Monday, December 24, 2012

Indo-Myanmar relation in the aftermath of Suu Kyi’s visit

Dr Tint Swe:

Pieces of stimulating news are coming out of Myanmar ever since November 13, 2010 when the repeatedly detained people’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi was ultimately released from three house arrests. The 2012 by-election victory of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has thrown into spotlight how the military government wickedly took power against the NLD’s 1990 general election in which Suu Kyi’s party won 392 out of the total 485 parliamentary seats.

Aung San Suu Kyi seized the opportunity to play the most important role in internal Myanmarese politics and on the international stage since her house-release. Apart from her role as an elected member of parliament, she has been assigned to head the Committee for Rule of Law and Stability and the controversial Inquiry Commission for the brutal copper mine crackdown. Indian media never failed to highlight Suu Kyi’s news even she was detained. When she became a free citizen, news related to her could, and still can be, considerably read, seen and watched throughout India.

This is contrary to the attitude of the governments in power in India since the early 1990s. The Burmese pro-democracy movement in India relentlessly tried to lobby with the NDA and UPA governments for the last two decades without any success. Not surprisingly, in her first TV interview in Delhi, Aung San Suu Kyi correctly said, “I was saddened that India had moved away from us”.

However she also commented “we didn’t have the right to get anybody’s support”. It is time to review how the Indo-Myanmar relations were during the time of the nationwide uprising of 1988 and Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to India in 2012. Initially, India’s support for democracy in Myanmar reached its peak when the Congress government was in power at the Centre. Whether by design or not, after Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic assassination, India’s policy towards Myanmar dramatically changed. It was also.

However, the Congress government led by late PV Narasimha Rao which initiated the ‘Look East Policy’. The then BJP government’s foreign minister Jaswant Singh later cut the ribbon to inaugurate the 160 km-long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road on February 13, 2001. During the reign of the NDA government, news of concealed arms shipments travelling through Indo-Myanmar border trade point, from Moreh, to Myanmar was a severe outrage to the prodemocracy sentiment.

During the term of the first UPA government in 2006, then Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam visited Naypyidaw, the new Myanmarese capital and promised to stand by the junta at all international forums such as the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). All the resolutions against human rights violations and forced labour practices perpetuated by the Myanmarese army were noted by Indian delegates during the visit even as it was in full glare of the military junta.

The second UPA government maintained the same line of engagement policy and laid out a red carpet twice to the dictator Than Shwe. Fortunately, the UPA was still in power when Aung San Suu Kyi was freed and the Indian prime minister did change to adopt a positive approach towards Myanmar. In May 2012 Dr Manmohan Singh met Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon to invite her to deliver the Nehru memorial lecture. The good news was that during her visit, both the Indian government and Aung San Suu Kyi made a remarkable turnaround for what can be read as better Indo-Myanmar relations.

Regrettably while the Indian minister for external affairs Salman Khurshid was in Myanmar, a photo of madein-Sweden Carl Gustaf M3 anti-tank rifle with ammunition was taken at the battle field in Kachin state of northern Myanmar. It was suspected that the weapon banned by the European Union (EU) came from India. On December 15, 2012 although the Indian minister ruled out arms sale to Myanmar, he said that the

Indian army would check its inventory as part of the probe on the report by Swedish Agency for Non-Proliferation and Export Controls (ISP).

The United States of America, whether it was the Democrats or Republicans in power at the White House, imposed effective sanctions against the military regime from the beginning till the very end. Therefore the Myanmarese activists concluded that whichever government is in power in India or in America, the pro-military policy by India and the pro-democracy policy by the United States will not change. That was why Aung San Suu Kyi during her visit to India remarked that governments come and go but people to people relations matter most. What about the people?

India’s Northeast of is of pivotal importance for the implementation of the highprofile ‘Look East Policy’ but it is true only in the eyes of India. From the eastern neighbour’s point of view, that international border is not paid as much attention as the borders with China and Thailand where even if there are riots, border trade and businesses continue to flourish. India and Myanmar could resourcefully exploit this region for the benefit of both nations.

In the past, the Myanmarese army took advantage of India’s soft approach and this should not recur. On December 17, 2012 Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra met Myanmarese President U Thein Sein at Myanmar’s Dawei deep-sea port and Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which values a whopping US $50 billion. Two days before the Asean-India car rally which had travelled 8,000 km covering 10 countries had entered India’s Northeast. This parallel news symbolises the priorities India and Myanmar give their other neighbours.

China’s Yunnan province can also enjoy the huge benefits of Look Indian Ocean policy while the people of Manipur, Assam and Nagaland can enjoy only a car rally. The changes in Myanmar, though ad hoc in nature, are very fast and India should be forewarned to make faster decisions. Diplomatic terms like ‘realistic’ and ‘pragmatic’ should be replaced with ‘responsible’ as Daw Suu Kyi usually surmises. It is absolutely relevant because most of the joint venture dealings agreed with the previous military regime have been challenged by the Myanmarese public.

The anti-Chinese Myitson dam campaign was followed by incredible protests against Letpadaung copper mines’ which the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) Limited runs as a joint venture with China’s Wanbao Company. The projects constructed by India and other foreign countries might be scrutinised sooner or later. Now it is high time for responsible relations between the new Myanmar and incumbent India. Just as the people of Myanmar hold such sway over the activities of their government, so too should the people of India’s Northeast have over their own Central government in New Delhi.

Dr Tint Swe is chairperson of Burma Center Delhi