G Parthasarathy

Myanmar rolls out red carpet for India

G. PARTHASARATHY | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on November 11, 2011

There now seems to be a clear divide between Asia and the West, on how to approach relations with Myanmar.

For more than 25 years, the US backed the regime of Burma's military dictator General New Win, whose main contribution to relations with India was his expulsion of more than half a million Indians from the country. When the new military junta took charge in 1988, the Americans suddenly reinvented the virtues of democracy in that country. But democracy cannot be imported. It has to be nurtured from within.

Therefore, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao decided that given their history, the Burmese would evolve their own ways towards more representative Government and that Indian long-term interests were best served if the military regime was constructively engaged. India's pragmatic approach has paid significant dividends.

DEMOCRACY IN MYANMAR

Myanmar and India share a 1640-kilometre land border. Myanmar has cooperated constructively in dealing with cross-border insurgencies afflicting some of India's north-eastern states. It has respected Indian security concerns arising from its increasing military cooperation with China.

It established that reports on its providing facilities to China in the Cocos Islands were baseless. Moreover, it assuaged Indian concerns on providing base facilities for the Chinese Navy in the port of Sittwe, by agreeing that India would construct this port and build a corridor, giving its landlocked north-eastern states access to the sea. Thousands of “Stateless” people of Indian origin have been assured Myanmar citizenship.

The recent visit of Myanmar's President Thein Sein to India came just after he had taken a series of measures, which have been widely welcomed. These included the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and commencement of dialogue with her.

On October 12, 6359 detainees were released. They included notables such as Ashin Gambara from the All Burma Monks Association, who led the street protests in 2007, comedian and social activist Zarganar, who criticized the Government's response to the travails of victims of Cyclone Nargis; and the Head of the Shan State Army insurgent group.

President Thein Sein signed preliminary peace agreements with the two eastern armed groups. Non-Burmese ethnic groups now have a say in their own future, after the recent elections enabled them, for the first time in history, to elect their representatives to the newly-established Assemblies for States and Regions in the country.

ISSUES WITH CHINA

Yielding to public protests, the Government halted construction in the Kachin State of a $ 3.6-billion hydro-electric project, being built with Chinese assistance.

Behind the seeming bonhomie, rifts are emerging in the Sino-Myanmar relationship. In the past two decades, millions of Chinese have moved into Myanmar from neighbouring Yunnan and other Chinese Provinces.

They now own virtually all the choice properties, pushing the Burmese to the outskirts, in cities such as Mandalay. Ethnic Chinese now control major businesses across Myanmar, and swarms of Chinese workers dominate the construction of Chinese aided projects. Networks of Chinese-built roads in Myanmar appear designed to give China access to the Bay of Bengal, facilitating the movement of goods, oil and gas, bypassing the Straits of Malacca.

The situation on Myanmar's borders with China is a matter of concern within Myanmar. In the Wa Hills, tribesmen of Chinese origin are actively involved in gun-running, including to Indian insurgent groups. Tensions along the border further north emerged, when the powerful Mandarin-speaking militia of the Kokang tribe refused to become part of the Myanmar Government's border militia. In the ensuing military clampdown, more than 20,000 Kokang tribesmen fled across the border into China.

Alarmed at the prospect of a similar clampdown on the Wa Army, Chinese leaders, including future President Xi Jinping and Premier Wen Jiabao, visited Yangon last year, with promises of further aid.

The situation was defused, but resentment against the millions of Chinese settlers and their Wa and Kokang compatriots can blow up, as they did in 1967.

TIES IN ASIAN REGION

Myanmar's rulers have no illusions that India can replace China as a partner for rapid growth of their infrastructure. India's performance record in Myanmar is disappointing. Work on the much-touted Kaladan corridor, linking Myanmar to the sea, proceeds at a snail's pace. After ‘consideration' for more than 15 years, India hasn't even finalised a Project Report for a 1500 MW hydro-electric project across the Chindwin River, adjacent to Manipur. Mr Sein is naturally looking for new tie-ups with more dynamic countries such as Japan, which has described recent developments in Myanmar as a good “step towards democratisation and national reconciliation”. Japan has agreed to resume economic and cultural exchanges, and its aid programme, on hold now for two decades. Indonesia has reacted similarly. Western sanctions are, however, unlikely to end in the immediate future.

There now seems to be a clear divide between Asia and the Western realm, on how to approach relations with Myanmar. It will take around a decade before Myanmar enjoys democratic freedoms akin to those prevalent in neighbouring Indonesia.

Comparing his country's relations with India and China, a senior Myanmar leader once remarked: “While we may have to go to Beijing for arms, as devout Buddhists, we have to go to Bodh Gaya for salvation.”

Published on November 11, 2011
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