Few people in India know that we share a border of over 1,600 km with Myanmar (aka Burma), comparable in length with our borders with Bangladesh, China and Pakistan. The latter three are very much part of our daily diet of news and discussion. Almost every Indian is an expert on Pakistan. There is no lack of Bangladesh analysts. And even the tribe of China watchers is on the rise. But Burma analysts in India? It’s hard to find any outside a small group of serving and retired foreign service, intelligence and military officials. There may be good explanations for our collective absence of mind. But they cannot be justifications. The fast-moving changes in Myanmar in the last 15 months are throwing up important challenges and opportunities which we cannot afford to neglect.
Until 1937 Burma was a part of British India and linked quite closely with eastern India, especially Bengal. Many thousands of Indians (traders, professionals, workers) had made their home in Rangoon, Mandalay and other Burmese towns. The separation of Burma in 1937 ended unfettered Indian immigration. As the Japanese army swept across Burma in 1942, thousands of ethnic Indians fled across the mountains and jungles to Assam and Bengal. Thousands more left at Independence and “400,000 others were compelled to leave in 1964 after the ultra-nationalist army regime had come to power in 1962” (see Thant Myint-U’s recent fine historical travelogue, Where China meets India). General Ne Win’s “Burmese way of socialism” from 1962 to 1988 turned Burma firmly inwards, severing most of the economic ties with the outside world, including India.
The tumultuous events of 1988 saw the meteoric rise of the charismatic Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the leader of democratic forces. The student revolts were brutally suppressed by a new military regime, State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which abrogated the 1974 constitution and formally imposed martial law. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989, where she remained for over 15 of the next 21 years. Strangely, the regime went ahead with national elections in 1990, which were won overwhelmingly by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). SLORC ignored (and later annulled) the inconvenient results and tightened its grip over all aspects of political and economic life in Myanmar, especially after the ascent of Than Shwe as the ruling general in 1992. For the next 19 years, till his voluntary resignation in March 2011, Than Shwe ruled Myanmar as undisputed head of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as SLORC was renamed in 1997.
The government of Rajiv Gandhi had initially supported the democratic movement quite strongly. But the exigencies of realpolitik soon asserted themselves. India needed Myanmar’s cooperation to deal with insurgencies in the north-east. And the surge in China’s economic and political influence in Myanmar made re-engagement with the military government increasingly urgent. By mid-1990s such re-engagement was fully under way. However, the scale and pace of India’s economic engagement with Myanmar remained modest compared with China’s billions of dollars of infrastructure development (dams, roads, railways and oil/gas pipelines), trade and arms supplies and an estimated two million Chinese now living and working in north-central Myanmar, with a strong contingent in Mandalay.
Given Myanmar’s strategic location, the importance of stronger economic links between our north-east and Myanmar, the enormous potential benefits of a land-link from the north-east to the Bay of Bengal and the potential to expand bilateral trade and investment, our economic engagement has been inadequate. This was true even in 2010. Now, after the events of the last 15 months, there is an urgent need to accelerate implementation of major ongoing projects (such as Sittwe port and the Kaladan multi-modal transport link) and facilitate greater bilateral trade and investment.
What has happened in Myanmar recently? A great deal. First, although the election of November 2010 was carefully “managed”, with 25 per cent of the parliamentary seats reserved for the military and three-quarters of the remainder won by the ruling regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a Parliament now exists with over 15 per cent of Opposition members (minus the NLD which could not contest). Second, for the first time in Myanmar’s history there has been formal decentralisation of some executive and legislative powers to the 14 regions/states, with USDP in a minority in six of the seven ethnic state assemblies (though in a majority when combined with the 25 per cent military reservation). Third, Aung San Suu Kyi was released a week after the election and has enjoyed increasing freedom (especially after March 2011) to speak, write and travel within Myanmar and meet visiting foreign dignitaries. Fourth, General Than Shwe resigned from the presidency in March 2011 and ensured succession by U Thein Sein, prime minister since 2007, the principal architect of the 2008 Constitution, the government’s chief representative at international fora and deemed untainted by crony business connections, unlike several other top military contenders for president.
Fifth, President Thein Sein has moved swiftly with reform measures, including: appointment of technocrats in several ministerial posts; loosening of censorship, release of several batches of political prisoners; a meeting and dinner with Daw Suu Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw in August 2011; re-registering of the hitherto banned NLD as a legitimate political party in November 2011; announcement of the April 2012 by-elections to 48 parliamentary seats; fresh initiatives towards peace accords with Myanmar’s ethnic insurgents; shelving in September 2011 of the environmentally suspect, Chinese-sponsored $ 3.6-billion dam at Myitsone; and unusual willingness to engage with external governments. The last included his visit to India in October 2011, his current tour of some Asean capitals and recent, well-publicised visits to Myanmar by Hillary Clinton and other Western ministers as well as others including President Zardari of Pakistan. Such visits typically entailed dialogue with the government in Naypyitaw and with Daw Suu Kyi in Yangon.
In response to these reform steps and wider geopolitical considerations, the US has announced upgradation of diplomatic relations to ambassadorial level and the EU is proceeding with relaxation of visa restrictions against government members. Gradual relaxation of long-standing Western economic sanctions is also on the cards, conditional on further civil and political reforms. Last fortnight, in Delhi, Foreign Minister Maung Lwin publicly stated that the reform process was “irreversible”. In a more nuanced remark he characterised the reforms as “incremental, systematic and dynamic”.
There have been false dawns in Myanmar before. But this looks like the real thing. A more pluralistic political system is clearly emerging, even if full-fledged democracy is not imminent. Myanmar’s future is fundamentally in the hands of her people; but friendly nations can help. India is unusually well placed to assist, in the long-term interest of both nations. In the final pages of his book, U Thant’s grandson sketches alternative futures for Myanmar. In the happier scenario, “In Burma, where China meets India, a unique meeting place of cultures and peoples is created, at this new centre of the Asian world. Progress in Burma would be a boon for the region. A peaceful prosperous and democratic Burma would be a game-changer for all Asia”. Let us hope that this future prevails.
The author is an honorary professor at Icrier, and former chief economic adviser. He thanks retired ambassador Ranjit Gupta for generously sharing transcripts of his recent public talks