Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Tale of Two countries - Part I Myanmar

Cargo ships on the shores of Yangon River Myanmar
Myanmar is going through an interesting phase. Even one year back hardly anyone believed that changes can happen in this resource rich country - Once part of British India. Life seems to be constant in this part of the world, once ruled by British. Myanmar regime seems to be happy with their limited ties with the outside world – deep ties with her north eastern neighbour and membership in ASEAN. In other parts of the world Burmese Junta was a symbol of repression. But the quick reforms in the country were a surprise even for a dedicated Myanmar analyst.

What forced this change is still a matter of debate. It can be the desire to remove the tag of outlaws; it can be the desire to develop the nation; a desire to escape from the pressing sanctions; to escape from the tight embrace of northern neighbour; influence of Arab springs etc… Anything can be the reason.

Whatever it may be, the speed of change is amazing. Military regime which didn't accept foreign aid workers during the last devastating cyclone is willing hold talks with foreign negotiators, signing peace treaties with tribes in the restive eastern border, freeing political prisoners including pro-democracy leader ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ and leaders of the previous anti-regime leaders, allowing trade unions and peaceful protests…

Stopping the construction of controversial Myitsone dam and other projects, that too in the name of the people, was really shocking for Myanmar watchers. What forced Myanmar to take such a drastic step which burned the hands (it’s a 3.6 bn+ USD project) of her northern neighbour?

As the regime of Twan Shwe is moving ahead with reforms, dividends are flowing in,

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, in Myanmar this week, said Monday that France and the EU would respond "positively and in concrete terms to the significant gestures" from Myanmar's government. He also announced an increase in bilateral aid.

Australia said it was removing some Myanmar citizens from a list of individuals subject to financial and travel restrictions, though it retained an arms embargo against the country

The U.S. announced Friday it would resume full diplomatic relations with Myanmar, following its release of scores of high-profile political prisoners after years of pressure from Western leaders.

 If Myanmar opened the markets and move ahead with pro-democracy policies the resource rich country (Myanmar is rich in natural resources like natural gas etc) will be able to integrate with outer world and attract foreign investment. This will able to create more employment opportunities and raise the industrial production in the country. 

Outdoor market, Yangon, Myanmar
But the million dolor question is how far the current military backed regime can move ahead with reforms? By-election may be ok, but the game is totally different in the case of full general election as there is all possibility that the army will lose the majority in parliament. The scenario may not come today but in the future it will be. Will the people in uniform, who enjoyed power for a major part of country’s independent history, be ready to go back to the barracks? Will they be ready to live without enjoying the fruits of power and live under a civilian government?

If Myanmar is able to implement more reforms western governments will ease sanctions. Financial sanctions may be the first one to go; arms embargo may be in place for longer time. But the question is will the Army cross the line in reforms, after which there will not be any U turns? 

Well, it’s an interesting question. I think the army will move ahead with reforms, a civilian government may come back to power. It may not be a full civilian government - a sort of in between, where army will have some sort of veto on critical issues. All depend on future civilian leadership, how far they will be able to assert themselves in the office, at the same time without hurting the army.

Another thing is China factor. Chine have significant investments on the country, there hope for a land access to Indian Ocean Sea lines laying in Myanmar (Gwadar link passing through the restive provinces of Pakistan is already facing practical and security difficulties). It will be easier for China to deal with a military regime which depends completely on them for arms and other critical inputs than a pro-western government. Moreover Chinese ethnic tribes have considerable influence in Burma - Chinese border. Still I think China will accept the new leadership and modify their plans accordingly to suit the changed scenarios.

In such an evolving scenario what should Indians do? Our interest is in engaging with both civilian and military leadership. Even if military lose power in the next full elections they will continue to have a say in government decisions. It is important for us to create an eastern gateway to sea for our landlocked north-eastern states through Myanmar. This will be helpful for both countries; Indian investment in infrastructure will help both countries. Moreover our land access to SE Asian countries goes through Myanmar only. So it is important for Indian government to engage more with civilian and military leadership. A joint exercise on Counterinsurgency with Myanmar army in Indo-Myanmar border can be an initial step, along with providing more scholarships for Burmese students to study in India.

Let us hope that Myanmar will come out of the deep trench they built for themselves and effectively engage with rest of the world.


To read part two see : A Tale of Two Countries - Part II Pakistan

Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

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