Originally Published 2011-12-26 00:00:00 Published on Dec 26, 2011
As every stakeholder, both inside and outside Myanmar, is trying to seize the opening, US has taken he lead with its Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's ice-breaking visit to Myanmar and her meetings with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
New Myanmar: A Real Opportunity
There is a real opportunity to be seized in Myanmar today. Every stakeholder, both inside and outside Myanmar, is trying to seize the opening. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ice-breaking visit to Myanmar earlier this month and her meetings with President Thein Sein and Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has marked the beginning of a new chapter in US-Myanmar relations - a relationship that was left frozen for decades. As a first step, Washington has allowed international financial institutions to assist Myanmar in its economic development.

Beijing wants to strengthen its "comprehensive strategic partnership’ with Myanmar. Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo said during his recent visit to Myanmar to attend the fourth Greater Mekong Sub-region Summit this week. This was the first Chinese high-level visit to Myanmar after Secretary Clinton’s historic trip and after President Thein Sein suspended the construction of a Chinese-backed dam in northern Myanmar in September, which had displeased Beijing.

Despite Myanmar’s assurances to Beijing of its desire to maintain good ties, Beijing is wary of how Myanmar will shape its relations with the outside world at a time when its relations with Washington are improving. Dai reassured Naypyidaw that China would remain a strong ally.

Japan and Britain are following Clinton’s footsteps by announcing high-level official visits to Myanmar. While Japanese Foreign Minister Kaichiro Gemba is traveling to Myanmar next week, British Foreign Secretary William Hague will visit the country next month. Earlier, the Southeast Asia grouping, ASEAN, had grabbed the moment by granting Myanmar the right to chair the grouping in 2014.

A high-level gesture from New Delhi may be appropriate. Earlier this year, the seven-member Bay of Bengal sub-regional grouping, BIMSTEC, welcomed Myanmar’s offer of hosting the third BIMSTEC summit, expected to be held in February 2012. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attending the summit will send a strong message to Myanmar that New Delhi attaches importance to developments in its strategically-important eastern neighbour.

The political reconciliation process is gaining traction since it was set rolling earlier this year when the new "civilian’ government under President Thein Sein initiated unprecedented reforms in the country. The Myanmar government had amended the election laws to allow Aung San Suu Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) returns to the political fray. This week NLD registered as a political party. The NLD’s decision to participate in the upcoming parliamentary byelections, expected to be held early next year, has given the government the confidence to take the reform process to new heights.

Though the exact number of the remaining political prisoners is unclear, there are reports that the government will be soon release all the political prisoners, most likely in January, to enable them to take part in the upcoming by-elections. As political reconciliation makes headway, President Thein Sein seems to have put the ethnic issue as his government’s top priority with reports suggesting that the President has formed a new negotiating team to speed up the ethnic conciliation process. While finding a resolution to the long-standing ethnic issues remains a major challenge for the government, there are signs of progress in the ceasefire negotiations in recent weeks. The government has reached ceasefire agreements with two ethnic armed groups in the country’s northern and eastern region. And last week, the President ordered the military to cease its offensive against the ethnic armed group, the Kachin, while peace talks were initiated with another ethnic rebel group, the Mon.

The current changes and the future direction the country will have immense implications for India. The warming of relations between Naypyidaw and Washington is in India’s long-term interest as this adds to the efforts of counter-balancing the increasing Chinese presence in Myanmar. New Delhi would not want to see Beijing having an overwhelming influence in a country that is strategically important for India. Furthermore, the US entry gives Myanmar more strategic options and, for India, a strong Myanmar that maintains a neutral policy towards major powers is in its interest.

The new leadership in Myanmar has made known its desire to broad-base its engagement with the international community. The visit of Secretary Clinton was the clearest sign of the Myanmar regime’s intention of strengthening ties with the West, particularly the US, as a strategy to hedge against China. China’s geostrategic ambitions and its involvement in long-term infrastructural projects including pipelines, energy, ports, and railways will ensure that the country remains a key player in Myanmar. Importantly, Myanmar is well aware that it has a long land boundary with China which it has to deal with.

Myanmar is an important component in China’s strategic calculation both in terms of enhancing energy security and in getting access to the Indian Ocean. Hence, despite the potential change in the balance of power among major powers in Myanmar, it is likely that China will continue to remain a critical factor in India’s Myanmar policy in the foreseeable future.

Indeed, the visit of President Thein Sein to India in last October has provided the direction for stronger economic and trading ties between the two countries. Now with the aim to strengthen security and defence cooperation, Indian army chief General V K Singh will be visiting Myanmar early next month. It is time that India-Myanmar bilateral ties are taken to even higher level. That Myanmar is moving towards a democratic form of government is in tandem with India’s own democratic values. Even as a Burmese parliamentary delegation was recently in India to learn parliamentary practices and India’s experiences as a first step in strengthening the democratic process there, New Delhi’s active role in the process of change needs to be further strengthened because opportunity comes and goes and India cannot afford to miss it.

(K Yhome is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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