Though the new Burmese constitution envisages an underlying military presence and is much flawed, change has been rapid. What role might India play?
By BG VERGHESE
New Delhi, February 2012
Supporters hold pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father General Aung San on the outskirts of Yangon on February 6, 2012. - Photo: Getty Images
A recent conference in Delhi’s Jamia Millia University brought together 29 Burmese delegates representing seven political parties, recently elected MPs, ethnic nationalities, civil society, women, forced Myanmarese emigres and Indian interlocutors in an amazingly frank and free dialogue. Democracy has come to Myanmar. Though incremental, the process appears irreversible. The country is fast moving “from Ne Win to Win Win”, an apt phrase coined by Mani Shankar Aiyar.
Though the new constitution envisages an underlying military presence and is otherwise flawed, change has been rapid – too rapid in the view of some delegates, as change must be absorbed and not destabilise. More than one delegate said democracy must be seen not as an end but as a means towards building a New Burma. According to those representing the ethnic nationalities, the vital element must be “ethnic equality and equity”, or a federation deriving powers from its component units with a bicameral legislature in which the upper house will be a chamber of nationalities. The ethnic representatives were at pains to emphasise that they were not for secession but only for internal self-determination. A new “Panglong Conference” (that had discussed the ethno-federal structure in 1948-50) was advocated to set in motion a political process (rather than another open ended political dialogue) which could bring about a resolution.
One of the main appeals made at the Delhi conference was for international, especially Indian, assistance to build Myanmar’s shattered economic and social infrastructure, human resources and technology base
Freedoms, including of expression, are being restored and Aung San Suu Kyi, whose NLD had earlier boycotted the new constitution and the polls, is to contest a block of by-elections coming up on 21 April. This will undoubtedly be a major development and result in a new balance of forces. Meanwhile, Myanmar urgently needs trained personnel in every sphere of governance after years of isolation and institutional, administrative and educational breakdown. One of the main appeals made at the Delhi conference was for international, especially Indian, assistance to build Myanmar’s shattered economic and social infrastructure, human resources and technology base.
During a half-century of military rule, Myanmar was under sanctions and cut off from most of the world. While it was admitted to ASEAN and received some assistance from that quarter, it was pushed into the arms of China, which saw much to gain from its strategic location and rich resources and has become the country’s largest trading partner and investor with a visible mega-project and physical presence, especially in the North and along the Arakan coast. India opened up to the military regime in 1995 and has since then developed a measure of trade and economic cooperation.
While China will continue to have a presence in Myanmar, this will be on more equitable terms. The Myanmarese have suspended the 3000 MW Myintsoe hydroelectric project on the Irrawaddy in the north Kachin area; but the Sitwe-Ruili gas pipeline to evacuate Arakan offshore gas to Yunnan, by-passing the more distant and vulnerable Straits of Malacca, is going forward along with a new deep sea port further south at Kyaukphu on Ramree Island, with a road connection to Mandalay. The pipeline project was to come to India but we muffed the opportunity.
Now that Myanmar is opening up, the world is looking at it as a major investment opportunity in view of its vast and diverse mineral and forest wealth, hydro potential and swathes of uncultivated arable land. The Burmese delegates at the Delhi conference were wary of a “Burma rush” but wished to see a strong and stable Indian partnership in this process. A rising China raises many concerns everywhere. Not so India, which is seen as a benign, democratic and cultural partner. This sentiment is a precious asset that must not be squandered. Myanmar is well placed to be a strategic, trade and investment partner, and in border management to curb insurgency, smuggling and drug running that constitute a common menace.
The Moreh-Tamu-Kalewa road and the Guwahati’s international airport and air cargo terminal have delivered absolutely nothing for lack of any Indian initiative by way of trade and tourism facilitation. The same fate awaits the US$110 million multi-modal Mizoram-Kaladan road-river corridor to Sitwe port currently under construction. Two hydro-electric schemes at Tamanthi (1,200MW) and Shwezaye, part of a projected Chindwin cascade, are also lumbering forward. Another road link is being planned from Champhai in Mizoram to Rhi-Tiddim in the Chin Hills while Assam is keen to restore the Second World War Stillwill Road from Ledo through Myitkina and Ruili to Kunming.
Myanmar could with the Northeast be India’s Gateway to Southeast and East Asia, as part of its Look East Policy, BIMSTEC and the Mekong-Ganga Association
All these call for greater expedition and, more importantly, concurrent consultation with potential operators, a variety of service providers, clients and relevant officials on either side to kick-start utilisation. The Myanmarese noted a certain Indian pre and post-investment lethargy. Surely it is time to sound the alert and get things moving through some kind of joint implementation council.
Other Myanmarese delegates pointed to local concerns over lack of transparency in these projects and fears of displacement, environmental impacts and uncertain benefits. Maybe it would be desirable for the Indian government to seek to take the local communities into confidence in the changed circumstance and make them stakeholders in these ventures. There was also apprehension about reports that India planned to build a fence along the Mizoram-Chin border. Fencing, they pleaded, would not be conducive to partnership.
Myanmar could with the Northeast be India’s Gateway to Southeast and East Asia, as part of its Look East Policy, BIMSTEC and the Mekong-Ganga Association. This Gateway will surely have an air corridor and oceanic link – such as the projected trilateral Chennai-Dewei(Tavoy)-Bangkok link, by-passing the Malacca Straits - but must include the Northeast, itself isolated and marginalised by Partition, as a substantive partner and hub. The Northeast is part of Southeast Asia and has age-old ethnic and cultural associations with it that must be creatively revived. This will endow the Northeast with a new identity and centrality as envisaged in the Northeast Vision 2020 prepared some years ago.
For this to happen, the Northeast Council in Shillong must be greatly empowered as a regional planning body for the geo-strategic Northeast region truly includes all the territory, including the area of North Bengal lying beyond Siliguri. The Department for the Development of the NE Region (DoNER) in Delhi should be abolished. Instead, the NEC, chaired by a Union Minister from the region, should maintain a small establishment in Delhi to liaise with the Planning Commission, Parliament and relevant ministries and institutions, much on the lines of the Atomic Energy Commission in Mumbai and ISRO in Bangalore. Further, representatives of the Ministries of External Affairs, Commerce and Home should be represented in the NEC and the NEC should have liaison officers in Yangon, Dhaka, Thimphu, Kathmandu and Bangkok to facilitate consultation and coordination.
The Nagaland chief minister was eloquent about forging a new relationship with Myamnar when he addressed the Delhi conference.
This is the time for India to act in concert with all concerned. The media has a critical role to play in building bridges and, with Parliamentary, NEC and business delegations, to spearhead a new Indo-Myanmarese relationship that is so full of promise.
See a collection of writings at www.BGVerghese.com / Veteran columnist, developmental journalist, author, and Magsaysay Award winner, BG Verghese started his career with the Times of India and was later Editor of the Hindustan Times (1969-75) and the Indian Express (1982-86). He was Information Adviser to the Prime Minister (1966-69), a Gandhi Peace Foundation Fellow for some years after the Emergency and Information Consultant to the Defence Minister for a short period during 2001. He was later with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Verghese passed away on 30 December, 2014, his pen busy right until the end.
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