For most Indians, Myanmar, with whom we share a placid 1,600 km border, is conceptually even more remote than our own north east, even though similar ethnic groups live on both sides of the border. Often we lapse into bouts of collective amnesia and seem to forget that Myanmar, important to us in its own right, is also an important buffer with a China that is getting stronger and more assertive, is our land route to south east Asia and a friendly coast line would help us better protect Andaman and Nicobar as well as our interests through the Bay of Bengal.
One fine Saturday morning in June 1988 the Military junta in its infinite wisdom demonetized the Kyat without placing any alternative currency in the market till ten days later. An already impoverished country of 40 million had that many paupers overnight. A month later, seething with rage, the people were out on the streets, but leaderless till someone thought of Aung San’s daughter Suu Kyi who was visiting her ailing mother Daw Khin Kyi, former Ambassador to India.
An overnight icon, Suu Kyi may be excused for not heeding the advice of some well-wishers suggesting she not be so confrontational with the Tatmadaw; inexperience, euphoria and a feeling of invincibility led to her long incarceration, the movement was crushed and the regime promptly ostracised by the West. We anointed ourselves as the champions of democracy and followed a default foreign policy which was a constant diatribe on AIR led by U Nu’s daughter. Real politik never entered our calculations and we never realised that our interests in Myanmar were going to be always different from those of the West.
For nearly 25 years since the 1988 upheaval, the regime has held firm. Impoverished and comparatively backward, but under no real internal threat as the leaders began making attempts to get back into the real world.
The West may today exult in the results of the recent by-elections in Myanmar but we must remember we will have to deal with the army backed regime for the foreseeable future. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD won 40 out of the 44 seats it contested but the party has a long way to go in a 600 member legislature. The NLD may have made a tactical error by not participating in the 2010 elections leaving the field to other parties.
In an ultimate show of magnanimity, the regime could now offer her a ministerial post. Suu Kyi would then have to decide — risk waiting for the next elections in 2016 or accepting the assignment now. An electoral battle may have been won but victory is still far away.
The regime is not likely to loosen its effective control of power. Right now they need Western capital and investments for which they need political acceptability. This by-election provides them this. They have begun their peace negotiations with the various ethnic insurgent groups and significantly, the last round with the Kachin Independence Army was held in Ruili in Yunnan province. The road from Ruili to Lashio in the Northern Shan States is like any other major highway anywhere else while the India-Myanmar infrastructure remains archaic in comparison.
Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh is currently visiting Myanmar which is only the second visit by an Indian PM in 20 years and hopefully political exchanges at that level will be more frequent. It will always be in our interest that we should seek to economically integrate our eastern states with Myanmar whose rice production can help feed our north east at a much cheaper rate. Trade between Mandalay and Kohima, Tezpur, Agartala, Gauhati and Aizawl and air connections between some of these cities and Mandalay and Yangon should be sought by us. India certainly has security and economic stakes in Myanmar and a strong Chinese presence diminishes our role further. We need to create Myanmarese stakes in India.
Any offer of trade concessions, assistance in the country’s economic development, scholarships at prestigious educational, scientific, technological and medical institutes and at the Staff college and the IMA would greatly help.
Our Look East policy makes sound sense if we learn to deal with Myanmar regardless of who is in power.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)