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Sanctions have impacted on the ordinary people and have not worked as China initially, and subsequently India (after 1995) and ASEAN to some extent have followed a more relaxed policy.

Thaw in Myanmar?

Delhi should continue quietly to press the Junta to open up so that the path to a democratic restoration for all of Myanmar’s varied people is eased.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald/Tribune, 19 February, 2008

At a time when the world’s gaze turns understandably on Pakistan, it would be prudent, certainly for India, to spare a thought for developments on its eastern flank. Myanmar is an important but troubled neighbour where fugitive signs of possible change are discernible after decades of unyielding military rule. India has joined with others, but through quiet diplomacy rather than loud and often sanctimonious protests and sanctions, in an exercise in persuasion that has prompted the SPDC regime to lay out some kind of a timetable for the slow process of restoration of democracy.

Failure of the two principal political parties to ensure a stable government in the early 1960s invited a military take over by men who had long constituted the uniformed wing of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League that led the country to independence. The regime was harsh, insular. It practiced the Burmese Way to Socialism that nationalised everything, sought a military solution to ethnic unrest and impoverished the nation.

There was hope of a democratic restoration after a popular struggle in the late 1980s that led to elections in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD swept the poll to the military’s great discomfiture. This in turn prompted another crackdown, the arrest of the NLD leadership and an exodus abroad of liberal and dissident elements. Ethnic insurgencies were fought to a standstill leading, later, to a series of ceasefire agreements that have essentially entailed something of a live and let live policy. The economy has limped along largely because of Myanmar’s rich natural endowments, including oil, but human development has suffered. All institutions have been undermined, leaving the highly privileged Tatmadaw (or Army) as virtually the only surviving institution with any administrative, managerial or professional capability.

Sanctions have impacted on the ordinary people and have not worked as China initially, and subsequently India (after 1995) and ASEAN to some extent have followed a more relaxed policy. The Junta has been unable to break Ms Suu Kyi and has gone ahead with constitution-making at glacial speed and with barely any consultation. However, with UN and other international prompting, the regime has now announced a referendum on the new constitution in May to be followed by a general election in 2010 with 25 per cent seat reservation for the military which will have special powers regarding appointments and enjoy a veto. This is a variant of the Turkish, Indonesian and Pakistani model with Myanamarese characteristics.

Burmese dissidents and some in the NLD fear the latest announcement is intended to buy time and will deliver little. But Singapore, the current ASEAN chair, sees a positive development. India’s Foreign Secretary has just visited Yangon to advise the Junta to release Suu Kyi and other dissident leaders, dialogue with them on the constitution so that there is an agreed and acceptable road map that can promote national reconciliation, and to permit the UN envoy to return to Yangon for further talks.

Any dialogue must necessarily include the ethnic minorities who have through the cease fire attained a degree of de facto autonomy, at least in some areas. These minority groups seek a cooperative federalism with local autonomy as was broadly agreed at the Panglong Conference in 1948 but unfortunately never implemented. The NLD is willing, and India’s example and experience in the Northeast can be instructive. A relaxation of sanctions pari passu with the dialogue and reconciliation process could be considered.

In all of this India needs to keep engaged with the Myanmar regime and should consider seeking access to Suu Kyi who needs to hear other voices in charting the way forward after years of isolation. India could also help train a variety of personnel who will be needed to take over from the military. The schools, universities, health services, the administrative service and much else will have to be revived. This may have to be internationally assisted; but as a close friend and neighbour India is well placed to play a leading role. The projects that India has pushed such as the Kaladan corridor and Sitwe port development, oil and gas exploration, the Chndwin hydro cascade and some new road connections should be pursued as they will be of great benefit to Myanmar as well.

Delhi should continue quietly to press the Junta to open up so that the path to a democratic restoration for all of Myanmar’s varied people is eased. There is no mistaking where India’s sympathies lie. At the same time it would be wise to assure the Tatmadaw an honourable exit that facilitates a smooth transition to civil governance without danger of breakdown or violence that could provoke alarm and adventurism. India’s interests are closely bound with a stable Myanmar and friendly cooperation with its people and with whatever regime or pattern of federal-ethnic relations emerges at the end of the day. Maybe this is an opportune moment when India should be talking with China, ASEAN, Japan, the US and Britain about aiding Myanmar’s political, economic and social recovery.

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