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Myanmar’s moment

Publication Date : 25-09-2012


Aung San Suu Kyi is currently in the middle of a triumphant visit to the US.

The country that led the world in imposing harsh sanctions has opened its arms to her and poured out its respect. The US Congress has given her its Medal of Honour, a rare award, President Obama has received her in the White House, the media and the public have besieged her.

The president of Myanmar will visit the US shortly and though he cannot be expected to receive a comparable welcome, his presence will underline the point that, after so much tribulation, Myanmar has finally emerged from the shadows. This is Myanmar’s moment, more specifically it is Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK)’s moment.

People everywhere have joined in saluting her courage and fortitude, and bidding her welcome after so many years in seclusion.

With these developments, a new chapter has opened in Myanmar.

However, notwithstanding the favourable political events of the last few months, it should not be assumed that Myanmar is now finally out of the woods. International opprobrium and the burden of sanctions are over but Myanmar remains beset with problems of political consolidation and economic reform.

The liberalisation brought about by a reformist president has made possible the change for which the country and the world have waited so long, the major new development being, of course, that ASSK has been able to return to unfettered political activity. She has swept the by-elections in which her party was able to participate and she now has a significant group of followers in Parliament.

Her popularity is not in doubt and she is set to resume the mantle of leadership that was forcefully ripped from her. It will be necessary, however, to amend the Constitution so as to remove the prohibition imposed on anyone married to a person of foreign origin from becoming President ~ an unsubtle move by the former junta against ASSK that has done nothing to diminish her popularity.

It is a more tricky matter to gauge the condition of her party and its capacity to fight in the elections that may take place before too long.

According to some accounts, the NLD, ASSK’s party, is not without its problems. ASSK towers above all others but there are quite a few formerly prominent figures that have their own groups and factions and would not wish to be ignored in any new dispensation.

Bringing the different personalities together in one political structure is a leadership challenge and resumption of the normal political activity that has been suspended for so long may not be an altogether simple matter. However, this is only to be expected, given the abnormal conditions that have prevailed in Myanmar.

There is no current roadmap for further liberalisation, nor can any backsliding be wholly precluded, for those who have enjoyed the fruits of power without the bother of answering to the public may fight to retain at least some of their privileges. However, the tide is flowing against them and it would seem that the new generation is all too aware that their country has been left far behind in the race for progress.

Such elements favour reform and regard it as unavoidable in the present circumstances. Indeed, there seems to be something of a ferment on the political scene; much is happening and there are many different processes to watch and assess.

Political easing needs must be complemented by economic liberalisation, for which the demand seems to be increasing. Myanmar was a relatively prosperous part of Asia at the time of its emergence from British rule. It was an important source of rice, timber, oil, and other commodities, and many foreign trading companies were active in that country.

A substantial and active Indian trading community had been part of the local scene for decades by the time of independence. But foreign, including Indian, business activity tailed away as Myanmar’s military-led rulers opted for autarkic economic management and the economy stagnated to the point that the country that was once in the forefront became instead the back-marker in a region that was thrusting ahead.

Yet Myanmar is endowed with substantial natural resources. In this respect, it is perhaps the last of the major undeveloped and unexploited regions of Asia. The poverty of its inhabitants coexists with the lavish endowments of nature, and already, after the liberalisation of the latest phase, the world is taking notice and looking eagerly at fresh opportunities in Myanmar.

In this, until now China has been well ahead of the rest. It has been active in Myanmar since its own liberalisation policies of the 1980s.

Until that time, the growth areas of China were grouped around the coast, and the remote interior provinces were more or less left to their own devices. But with further liberalisation, these more distant parts were encouraged to take initiative for themselves, and Hunnan in the south-west rapidly opened up towards its neighbour Myanmar.

Roads were built to connect them, giving better access to the sea and to the booming Asean region. Since then, the infrastructure has been well developed and further China-led expansion of economic activity has become a feature of Myanmar’s development. Like so many others, China seems to covet the natural resources of its neighbour, and it is better placed than the others to do something about it.
In contrast, India’s links with Myanmar have developed in a less focused manner.

When the army-led coup took place and ASSK was ousted, Indian sympathy was all for her. Ties with the rulers in Yangon, her captors, became much weaker, and at a time when China was rapidly developing its relations, India-Myanmar ties were in the doldrums.

Gradually, however, and without shedding its sympathy for ASSK, India felt it must become more active, for it could not ignore the steady growth of the Chinese presence--and for Myanmar, too, it was desirable that India should be more actively engaged with it. Thus there was a gradual rebuilding of the India-Myanmar relationship, with India taking pragmatic initiatives for closer ties.

A few high-level visits were exchanged, leading to better contact between the two. Some rather tentative ideas of restoring overland connections were also explored, though there were inhibitions on India’s side as it was not yet ready to open full access to its own North-east through which would these roads would have to pass.

That hurdle has not yet been overcome but a much more open approach to access issues through the North-east may have become possible after the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Yangon which has set the relationship on a new course. After decades of relative inattention, ties with Myanmar are now seen as an important first step in India’s "Look East" policy.

The writer is India’s former Foreign Secretary


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