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The pivot of change in Asia

As the winds of political change sweep across Myanmar,India should diversify its own political engagement

The efficacy of the latest US “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific may well be determined by the political dynamics likely to be generated by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s two-day visit to Myanmar (Burma) on December 1 and 2. The visit is the first at this level in over half a century. Its significance should be assessed against the backdrop of recent developments in Myanmar and the region. Myanmar has leapt to the centre of the political and strategic radar screen in the Asia-Pacific over the past year as its new president,Thein Sein,has taken a series of unexpected measures. This has coincided with a push back against China’s more assertive posture in the region,which the US is exploiting.

The leader of the democratic opposition,Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and restrictions on her movements and political activities of her National League of Democracy (NLD) have been removed. A regular political dialogue between the government and Suu Kyi has been instituted.

The way has now been cleared for the NLD to register as a political party and for Suu Kyi and other NLD candidates to take part in forthcoming by-elections to the National Assembly. Suu Kyi is likely to be a candidate herself. This will be a major step towards legitimising the new constitution,the National Assembly and the government.

Thein Sein has released over 200 political prisoners and has indicated that those remaining will also be released in stages.

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The government has recognised the right to public protest,made labour unions and strikes a legitimate right of workers. Restrictions on access to the Internet have been relaxed and there is greater media freedom. The pace at which these changes have been coming has led even liberal elements to express the fear that there might be a backlash. It appears,however,that Thein Sein has the support of the upcoming and younger military leaders who wish to see a steady political and economic transformation of their country.

On the foreign policy side,the most dramatic development has been the suspension of a major project to construct a series of dams by China on the northern tributaries of the Irrawaddy and in the upper reaches of the main river itself. Preparatory work on the project had already commenced,though there were growing protests in the region,in particular,among the local Kachin tribes.

The Chinese reaction to the suspension was one of shocked surprise. This decision,more than anything else the new government has done,gives notice that the Chinese can no longer have the privileged and virtually unlimited access to Myanmar’s rich natural resources that they have enjoyed over the past 20 years. Myanmar appears determined to diversify its relations away from its inordinate dependence on China. It has been attempting to do so even when it was ruled directly by the generals. The difference lies in the military’s recognition that without political reform at home,more balanced foreign relations would not be possible.


These measures have already brought a series of diplomatic gains. At its recently concluded summit in Bali,ASEAN announced that it had accepted Myanmar’s request to host the ASEAN Summit in 2014. This would be the first time since it joined ASEAN in 1997 that Myanmar hosts an ASEAN Summit. It accords the SPDC government the international legitimacy it has craved. Since the ASEAN Summit is also an occasion to hold parallel summits with partner countries,the assemblage of all the world’s key leaders in Naypidaw in 2014 would be an unprecedented event and would mark Myanmar’s return to the international community as a legitimate member.

The three-year run-up to the 2014 summit also provides Thein Sein with the political room he needs to continue and intensify reforms at home.

It was in the mid-1990s that India executed its own “pivot” towards Myanmar,recognising that the policy of isolating the military regime and extending rhetorical support to Suu Kyi only served to create space for China to extend and consolidate its pre-eminence in a strategically significant neighbour. Soon after I took up my assignment as India’s ambassador to Myanmar in 1997,it became obvious from my conversations with the country’s military leaders that they felt acutely uncomfortable with their enforced dependence upon China and wanted to create some wiggle room for the country. ASEAN countries recognised this,and in 1997,admitted Myanmar to their fold,despite considerable opposition from the US and other Western countries. Soon thereafter,our invitation to Myanmar to become part of BIMSTEC (Bangladesh,India,Myanmar,Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation) sub-regional grouping was accepted with alacrity.


In our bilateral relations,we began to work on the basis of this changed perspective. The first major breakthrough came in 1999,when General Maung Aye,the then Myanmar army chief and vice-president,came to Shillong as the guest of our army chief,General V.P. Malik. But this was not the usual military-to -military visit. Maung Aye came with a delegation of several cabinet ministers heading various economic ministries. We had our own delegation consisting of eight cabinet ministers headed by the late R. Kumaramangalam,who was then the S&T minister. The bilateral talks held on the occasion led to a major upgradation of India-Myanmar relations,including an assurance from Maung Aye that the Myanmar army would act against several of the camps of Indian insurgent groups located across the border. We also agreed to pursue several important cross-border projects. This first somewhat tentative initiative was followed by a full normalisation of bilateral relations in 2000,when Maung Aye paid a visit to India as vice-president.

The policy of engaging Myanmar has paid off. India has gained a degree of cooperation in tackling Northeast insurgencies and established a modest countervailing presence to China in a sensitive neighbouring country. The rest of the world,particularly the US,has come to recognise the wisdom of India’s approach. The impending diversification of Myanmar’s foreign relations strengthens India’s hand because India,on its own,would have been unable to provide a credible alternative to China’s overarching presence in the country. Despite these significant developments,China will still remain Myanmar’s most important neighbour.

As the winds of political change sweep across Myanmar,India should diversify its own political engagement to include Suu Kyi and the NLD,as also the newly elected representatives in the National Assembly. It would also be worthwhile to engage with the representatives of the various ethnic groups who are in the National Assembly for the first time,some of whom reside in areas across our borders with Myanmar. Some of these ethnic groups,like the Kachins (who boycotted the elections),were earlier close to the Chinese but have now become fierce critics,thanks to the continuing ravage of their homeland by predatory,resource-hungry Chinese companies. We should reach out to them. The recent revival of the Advanced Landing Ground in Vijayanagar,Arunachal,near the Pangsau Pass is a step in the right direction. The region across the pass is inhabited by the Kachins.

The writer,a former foreign secretary,also served as India’s ambassador to Myanmar

First published on: 02-12-2011 at 02:40:39 am
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