(Commentary) – Myanmar seems to be returning to Burma. The good news has trickled in after talks between Aung San Suu Kyi and the new civilian president, Thein Sein, established a framework for national reconciliation and graduated democratic reform.
A political amnesty is on the anvil and moves are afoot to liberalise trade and investment regimes. The new government has invited Burmese refugees who fled the country after the military takeover to return and assist the process of national reconstruction.
Perhaps even more significantly, work on the US$ 3.6 billion, 6,000-megawatt Myitsone dam on the upper Irrawaddy River, under construction with Chinese assistance, has been suspended as being “against the will of the (Kachin) people).” The decision was announced in parliament and suggests that the Burmese leadership is not going to kow-tow to its giant neighbour which has established a major presence in the country during the past 22 years of isolation and Western sanctions, which started after 2003. This does not bring Chinese collaboration to an end by any means as numerous other large hydroelectric, hydrocarbon, port and other infrastructure projects are moving forward.
It does, however, suggest that the new regime is mindful of ethnic minority and ecological sensitivities. After years of cease-fires based on a policy of live and let live, the regime sought to integrate ethnic nationality armies into the Myanmar armed forces on the eve of the last elections by declaring them national border guards under the command of the Tatmadaw. Most refused, and four insurgencies have resumed in consequence. Aung San Suu Kyi has appealed for restraint, a further cease-fire and peace talks, to which the regime has not been entirely unresponsive.
This too marks a potentially significant development as its resolution will determine whether Burma is to be a truly federal state, with ethnic nationalities enjoying considerable autonomy, or remain a largely centralised polity at war with itself. Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San, the Father of the Nation and first prime minister, had negotiated the Panglong agreement with the minorities in 1948. The one issue on which it broke was on the interpretation of whether the option to review federal ties after a decade implied a choice of independence or only a re-jigging of the federal arrangement. It was on the identical issue in regard to the 9-Point Hydari agreement that the Naga leader, Phizo, broke with the Indian State.
The Thein Sein government is seeking foreign investment and collaboration in every field. It is a country with enormous land and natural resources (minerals, bio-diversity, hydro power and hydrocarbons) but currently lacking in human capital - administrative, entrepreneurial, institutional, scientific expertise – after decades years of military rule. It is because of this that it has farmed out major development projects, including plantations, to China, its Asean neighbours, Japan, India and others. Only a small fraction of its 40,000-meawatt hydro potential has been harnessed though almost 14,000 megawatts worth of projects have been signed up (especially with China on the Irrawaddy). With little domestic demand as yet, most of this power will be exported to China, Thailand and the Asean grid, and to adjacent Nagaland if the 1,200-megawatt Tamanthi project, part of the Chindwin cascade, comes to fruition with Indian assistance.
India’s major project so far has been the Kalewa/Kalemayo-Tamu (Moreh) highway (along which projected Indo-Burma-Asean trade has been stymied for lack of trade facilitation measures on the Indian side). An even larger project under implementation is the multi-modal Southern Mizoram-Kaladan River-Sitwe Port corridor whicb will provide India’s Northeast an ocean outlet. The Kaladan Corridor may, alas, go the way of the Kalewa-Tamu Road unless concurrent steps are taken here and now by both governments and all concerned actors – transporters, entrepreneurs, bankers, freight forwarders, hoteliers, and others – get their act together.
Around 1998, Burma had offered extensive wastelands to India to grow rice, pulses and palm oil on renewable 30-year leases. Thailand and Malaysia signed up. India was unresponsive. Whether such leases will again be on offer and will be acceptable to the ethnic minorities is uncertain. However, it is something that could be explored on the basis of cooperative partnerships with local ethnic groups, the Burma government and the Indian state or private entrepreneurs as a means of coupling ethic settlements in Burma with income and employment generation and the development of much-needed infrastructure.
Hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation, onshore and offshore, is another area that holds out considerable promise.
Burma has had a long and close association with India and has applied for Saarc membership, which Delhi supports. The country is also a member of Asean of which it hopes to become rotational chair in 2014. It is in transition and holds a geo-strategic position of high importance as a bridge between Saarc, Asean and China.
Rather than be a passive spectator or late actor, India should move energetically to engage the new Thein Sein administration to assist and encourage its transition to full democracy, ethnic reconciliation and economic and social reconstruction at all levels, governmental and non-official.
Aung San Suu Kyi studied in Delhi and is greatly revered here and has high regard for this country. India’s relations with the military regime have also been maintained at an even keel and the military leadership too trusts India as a non-intrusive neighbour and long-term friend.
Why shouldn’t the government and credible civil society institutions invite delegations of Burmese parliamentarians, trade representatives, ethnic nationality groups and security analysts to visit India and talk to their counterparts and potential collaborators here? Scholarships and seats in training institutions should be readily on offer as this is perhaps Burma’s greatest need. Charter flights should be organised both ways to promote tourism and understanding. And high level Indian political and trade and investment delegations should visit Burma as early as possible.
The Indo-Afghan strategic partnership agreement signed last week on the occasion of President Karzai’s visit to Delhi need not be a model but could point a direction. Afghanistan is in flux. America’s AfPak policy has failed and it is now locked in a huge muddle and spat with a defiant but bewildered Pakistan that knows it needs to redefine itself. This again presents India with an opening and an opportunity to further its engagement with Islamabad as much as with Kabul and jointly with both. Pakistan’s concerns about winning strategic depth in Afghanistan against India are unreal in concept and substance. India is no threat to Pakistan which is its own worst enemy.
– BG Verghese has been with the Centre for Policy Research in India since 1986. He started his career in journalism with the Times of India and was later editor of the Hindustan Times (1969-75) and Indian Express (1982-86). For more information, see www.bgverghese.com