In the year in which he has decided to hold elections,Myanmar head of state Senior General Than Shwe will be undertaking a crucial visit to India later this month as he tries to garner international support for his regime’s efforts to bring about what he calls disciplined democracy.
While he has already announced through an open letter that elections will be held this year,no dates have so far been given. At the same time,rules for political parties have been made public. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has,however,rejected the regime’s move — a decision that is said to have split the NLD with another group willing to contest the polls.
Significantly,Than Shwe is said to have ordered his cabinet colleagues to take retirement from the military ahead of the polls in order to provide a civilian veneer to the current regime. This decision has apparently not gone down well with his colleagues as 25 per cent seats in the new parliament are reserved for serving military officers.
For 18 years,Than Shwe has ruled Myanmar through a clutch of military officials who form part of the State Peace and Development Council. Having been part of the 21 senior military officials who organised the 1988 coup under Gen Saw Maung,Than Shwe took over the reigns in 1992 after Saw Maung suddenly resigned.
Having dragged Myanmar into political isolation for nearly two decades,the military regime has been under immense international pressure to restore democracy. This period of isolation has seen China increase its sway over Myanmar and until the late 1990s when India decided to deal with the regime in power,there were few options for Than Shwe.
Now,with US starting a dialogue with Myanmar even though US envoy Kurt Campbell has cancelled his next visit,Than Shwe is banking on the planned electoral exercise to improve Myanmar’s image. In this context,the visit to India in July last week is being seen as an important move. What is even more significant is that he has decided to first visit India and then make a trip to China after a few weeks.
India,which has always maintained that dialogue is a better way forward than imposing sanctions,will look to draw Than Shwe’s attention in ensuring that the political reform process is broad-based and inclusive. At the same time,sources said,there is some tension in the Sino-Myanmar relationship as the regime now wants to revisit some of the China-brokered agreements with ethnic minority groups in North-East Myanmar. These groups had been allowed to retain their arms back in the late 1980s with a degree of assured autonomy. But Beijing used the common border and ethnic affinity in those areas to keep the groups under its influence. This has always irked the military regime which has sought to project itself as the unifier in Myanmar.
Under the new political reform measures,the regime has proposed converting these militia into border guard forces and also called for them to lay down arms. This has created fair amount of tension North-East Myanmar and China is wary of an armed confrontation happening on its borders.
India,on the other hand,is now moving ahead with improving road connectivity as well as reopening the historic Stillwell Road. It has also in the past proposed to help Yangon with institution building by offering parliamentary training programmes to Myanmar’s officials. In fact,Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao visited Myanmar’s new capital Nay Pyi Taw for consultations in March and conveyed New Delhi’s keenness to increase investment in the infrastructure sector besides further cooperation in oil and natural gas exploration.
But for the moment as Than Shwe heads to New Delhi to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and do the Buddhist circuit,he would be hoping for some degree of legitimacy to the controlled democratization he plans to undertake. The difficulty here is that India is well aware that the reforms are essentially cosmetic and designed to help the incumbents but at the same time,the other argument is that a not-so-perfect election is better than none at all.