitsone Dam project will submit its report in November. The Cabinet will then decide whether to revive or “kill” the controversial project for good. While in Yangon, I heard about a possible deal under which the project would be “buried”, but Chinese companies may win new projects of strategic value in south-western Myanmar. It is an alarming prospect that should cause considerable worry in Delhi.

After a slow start, bilateral interaction with democratic Myanmar gathered momentum from June onwards, culminating in two state visits. They now need to be backed by tough decisions by both sides. “Close coordination” in countering anti-India insurgent activity from Myanmarese soil would need more proactive cooperation of the Myanmar Army. Prime Minister Narendra Modi aptly urged Myanmar to show “sensitivity” to India’s strategic interests on a reciprocal basis. The next logical step should be for the two governments to establish a “strategic partnership.” Apparently President Sein was interested in forging it. The new government should go for it, considering its commitment to a balanced policy. (Myanmar already enjoys a comprehensive strategic partnership with China.) India and Myanmar should hold an annual summit. South Block will do well to plan a visit by the Indian Prime Minister in early 2017.

Two other points are noteworthy here. First, I was sad to observe that India is losing friends because of widespread discontent over continuing delay in completion of our flagship projects — Kaladan (that will connect Kolkata with Sittwe port in Myanmar) and the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway. Conceived over a decade back, they are scheduled to be completed by 2019. Nor is there adequate public awareness about the recent projects on IT and agriculture that our government completed on time. Officials need to develop an effective communication strategy, and a new management mechanism that fast-tracks the flagship projects.

Second, despite mutual consensus on the value of people-to-people exchanges, actual progress is negligible due to the absence of an enabling instrument. The setting up of an “India-Myanmar Foundation” merits consideration. Let the two governments and apex business chambers set aside adequate funds and encourage the two ambassadors (in Yangon and Delhi) to co-chair a board of experts. The proposed foundation, working in conjunction with interested institutions in India’s Northeast/western Myanmar, can easily organise extensive exchanges among media, students and civil society groups.

Until people’s limitless energy is unleashed, India-Myanmar relations may not scale new heights. As Ms. Suu Kyi once stated: “… Governments come and governments go. But the peoples of the countries, they remain.”

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, former Ambassador to Myanmar, and author of ‘India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours’ (Routledge, 2016)

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Printable version | May 30, 2020 9:01:37 PM |

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