Friday, March 15, 2013

Myanmar: Geopolitical allusions ျမန္မာႏိုင္ငံကျပေနေသာ ပထဝီႏိုင္ငံေရး အရိပ္အျမြက္

14-3-2013 edition of the Seven Sisiters Post, Guwahati, India
Tint Swe
Aung San Suu Kyi and Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar pose for pictures during the latter’s recent Myanmar visit အိႏၵိယ ေအာက္လႊတ္ေတာ္ ဥကၠ႒ မီရာကူးမား ႏွင့္ ေဒၚေအာင္ဆန္းစုၾကည္

MYANMAR is struggling to change over from a 20-year dictatorial rule to transform into a democracy. All news from India’s eastern neighbour is basically positive, crammed with setbacks such as fighting mostly within Kachin and in small scale with Shan — Shan State Army (SSA), southern ethnic groups. The world is more interested in, and sometimes exaggerating, ethnic and religious matters. For the rulers it’s gradual stability and reward for changes. For opponents, it is distrust and cynicism against not only the government in power but also outside players. Basically for common people, life is business as usual. Millions of Myanmar refugees and migrant workers in India, Thailand and Malaysia cannot return home.

In India, there have been only a couple of headlines on Myanmar recently. All are with reference to the Northeast. Normally Myanmar people regard made-in-India medicines as better than China-made ones. On February 3, 2013 Myanmar authorities seized approximately $140,000 worth of pseudoephedrine tablets in Tamu, Myanmar, which is the sister town of Moreh, Manipur, India. Three weeks later Indian police seized the same kind of medicine somewhere between Imphal and Moreh, on the way to Myanmar. The estimated value was between `150 to 240 million.

Along with drugs, 96 weapons were seized in Sandagu quarter in Tamu, believed to be the property of United National Liberation Front (UNLF), Manipur. On February 7, the Nanthalet Bridge near Myothit south of Tamu was blown to bits using dynamite. For that the UNLF blamed at the Assam Rifles which openly denied and claimed that it was done by an alliance of seven groups, those of KCP, KYKL, PREPAK, PREPAK (Pro), RPF, UNLF and UPPK of Manipur (Kangleipak). The state-run newspaper, New Light of Myanmar also indicated foreign insurgents behind the incident. This can be the first official statement on the issue of armed groups from India since the present government took office on March 30, 2011. For local Myanmar people, this is frustrating.

The news coincided with the visit of Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar to the Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw. That means Delhi-Naypyidaw relation is nothing to do with developments along the Northeast-Sagaing division.

Railway of decay and death
On January 12, 2013 Myanmar government announced plans to complete a railroad and highway to promote economic development in certain regions. The Myanmar- Thailand Railway, built by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II is infamous as the ‘railway of death’.

India is more interested in this World War II road than a New Delhi-Yangon flight. The Stilwell Road from Ledo, Assam, to Kunming, Yunnan, passed through northern Myanmar. The 1,736.5 km road was constructed amidst great difficulties only to satisfy military ambition. Why India has renewed interest in it is a question people of Myanmar need an answer to. The much-talked Indo- Myanmar connectivity is as it has been for a decade and only car rallies go through the route, albeit annually.

Geopolitical considerations
Being a small country sandwiched between two big neighbours, it is absolutely correct for Myanmar to be very cautious. Unfortunately Myanmar’s soil and water have been sold out to its neighbours by the military regime. Myanmar’s Yadana gas field has two pipelines; the key pipeline goes to Thailand and the second pipeline to Yangon. Sino-Myanmar pipelines also have an oil pipeline (US$1.5 billion) and a natural gas pipeline ($1.04billion) all heading to China. So the modern Myanmar map has straight lines drawn by foreign countries running across the country. Leave alone India’s failed attempts.

The making of Sino-Myanmar gas pipeline was initiated 19 years after taking into consideration Chinese experts views, way back in 1985. In 2004, Myanmar generals did an analysis on international relations. They should recall what happened before that and why they did it in the first place. In 2003, the military junta made the final assault against Aung San Suu Kyi. Known as the Depayin massacre, it took place on May 30, 2003. The prodemocracy leader narrowly escaped but was placed under her third house arrest. That time China’s influence was at the highest and India’s engagement approach was gaining some ground. But western pressure was getting heavier and punitive. The US was warning about North Korea’s clandestine works in Myanmar.

Motivation for change
A recently acquired confidential military document revealed how Myanmar military leaders read the then situation. They acknowledged massive imbalance in foreign relations. The scenario showed China and North Korea on one end and the United States and European nations on the other. While South East Asian nations, Russia and India were favouring the military junta, Australia and Canada sided with the West. In the review, finance and security were found at risk. The World Bank (WB), International Momentary Fund (IMF) and Asian Development Bank (ADB) dropped Myanmar from any assistance for years. Myanmar cronies were extremely difficult to do business because bank transactions were not possible for the US dollar. Moreover all military weaponries procured from China and India were second or third class. The generals might have then concluded that they could not afford Myanmar to become a real failed state.

Accordingly the military regime rushed to finalise their seven-phase roadmap which was hurriedly announced three months after the failed Depayin onslaught. They ended the national convention and conducted a referendum on May 10, 2008 in the midst of a devastating cyclone which killed over 1,30,000 people. They declared that 92.4 per cent voted “yes”. To make sure of their own security and wealth, they manipulated the election held on November 7, 2010 and announced that they had won.

This was followed by a series of measured changes. Aung San Suu Kyi was freed on November 13, 2010 and political prisoners were released. The result-oriented dialogue between Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein made way for the National League for Democracy (NLD) to officially re-enter Myanmar’s political showground. Then NLD won 43 out of 44 seats in the by-elections held on April 1, 2012. Over 2,000 dissidents in exile and foreigner critics were removed from black list et al. Since then, almost all top leaders from foreign democracies visited Myanmar especially to meet Suu Kyi.

Most significantly, a new chapter of US-Myanmar relation began with the visit of then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clionton on November 30, 2011. Clinton met the two most important leaders of Myanmar, U Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. The climax was when American President Barack Obama visited Yangon in November, 2012.

The neighbours Indian prime minister visited Myanmar and Suu Kyi visited India. In the meanwhile, China was in a defensive mood. Construction of the huge Myitson dam had been stalled. The Letpadaung copper mine, which is part of the Monywa property and a JV between the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEH) and the Chinese Wanbao company, has been in news headlines since early December 2012. Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and Myanmar expert, reported that anti-Chinese sentiment among Myanmar people was real.

However that does not necessarily mean only Chinese installations are challenged by the people of Myanmar. All foreign aided as well as domestic projects are under the scanner. All new investments will be watched and scrutinised. Transparency and anti-corruption is the language of the day in Myanmar. As the tenure of the present government has passed half way, popular sops can also be expected because Myanmar is learning from India.

The writer is chairman, Burma Center Delhi (BCD)