Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

No solution in Mynamar can ignore the ethnic minorities, many of whom have ceasefire arrangements with the regime. This has brought about an armed truce that eludes peace and denies development.

Fashioning a Policy for Myanmar

Sanctions don’t work. India needs to work with others to bring about a speeded process of national consultation and economic regeneration.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 23 October, 2007

The brutal crackdown in Myanmar in recent weeks has quelled protests but has stirred the international conscience. The monks who took to the streets were  voicing the popular anguish of an impoverished people against a sudden 500 per cent rise in fuel prices that affected their lives and livelihood and equally appealing to the military junta to review its guiding policy that is going nowhere.

The Indian government has been criticized for upholding non-intervention and stating that it is for the people of Myanmar to determine their future. This is not to show unconcern but implies that it is not for sanctions or adventurist policies of regime change. Sanctions against Myanmar have not worked. They have operated harshly against the ordinary people and isolated the otherwise popular NLD by arousing a sense of xenophobia that the regime has used to its advantage. Were India to join the sanctions bandwagon, it would not merely render management of its troubled and porous eastern  border that much more difficult in combating cross-border insurgency and crime in the Northeast but would drive Myanmar further into the arms of the Chinese, something that even Yangon and certainly ASEAN do not desire. Despite sanctions, western oil companies do good business in Myanmar even as their governments prop up sundry dictatorships around the world.

Delhi has been employing quiet diplomacy to persuade the SPDC to relent and think afresh. It has also provided hospitality to thousands of Myanmarese refugees and dissidents and given them a certain latitude to function. Nevertheless, it does need to explore new avenues for promoting dialogue, reconciliation and a return to democracy in Myanmar. Any instant solution is most unlikely. One has to be prepared for the long haul.

However, certain basic facts need to be understood. After 40 years of military rule, sanctions and self-imposed isolation Mynamar has been effectively de-professionalised and remains utterly reclusive. The education system has collapsed, civil governance has crumbled and any kind of administration over vast ethnic minority tracts has become minimal. Professional services are run down, the media has been throttled, economic activity has slowed and HDI indices and living standards are down. Very little civil society has survived or been allowed to flourish. The only exception is the Tatmadaw (armed forces) who are privileged, educated, trained, professional and empowered. They administer and run the country.  Were Aung San Suu Kyi miraculously to assume power tomorrow she would have to call on the military to help run the country, at least for some time. This is the grim reality.

Therefore, while the military is the problem in Mynamar it has to be part of the solution, certainly in the short to medium term while civilian cadres are built up and gain experience and the diaspora returns. Equally, the junta must realize that  Suu Kyi cannot be wished away. If anyone represents the conscience of Myanmar and the popular will, she does. Excluding her does not work. Some will argue that she made a mistake by taking  the NLD out of the national convention, sham though it was. Yet, without the NLD it has not worked and will lack credibility. That is why the seven-stage road map of the SPDC has gone on forever. 

Another truth is that Myanmar has from the days of its nationalist struggle been a civil-military partnership. U Nu handed over power to General Ne Win. In keeping with an unhappy Asian tradition, the Tatmadaw believes that the military has a legitimate role to play in ensuring stable civil rule on the lines of the Turkish, Indonesian, Thai, South Korean, Pakistan model, from which many have yet to graduate. 

Yet again, no solution in Mynamar can ignore the ethnic minorities, many of whom have ceasefire arrangements with the regime. This has brought about an armed truce that eludes peace and denies development and dialogue, an untenable status quo.

India has high stakes in Myanmar, a huge, under-populated, resource rich and strategically located neighbour. Its interests are human (some 400,000 Indians live there, many still denied citizenship), economic, ethno-cultural, strategic, regional. Yet it cannot go it alone. It must seek an Asian solution, working in concert with
ASEAN, China, Japan and the UN. It could take the initiative to call a conference with these countries jointly to approach the junta to release Suu Kyi and other political detainees, allow refugees to return home, invite the NLD, representatives of the diaspora and national minorities to an accelerated process of national consultation and constitution making on the basis of federalism, with considerable autonomy for the ethnic minorities and an agreed role for the military over the next decade or more, and a crash economic reconstruction programme with UN and bilateral assistance.

India could help with scholarships-cum-training to equip Myanmarese civil society to resume the reins of governance. It could also usefully expose the latter to varying models of autonomy for and engagement with ethnic minorities in the Northeast which, for all its problems, has been a great laboratory in nation-building and has some outstanding successes to its credit. 

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