Event ReportsPublished on Nov 22, 2010
Participants of an interaction on Myanmar felt that Myanmar should be allowed to exercise its will regarding its internal political and economic decisions, but there should be an attempt to check the irregularities in these areas so that her neighbours such as India and Bangladesh do not bear the brunt.
Myanmar, the Flux within

"Myanmar, the flux within" was the theme of the weekly interaction organized by the Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation on Saturday, 11 December 2010. The main speaker was Mr. T Anantachari, former Director-General of Border Security Force (BSF). He said the Myanmar issue should be looked at from the political point of view as well as the value system.

Mr. Anantachari said the border problems faced by Myanmar were not the focal issue here, rather, the fact that Myanmar exists today under a totalitarian government, unable to assert its sovereignty across the Myanmar’s territory, was a bigger problem. He said when elections took place earlier this year, and the military junta won, it brought back with it a regime of a closed and solitary way of governance. He suggested that it was imperative to promote greater openness in the country, which was suffering enormously due to the inherent inability of the junta to attract foreign investments in a big way, to be able to uplift the economic status of the population.

In this context, Mr. Anantachari pointed out that the issue was not one of form of government, as under near-similar circumstances China had flourished economically. Nor had western governments, particularly the US, which had great reservations about democracy-deficiency in Myanmar, had no problem investing hugely in China. Overall, he pointed out, there were democratic regimes that failed the people, and also totalitarian regimes that had ensured that their nation(s) and people(s) prospered. However, in the existing milieu, Myanmar compared with North Korea, he said.

Independent of democracy issues, the junta-backed ‘elected Government’ in Myanmar must ensure that development took place, and at a faster pace. For achieving this, the speaker proposed three options, the first being that Myanmar continuing in ‘the world of the junta’ which would bring the nation benefit. Secondly, he pointed out that Myanmar could take the radical approach of bringing about full and complete democracy, and thirdly, the State could have a combination of the two and function under a semi-democratic government which would allow partial sovereignty and greater economic development.

Mr. Anantachari spoke about political activist, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who was released recently after being imprisoned for seven long years. While commending on her fight for democracy, he was hesitant to accept if a pro-democracy governmental change would bring in the expected benefits. As he recalled, the party headed by Aung Sang Suu Kyi was already split, and such were the vagaries of democracy that no one can predict which way the pendulum would swing even if there was a change of governmental form.

Mr. Anantachari said each nation was unique and should be given equal opportunities. He said that nations like Russia which comprised multiple races and communities have a plethora of differences amongst them. He said "what is good for the US, for instance, is not necessarily good for others as well. And what works for India need not work for others, likewise.” Each nation should be treated as a separate entity and be given the freedom and opportunity to decide how to run itself.

Speaking about the relationship between India and Myanmar, Mr. Anantachari laid out the phases of Indian foreign policy in the bilateral context. The first phase was a simple security-centric development relationship. The next phase was the ‘Look East Policy’ 1998-2003, where the approach was one of mutual benefit. When India helps a nation like Myanmar, she grows along with as well. The Indian sub-continent, by virtue of her geographical position, needs to look at Myanmar from the military and geostrategic point of view, as well. The internal dynamics of Myanmar and an Indian perspective on the issues was suggested as a remedy. He also looked at the economic impact of trade with Myanmar on developing India’s North-East as it would help avoid time and cost over-runs that were now a bane.

Mr. Anantachari stressed the need for the peace process in Myanmar to continue. During the discussions that followed, participants laid stress on improving bilateral trade between India and Myanmar. One participant pointed out that the Indo-Myanmar trade was quite high, especially with south India where staple pulses urad dhal, or black gram, was being imported from Myanmar. He also said that GAIL had invested heavily in the proposed pipeline project in the region and had suffered losses when the same was diverted to China. There also existed a major currency exchange rate difference between India and Myanmar, with the Myanmar currency oscillating between four to ten times to that of the Indian rupee! He also pointed out that in spite of the heavy trade between the two nations, only a minute fraction was done through legal channels, whereas close to 80 per cent might be termed ‘irregular’.

Another participant pointed out that the ‘Golden Triangle’ illegal border trade between Thailand, Myanmar and other nations was an issue of concern to South Asia and the rest of the world, particularly when it came to drugs-trafficking. Conflicting views were expressed over the need for greater and faster democratisation of Myanmar, both in terms of political values and for attracting foreign investments. A suggestion was made that one must not try to export ideology. However, Myanmar picks and chooses its investments where ASEAN nations like Thailand, Singapore are big investors. In this situation, FTAs are a point of contention due to the raging tribal movements in the region affecting profitability on such investments. China, the other regional power in the neighbourhood, looked at trade issues on the North-South axis. Today, Myanmar and China, are coming together to develop linkages, but issues of tribal unrest are causing political and economic problems.

The speaker responded that it was good to differentiate ideology from investment and that the conflicts in India’s North-East had implications that need to be looked at, and addressed clearly. He said it was far easier to commit to an FTA than appropriately managing it.

The conclusion was that Myanmar should be allowed to exercise its will regarding its internal political and economic decisions, but there should be an attempt to check the irregularities in these areas so that her neighbours such as India and Bangladesh do not bear the brunt.

(This report is prepared by Saubhagyini Singh, II MA, International Relations, Stella Maris College, Chennai)

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