Originally Published 2011-11-23 00:00:00 Published on Nov 23, 2011
As Myanmar attempts to build a new identity for itself, this will not only redefine its domestic future but will also allow realignment of its ties with external powers. The international community's support is important to further encourage the changes.
Myanmar: In search of strategic balance, new identity
At its recent summit in Bali, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) decided to give the chairmanship of the regional grouping to Myanmar in 2014. At the same venue, US President Barack Obama declared that he would send Hillary Clinton to Myanmar next month - the first visit by a US Secretary of State in more than 50 years.

These announcements were in recognition of the political reforms and reconciliation process that the new Myanmar government has initiated since the middle of this year. The current internal political changes and the re-engagement with the outside world will have immense implications on the country’s future.

Myanmar is beginning to see an end to its long phase of isolation for decades. The first phase of isolation was a self-imposed one that began when Gen Ne Win took over power in 1962 in a military coup and lasted till the late 1980s. The country’s political, ideological, ethnic divides deepened and sharpened during this phase.

The second phase of isolation was imposed from outside by the international community, particularly the Western countries, against the military regime’s repressive rule. The long-standing ethnic and social issues of the country only worsened. The country had tried to partially open up its economy in the late 1980s by engaging its neighbours - joining ASEAN (in 1997) and other sub-regional groupings.

In the context of the internal political impasse in Myanmar, the West continued political and economic sanctions on the country for its poor human rights record. The result was that Myanmar found itself getting sucked into the economy of its northern neighbour as China emerged as a key business partner. Despite growing wariness about increased Chinese presence, the Myanmar leadership did not have many options in the face of the isolationist policy of the West.

By the end of the 20th century, long years of economic mismanagement had turned the country, once the world’s largest exporter of rice, into one of the poorest in the region. The unending ethnic conflicts in the country earned for it the title of the world’s longest civil war. For many years, Myanmar has held the position of the world’s largest producer of illicit opium.

Every problem associated with these issues - refugees, internally displaced persons, human rights violation, poverty, human trafficking, gun running, drugs smuggling, etc - only grew with time. The cumulative impact of these developments on the country’s polity, economy and society has been disastrous.

It is in this context that the developments in the past few months need to be assessed. The changes indicate that the isolation of the country is starting to give way to a more open and transparent system. These developments are also early indications of what direction the country might take in the coming years.

The reform initiatives currently underway are aimed at correcting both its internal long-standing political deadlock and addressing the imbalance in its external relations. Ever since the new government was sworn in (in March this year), major reforms have been pushed through, trying to break away from the country’s past with the aim of building a new identity based on progress and peace inside the country and ensuring strategic neutrality - a core principle of the country’s foreign policy since its inception, that had been apparently weakened, if not compromised.

Myanmar is a classic case to demonstrate how internal and external dynamics are closely interlinked and that internal change has direct external implications. Given the nature of this intrinsic link, for the Myanmar leadership, the present situation could not have been a better time to bring the much-needed reforms - political reconciliation, economic and social development - as well as redefining the country’s identity in terms projecting its image as a progressive nation, re-adjusting its foreign policy.

Even as the international community keeps a close watch on the internal reform processes in Myanmar, the new government has been sending out significant signals that it wants to redraw its geopolitical identity with the desire to re-engage the international community, while preserving its interests and identity as a neutral player.

A recent op-ed by Zaw Htay, Director in the Office of the President of Myanmar in The Washington Post confirms this thinking of the new leadership in Myanmar and provides a sense of the desire of the new leadership on how they want their country to "be viewed in the international stage", by "regain its rightful position" as a "regional powerhouse" and "without outside pressure and influence" because the country "can stand on its own".

Myanmar has been aware of the dangers of getting close to a power whose rise remains uncertain. The op-ed urged Washington to "facilitate Myanmar’s connection with the outside world at the critical juncture" and referred to the suspension of the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam as a "signal to the world". Apparently, Myanmar’s decision to postpone the dam has irked Beijing.

It is not a coincidence that Myanmar is today strengthening its ties with Vietnam, a country that has been embroiled in a territorial dispute with China. The recent visit of Myanmar’s new Commander-in-Chief, Gen Min Aung Hlaing, to Vietnam was a clear signal of "hedging". That President Thein Sein visited India in October, a few days after the cancellation of the Myitsone dam, was sign of the Myanmar’s new foreign policy reorientation. In fact, the Myanmar leadership has for some years used India as a hedge against China.

As Myanmar attempts to build a new identity for itself, this will not only redefine the country’s domestic future but will also allow realignment of its ties with external powers. Given the rapidly-changing regional geopolitical dynamics, Myanmar wants to redraw its political and strategic image with the hope that this will provide the flexibility it needs in its strategic choices.

Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy’s decision to participate in the parliamentary by-elections expected next month is a clear sign of the level of political reconciliation that is taking place in the country. However, the country continues to be confronted with major challenges, including long-standing issues, involving several ethnic groups with whom the Burmese army has been engaged in fierce clashes in northern and eastern regions till date.

Finding an amicable resolution to the ethnic issues at the earliest is inevitable if the leadership in Myanmar wants to ensure that the country does not fall back. This will also reduce external players’ meddling in its internal affairs. The international community’s support to Myanmar at this decisive time is important to further encourage the changes taking place in Myanmar. This may result in positives for the country’s internal progress besides ensuring Myanmar’s strategic balance, a vital element for regional stability.

(K. Yhome is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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K. Yhome

K. Yhome

K. Yhome was Senior Fellow with ORFs Neighbourhood Regional Studies Initiative. His research interests include Indias regional diplomacy regional and sub-regionalism in South and Southeast ...

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