Just across the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s office in Yangon is a small restaurant. It is in this place one can witness the difference between Myanmar’s past and present — through a small square-shaped hole in the wall. Until a few months ago, visiting journalists had to peer through it to see NLD’s office, as any suspicion of political reporting could have led to arrest or deportation. As hundreds of journalists thronged the office after Aung San Suu Kyi’s by-election victory earlier this week, that past couldn’t have seemed more distant. The NLD’s win is set to change the country’s future: both because of the democratic freedoms this election has brought, and the opening of the country’s economic future. One young supporter put it beautifully: “We aren’t just celebrating our love for the lady. We are celebrating the change in our country.”
That change could not have come without the push from President Thein Sein and his Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, which is often seen as the military’s puppet, and without the tacit permission of the Tatmadaw, the junta. But 20 years after they dismissed the election that gave the NLD 80% of the Hluttaw (parliament) seats and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest, the world was invited to view the recent elections which were free and fair. The government is now promising more reforms, even hinting that the 25% quota for serving officers in the Hluttaw could be altered. “The constitution is not the Koran or the Bible,” KoKo Hlaing, President Sein’s chief political adviser told CNN-IBN. “It can always change.”
However, for India, to be a part of this change will need more than a subtle shift in posture. So far, its middle-path policy of engaging the military while urging for more reforms has only ended up with it ceding space to China and the Asean on investment and trade, and giving up the moral high ground on freedom and human rights to the US and the European Union. Of the 31 nations that invested $14 billion in Myanmar in 2011, China contributed a third, while India came behind Britain (13) with $189 million.
In terms of visibility, few Indian companies are ready to exploit the immense economic opportunity that a liberalising Myanmar could bring. Thanks to its pulse exports to India, the balance of trade is in Myanmar’s favour anyway. Much of the problem is also connectivity, with a few shipliners plying from Chennai, and no direct flights between Delhi and Yangon. In contrast, Myanmar’s eastern neighbour — Thailand — runs more than a dozen flights a day. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh makes his first visit to Myanmar later this year, it will be months behind Pakistan President Asif Zardari, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British foreign secretary William Hague.
On the other side of the political divide, India gets little credit for sheltering Burmese exiles, and being the home of Aung San Suu Kyi’s youth. As editor of Mizzima News, Soe Myint, says, “There is a lot of disappointment that India was never a vocal supporter of our rights, only a silent one.” Last week, when a journalist asked Suu Kyi about her expectations from India, she said: “More, more and more. India can never do enough for democracy in Myanmar.” Among the ordinary Myanmarese too, India remains a distant neighbour — with many expressing the sort of vague affection that one has for an aging relative that one doesn’t visit. India can change that by carving a more prominent niche for itself: pressing the government for more reforms, training the NLD’s young new MPs in parliamentary democracy, helping shore up its fledgling economy against currency and inflationary challenges, and using its strengths in IT and healthcare to build capacity.
Faith is often seen as India’s biggest contribution to the country — the iconic Buddhist Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was built when Burmese merchants returned from meeting Prince Siddhartha 2,500 years ago. Engaging modern Myanmar, one which has just witnessed such a euphoric moment, however, will mean writing a whole new script.
Suhasini Haidar is senior editor, CNN-IBN. She travelled to Yangon to cover Sunday’s by-elections
The views expressed by the author are personal