To secure Myanmar’s confidence, India must play cards in good faith

  • Ashis Ray
  • Updated: Apr 11, 2016 02:07 IST
Myanmar's NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi was effectively appointed Prime Minister by the passage of a bill in Myanmar’s parliament which made her ‘state counsellor’. (Reuters file)

Broadly defined, democracy can apply to the admirable examples in Europe as well as to a fledgling case like Pakistan. Notwithstanding such a generous characterisation, Myanmar cannot as yet be included in this category.

Last month, India’s eastern neighbour swore in its first genuine civilian president for 54 years — Htin Kyaw. He will, though, defer to decision-making by the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of his party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

Suu Kyi was effectively appointed Prime Minister by the passage of a bill in Myanmar’s parliament which made her ‘state counsellor’, thereby circumventing the country’s military dictated constitution, which prevents her — for her late husband was and sons are foreign nationals — from formally being president.

In the lower house of the legislature, lawmakers representing the armed forces — who constitute 25% of the chamber — boycotted the vote, calling the motion unconstitutional.

Suu Kyi will also hold charge of the cabinet portfolios of foreign affairs and the president’s office. The president — a trusted associate of Suu Kyi — has therefore reduced himself to a rubber stamp.

However, the National Defence and Security Council in the country has hitherto been the final arbiter. How this body, where the military will maintain a majority, regardless of Htin Kyaw and Suu Kyi becoming members, adapts to the new scenario is uncharted territory.

At the same time, the armed forces would be acutely aware the people of Myanmar want a termination of international isolation and parity with the rest of the ASEAN by way of economic development.

Suu Kyi, who campaigned for 28 years against military rule, decided to strike while public esteem for her is at a peak; when obstruction from unelected institutions is likely to be frowned upon both within and outside Myanmar.

In his address, immediately after being sworn in as head of state, Htin Kyaw made the NLD’s intentions clear by declaring: “We have a duty to work for the emergence of a constitution that is appropriate for our country and also in accordance with democratic standards.”

But the respected Cambridge and Harvard historian and author of a fascinating book on Myanmar entitled Where China Meets India, Thant Myint-U underlined: “They (the armed forces) are in no hurry to amend it (the constitution). The NLD on the other hand have placed constitutional reform towards a more democratic government front and centre of their agenda.” He notably added: “Both sides for now would like amicable relations. But how relations will look in say a year or two only time will tell.”

The military will continue to control the ministries of home, defence and border affairs. The civil service in Myanmar deep down to the districts reports to the home department. Consequently, it could hold the key to implementing NLD policies.

Myanmar's new President Htin Kyaw greets members of the old cabinet during the handover ceremony at the presidential palace in Naypyidaw on March 30, 2016. (AFP)

Read | India welcomes Myanmar’s Suu Kyi-led transition towards democracy

To come to the point, what does all this mean for New Delhi? Buddhism, which is all-pervading in Myanmar, spread from India. Civilisationally the two countries have much in common. Yet, barring the brief bonhomie between Jawaharlal Nehru and Suu Kyi’s father, the independence hero General Aung San — cut short by the latter’s assassination — relations between the two nations have oscillated between being unexciting to being uneasy, until former prime minister Manmohan Singh accelerated Narasimha Rao’s decision (supported by Atal Bihari Vajpayee) to forsake Rajiv Gandhi’s principled but counter-productive policy of opposing the generals.

If truth be told, Indians settled for generations in Myanmar were rendered uncomfortable in the 1950s and after the 1962 military coup made to feel distinctly unwanted.

Diplomacy, though, has paid dividends, including containing secessionist tendencies in states bordering Myanmar. Moreover, the country is a sizeable, mutually beneficial economic opportunity for India.

A consolidation of commercial ties can bring prosperity to India’s north-east and revitalise Kolkata and other eastern ports. But from Naypyitaw’s perspective a well-entrenched China cannot be side-lined in the foreseeable future; and if Suu Kyi delivers on economic reforms, Japan, the US and the European Union would expand its options.

The policy under Thein Sein, the general who switched from khakis to civvies (and now temporarily to a monk’s robe) to pave the way for today’s partial democracy, was to reduce dependence on China. The succeeding strategy will, in all likelihood, attempt to prevent dominance by anyone. But if India plays its cards in good faith, there is potential of a bountiful strategic relationship emerging in the future.

India would, though, be wise to persevere with its political engagement with Myanmar’s military and widen the recent naval co-operation to other spheres, while enhancing its financial assistance and lines of credit to the new government.

Furthermore, to clinch Myanmar’s confidence India must complete its current infrastructure projects before the agreed deadlines.

Sadly, the Indian private sector has done precious little to take advantage of the opportunities created by a series of bilateral initiatives under Manmohan Singh.

Irrespective of living and studying in India for several years, the inspiration she draws from Mahatma Gandhi and being impressed by Nehru, Suu Kyi’s approach as minister of foreign affairs can be expected to be cautious.

She will not upset China and may want Japan to play a pivotal role in Myanmar’s development. She cannot be oblivious of overtures from the US and the EU, especially Britain, either. After all she spent over 20 years of her life in England, including being married to an Oxford academic and has two sons who are Britons.

Suu Kyi is not easily accessible. She tends to meet people on her own terms. India will have to work on her sensitively to secure results.

Ashis Ray is a London-based journalist and creator of

The views expressed are personal

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