Myanmar’s charismatic leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was the recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1992. The then military regime in Myanmar reacted to the announcement of the award with considerable fury, and bilateral relations with India remained in deep freeze for a number of years thereafter. Things have changed now. The Thein Sein government itself is acknowledging that Ms Suu Kyi has an indispensable role to play in Myanmar’s ongoing political transformation and the country’s re-engagement with the region and the world. She is living proof of the words included in the award citation: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the valley of shadows again and again before we reach the mountaintops of our own desire.”
The success of Myanmar’s political and economic transformation depends on a very complex and carefully choreographed series of reciprocal steps between two remarkable individuals, Ms Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein. The latter has metamorphosed from an army general into a civilian and reformist politician. Ms Suu Kyi has reincarnated herself from being an unbending idealist to a shrewd political strategist. Many of her friends and admirers used to criticise her for embracing Mahatma Gandhi’s idealism without learning from his political acuity. That criticism is no longer valid since Ms Suu Kyi has taken calculated political risks in the past few months, culminating in her recent election to a Parliament she had earlier condemned as illegitimate.
India has much to contribute to Myanmar’s exciting but as yet fragile march towards political normalcy and economic recovery. It can use its considerable credibility and influence with the country’s powerful generals to counsel restraint and accommodation vis-a-vis democratic forces. In building enduring political institutions, which constitute the nuts and bolts of any successful democracy, few countries can contribute as much as India can. It boasts of internationally acclaimed institutions such as the Central Election Commission, an independent judiciary and the functioning of a federal polity representing a careful balance between regional autonomy and central authority. The last mentioned example will be particularly relevant as Myanmar grapples with the political aspirations of its numerous ethnic groups.
India is also well placed to contribute to its neighbour’s economic revival and prosperity — particularly of its poorer regions adjacent to India, Sagaing and Rakhine respectively. India has already built the Tamu-Kalay highway in Sagaing. The highway connects with Imphal in Manipur and will now be upgraded and extended further east to Thailand and beyond. In Rakhine, India is executing the ambitious Kaladan river multi-modal transport project, which will provide riverine and road access to Mizoram from Myanmar’s ancient port of Sittwe. This port is being upgraded and will serve as a shipping link with India’s east coast. These transport projects could become the basis for establishing “development corridors” which could be linked together with plans to develop India’s own north-east and to fully leverage Myanmar’s role as India’s land and water bridge to East and Southeast Asia as well as southern China.
The two provinces are also potentially rich in hydrocarbons. India lost out to China in developing the offshore gas fields along the Rakhine coast, but there are still attractive opportunities, both onshore and offshore. The Sagaing region is geologically an extension of the Assam oilfields. Their development by Indian companies could help establish an energy partnership between the two countries.
As Western sanctions on Myanmar continue to be lifted, it will become easier for India to expand its trade and investment relations with Myanmar. It will no longer be necessary to route Indian shipments via Singapore or Malaysia to circumvent restrictions on trade settlement using US dollars. Myanmar has also abandoned the unrealistic and complicated dual rate of exchange of its currency, the kyat, and may soon be permitting the setting up of branches by foreign banks. India should position itself to take early advantage of these reforms. It should be recalled that in the early 1950s, Myanmar was the most developed among the Southeast Asian countries, rich in resources and serving as a trade, transport, finance and insurance hub for the entire region. When General Ne Win came to power in 1962, he abandoned the country’s cosmopolitan character and systematically isolated it from the rest of the world. If the current reforms proceed apace, the country has the potential to regain its former status as one of the most prosperous countries in the region.
Prime Minister Singh will soon be visiting Myanmar. He should not hesitate to visit Ms Suu Kyi at her lakeside home in Yangon and reinforce her strong sentimental – almost familial – relations with India. Her sense of disappointment with India’s earlier and close relations with the military regime needs to be overcome and Dr Singh is the right person to accomplish this. He should invite her as our honoured guest and give her an opportunity to reconnect with a country and people for whom she has undisguised affection.
In pursuing a close partnership with Myanmar, India must be careful not to arouse nervousness in China, which will inevitably lose its erstwhile pre-eminent role in the country as it opens up to the region and the world. India should also caution the United States and its Western allies to resist the temptation of projecting Myanmar as part of the “pivot” to Asia and thereby heightening Chinese concerns. Such concerns may well lead China to reinforce elements in Myanmar that are resisting reform. As the award citation noted, there are many valleys of shadows still to cross before the people of Myanmar reach the peaks of freedom.
The author is a former foreign secretary.
He is currently chairman, RIS, and senior fellow, CPR