Monday, May 28, 2012

Report of IIC-SAM Round Table Discussion on Prime Minister's visit to Myanmar

IIC, Conference Room No. II, 24 May 2012
Posted:26 May, 2012
Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, Former Indian Envoy to Myanmar
Ambassador P. S. Singh, Former Indian Envoy to Myanmar
Ms. Thin Thin Aung Management Board Member, Mizzima News
Chair: Ms. Rashmi Saksena, Consulting Editor, South Asia Monitor

Ms. Saksena initiated the discussion by laying down the significance of the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Myanmar, and what it held for the future of both countries.

She said that both countries see each other as gateways. Looking at Indias North East region, Myanamar offers great potential. Myanmar, though part of ASEAN has a special observer status in SAARC and has ambitions of being the bridge between South Asia and South East Asia.

Myanmar sits at Asia’s cross roads and its opening up after decades of isolation provides a historic opportunity for the India-Myanmar bilateral relationship. The critical importance of Myanmar for India in geopolitical terms is known to all.

When we look at India and Myanmar as natural partners, we look at India and Myanmar working towards increasing connectivity and trade between its people, therefore the visit by the Prime Minister becomes even more important. The visit is being keenly watched in all the major Capitals of the World.

While the Indian Prime Minister’s visit is being hailed by all there are questions being raised about what tangibles will be achieved. There are issues to be sorted out when it comes to stalled road, rail, telecommunication and hydro-power projects and joint ventures between the two nations. India is also interested in following Myanmar’s working relationship with China which has a significant presence and influence there.

Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia emphasized that the central point of the visit is that it emanates from the combined process of 'Glasnost' and 'Perestroika' currently underway in Myanmar, which has brought out a change in the quality of economy, mindset of people, and importantly in foreign policy. Citing the recent protest in Mandalay against power outages, he drew attention to a change coming in the nature of Burmese polity, which is becoming increasingly tolerant. He emphasized on identifying “grey” regions, than black and white, in complex societies like Myanmar.

India by virtue of its strategic location is able to find a middle ground between the black and white. He admitted that change in Myanmar is a significant one but also cautioned against making a distinction between the government’s propaganda and reality, since the government claims of these changes to be progressive and irreversible are not shared by the the opposition. He called for a need for caution over euphoria.

He also focussed on the external reaction to the developments in Myanmar, especially the Chinese stand which is concerned and condescendant; and the South East Asia which see changes in Myanmar as positive but pragmatic because of the Western avalanche involved in it.

Thus, the Prime Minister’s visit will play an equally viable role in both domestic situation and external reaction. There is a need to further strengthen the bilateral cooperation at three levels- Government to Government, Business to Business and People to People. Myanmar is not just important bilaterally but is regionally equally vital. Prime Minister’s visit is an important development but everything eventually depends on what the government and people of Myanmar do for themselves over the coming years.

Ambassador P.S. Malik emphasized on the internal element of Myanmar in shaping its relationship with India. He stressed that the talk of political reforms are irreversible and carries a hint that things will not be as simple as expected, and will not come in a mannered way.

The role of the Burmese military in its national movement cannot be disregarded and military still holds an important position, and thus even if democracy has to come about it will have the military’s role to be a disciplined democracy. There are certain aspects on which either regional or on bilateral levels cannot be ignored- such as the conflict between the ethnic groups of Myanmar and the Burmese Army that has time and again impacted the internal situation of the country.

Though China does not have a physical presence in Myanmar its influence cannot be ignored. Myanmar has maintained a “balanced relationship” with both India and China and it will continue to do that. In such context the Prime Minister’s visit can help in strengthening relationship between the India and Myanmar.

India can improve security and its bilateral security support will be important. But most important issue is the economy for which long term expanded projects and connectivity via ASEAN are vital. The Prime Minister's visit iss expected to be advantageous for business and training but one must not get overboard with expectations. India has to show its support to the democratic structure but it does not mean India will not deal with other form of power structure which is moving towards democracy.

Ms. Thin Thin Aung gave an insight on Myanmar, stressing on the changing conditions in Myanmar. She saw the recent protest against chronic power to be a welcome change. “Rangoon Bubbles” or the similar protests by agricultural labourers, labour organisation in the form of signature campaigns and demonstration are the positive signs of tolerance being exercised by the government.

She also focussed on the difference in circumstances of Myanmar’s core and peripheral region. While the core region of the country is experiencing the political and social change, the frontier regions are still struggling with ethnic strife which need to end, for the peace of the country.

She stressed that government is also trying to work out peace agreements with ethnic groups by releasing the political prisoners. The people of Myanmar are certain of the government’s reform promises, but are uncertain of its implementation. In the midst of these changing circumstances the Indian Prime Minister’s visit is crucial. Prime Ministers’ visit to Aung San Suu Kyi can be seen as an indication of India’s support to democracy in Myanmar. Myanmar would like India to work on its softy power to give meaningful assistance to help the country in areas of health, education, power and connectivity.

Ms. Saksena concluded the session by emphasizing on the internal and external dimensions of India- Myanmar relations. She stressed on the need for a solution on issues of controlled democracy and ethnic conflicts and the role Prime Minister’s visit can play in using its soft power to strengthen the relationship between the two countries.