CHANGE IN MYANMAR: IMPLICATIONS FOR THE REGION AND INDIA
By: Amb. (Retd.) Rajiv Bhatia
Central University of Sikkim, Gangtok
Date: October 03, 2016
When, after long years of house arrest, trials and tribulations, Aung San Suu Kyi – the global icon of democracy – undertook her first foreign visit to Thailand in June 2012, she referred, in her first public speech, to her country as "that little piece of the world that some of us call Burma and some of us call Myanmar.” Her preference was always for the former. It is a country with two names, struggling to complete the task of nation-building and determining its national identity. It began this mission before attaining independence in January 1948 but has failed to complete it in nearly seven decades since.
Shortly after taking over as the foreign minister and de facto leader of the new government in March 2016, Daw Suu Kyi met foreign ambassadors in Naypyidaw, the country’s capital, and urged them to use whichever name – Burma or Myanmar – they wished to use, thus signaling greater flexibility and pragmatism on her part. She observed that her government’s aim was to foster "better relations not just with neighbours and ourselves but between us and the rest of the world and between all other countries as well.” Diplomacy teaches leaders to accommodate people’s problems. "A foreign policy that is based on getting our own way is not much of a foreign policy”, she said. This showed that the (largely) democratic Myanmar would follow a practical and pragmatic approach towards its neighbours and other external partners, balancing relationships astutely, and pursuing the national interest, imbued with an enlightened vision of the nation’s place in a complex region.
A look at the map and a quick recall of the nation’s history are a sufficient index to the innate strategic significance of Myanmar. It is surrounded by five neighbours – Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand – and has a long seashore on the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. Myanmar’s internal politics, economy and external relations have been continuously shaped by its geographical location. From ancient times, inflows of people and cultural influences from the north and the east moulded its identity. From the west came benign traders, artisans, priests and monks who gave the people their faith, beliefs, arts, architecture and handicrafts. The local genius transformed external influences into a new identity through the process of synthesis.
An important and key facet to underline here is that invasions came from one direction only – the north – and the Burmese kings carried attacks in two directions – the east and the west. Thus, Burma’s relations with China and Thailand ended up being far more complex than the relationship with India, the benign neighbour and the land where Buddha attained enlightenment.
Change in Myanmar
In dissecting recent changes, it may be useful to recall the historical backdrop. The nation has over a 1200-year long history, divided into pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence phases. The British Raj, already well established in India, began to spread its tentacles to Burma in the 19th century guided by two principal motivations: to restrict the French influence to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and to exploit the economic potential of Burma for imperial interests, including opening a direct trade route to China. It took the British three wars lasting 60 years before annexing Burma fully to British India in 1885. Burma was separated from India and turned into a colony governed from London in 1937. It was lost to Japan during World War II and was regained for a short while, before the Burmese secured independence on 4 January 1948.
Independent Burma began on a promising note with a democratic set-up which stumbled right at the outset; it recovered quickly to play a significant regional role in the launch of the Bandung process and the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement. Burma settled its borders with China, developed its own stable and mature equations with the two Super Powers, and enjoyed cordial relations with its neighbours, especially India. This sunny phase ended with the imposition of military rule in 1962 that lasted, in different forms, until March 2011.
The elections held in November 2010 unleased a process which brought a quasi-civilian government in existence, led by President Thein Sein. He laid the foundation for the first free and fair elections in November 2015 that eventually brought the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – to power in March 2016. Due to a constitutional restriction, however unfair it was, Suu Kyi could not become the president, but she now functions and is widely accepted, both internally and externally, as the de facto leader of the government. This is the process of dramatic change we need to focus on and analyse in the regional context.
Throughout the long-drawn battle between political forces led by NLD and the military lasting from 1988 till 2010, if not beyond, Suu Kyi received support from the West, namely EU and the US, whereas the generals were backed by China. Others – ASEAN, Japan, India and Australia – oscillated between the two camps, struggling to extend moral and political support to the cause of democracy and finding ways to do business with those in power. In this light, some may have thought that a democratic government in Myanmar would, of necessity, be anti-China in its orientation. If they did so, they showed their ignorance of Burma’s history during the democratic rule from 1948-62.
In the past decade, the East Asian region has emerged as a key theatre for global geopolitical competition, especially between the established power (US) and the rising power (China) on a whole range of issues, particularly those pertaining to the South China Sea. A number of Southeast Asian claimant states are members of ASEAN. Consequently, the unity and centrality of ASEAN have come under severe stress as different members adopted different postures – critical, supportive or neutral – on China’s aggressive behaviour. Myanmar’s voice in all this imbroglio has been rather muted. It came, therefore, as no surprise that the joint statement issued at the conclusion of Suu Kyi’s visit to China in August 2016 was completely silent on this vital question.
In its six-month innings in power so far, the NLD government has conducted a pro-active, independent and "non-aligned” foreign policy. The essential aims are to safeguard and promote its own interests by seeking China’s support for the resolution of the complex ethnic problem; increase inflow of investments and technology from all sources; secure support for the NLD’s agenda to reform the constitution in order to bring full democracy in the country; and expand policy space for the new government in general. On human rights issues, the democratic government has decent credentials, except on the Rohingya question and the Buddhist-Muslim relations. On the former issue, the government appointed recently an advisory commission led by Kofi Anan, a former UN secretary general, thus ensuring some breathing room for itself, despite braving considerable internal opposition.
A critical analysis of the foreign visits by the Myanmar leaders – to Laos and Thailand (and the visit of Singapore PM to Myanmar); to China, India, UK, US and Russia; and the forthcoming participation of State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Suu Kyi in the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit in Goa on 16 October 2016, indicates that the new Myanmar government’s management of foreign relations stems from a laudable calibration. However, it is a delicate and difficult act and risks are continuous and enormous.
Relations with India
During the Thein Sein presidency, a determined bid was made to expand and strengthen India-Myanmar relations. The visit to Myanmar by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a high point, reinforced by Thein Sein’s two visits to India and Suu Kyi’s visit as an opposition MP. This process was resumed by the Modi government as the PM travelled to Myanmar in November 2014 to participate in the India-ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit. He met President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi, thus setting the stage for a series of high-level visits from India. President Htin Kyaw paid a state visit to India from 27-30 August 2016 in what seemed a balancing act to Myanmar’s bid to strengthen relations with China and US through Suu Kyi’s August visit to the former and subsequently to the latter in September 2016.
Amidst a host of issues, two deserve to be mentioned here in particular: Myanmar’s cooperation to India to stamp out anti-India insurgents from its soil, and India's success in its endeavours to bring about a substantial enhancement in its economic exchanges, connectivity and development cooperation with Myanmar. Further progress concerning these issues may mould the future trajectory of the bilateral relationship.
It will be worth watching if hopes of a stronger relationship between India and a democratic Myanmar will be fulfilled in the coming years. A key question, in this context, is whether Myanmar, under the NLD government, will remain just one of the junior players in the region or whether it will strive to become a prominent and pro-active player. In Suu Kyi, it has an international leader of great eminence and talent. Will her full potential be used fully? Will the daunting challenges faced by Myanmar allow her to play a transforming role in the region? Answers lie in the womb of the future.
(Note: Details were provided through a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation, which was followed by an extensive Q & A session.)
Rajiv Bhatia served as ambassador to Myanmar from 2002-2005. He is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and author of "India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours.” (Routledge 2016)