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Down the Irrawaddy

Myanmar's reformist president's visit gives India a chance to reconnect.

india Updated: Oct 11, 2011 23:20 IST
Shyam Saran

President Thein Sein of Myanmar is on a three-day official visit to India. Since assuming office, the Thein Sein government has tried to win domestic and international legitimacy through a series of political initiatives. These include the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the initiation of regular conciliatory dialogue with her, a commitment to release political prisoners languishing in jail and a pledge to be more responsive to public sentiment and opinion.

These moves were, until recently, met with a degree of scepticism. After all, Sein has been a general in the powerful Myanmar Army, which, despite the recent political changes, retains overwhelming authority. Now there is grudging acknowledgement that he appears committed to reform, incremental as it must be.

The most important driver of this perceptional change is Sein's 'postponement' on September 30 of the $3.6 billion Chinese-financed Myitsone hydro-electric power project, the first in a series of dams on the upper reaches of the country's main river system, the Irrawaddy, in response to strong public opposition. Chinese reaction has been one of "astonishment". By taking this somewhat risky political decision, Sein achieved two things at a stroke: one, he successfully portrayed his government as being responsive to public opinion; two, he sent out a powerful signal that Myanmar was no docile, client State of China. Suu Kyi has welcomed the decision and has said that she is convinced that Sein is genuinely committed to a more democratic form of government.

India has found itself somewhat defensive in developing closer relations with a military and authoritarian government. In reaching out to Sein, India will no longer face such political inhibitions. The changed relationship between the government and Suu Kyi also opens the door for India to engage with the latter and support her measured steps to expand the political space for civilian, democratic political forces.

India has been worried about the expanding presence of China in Myanmar. This is not surprising given the sensitive nature of our 1,400 km-long land border with Myanmar, encompassing the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Myanmar and India also share the strategic waters of the Bay of Bengal.The good news is that even the generals who directly ruled Myanmar over the past two decades were always uncomfortable with China's dominating presence and looked to India, on the one hand, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on the other, to counter-balance Chinese influence.

In 2001, the year I left Myanmar after a four-year tenure, Senior General Than Shwe conveyed to me his decision to allow India to open a consulate in Mandalay, where only China had such a privilege. Our request had been pending since 1998 and we knew that the Chinese had strongly opposed this. With Sein, India may find Myanmar even more responsive to Indian initiatives.

The weak point in India's Myanmar policy lies in our inability to deliver quickly on projects that we have committed ourselves to. These include the Tamanthi hydropower project on the Chindwin river, the cross-border highways linking Mizoram with the towns of Tiddim and Fallam in Myanmar's adjoining Chin state, and the ambitious Kaladan multi-modal transport project, which would provide access to India's Mizoram. The project would allow both water transport along the Kaladan river as well as a highway linking the old port of Sittwe with the southern road system in Mizoram. We need to address this quickly and one hopes that the proposed aid agency being set up by India's foreign ministry will help in this regard.

For Sein, the world's largest democracy playing host will strengthen his credentials as a leader committed to reform. India could play a role in encouraging the US and Europe to begin dismantling their long-standing policy of isolating and sanctioning Myanmar. India, therefore, has some additional leverage in pursuing its interests in Myanmar that include the elimination of the remaining sanctuaries of North-east insurgent groups across the border.

On the economic side, much more can be done to establish mutually beneficial long-term economic ties. Myanmar still possesses large unexploited oil and gas reserves whose development would contribute to our energy security. It has vast tracts of vacant arable land, which could produce both cereals well as pulses for India's growing market as also to contribute to regional food security. And Myanmar could become the most convenient transit for India's rapidly growing trade and investment relations with both South-east Asia and southern China.

That will, of course, require a major connectivity project that will span several years of effort. Thein Sein's visit offers a most timely opportunity to explore these initiatives in earnest.

Shyam Saran was Indian ambassador to Myanmar, 1997-2001. The views expressed by the author are personal.