Winds of change

Winds of change

Warming up to myanmar

A country that had not tasted freedom for decades might go restless in acquiring it now.

Pushed to the margins of diplomatic tete-a-tete for decades, Myanmar is suddenly finding itself at the global politico-strategic centre-stage. Evidently, in the past 10 months, often termed as ‘nominally’ civilian-backed by the military, Myanmar’s Thein Sein government has been exceptionally receptive to its peoples’ demands. Right after it assumed office, Sein government convened a new legislature. Subsequently, it granted amnesty to hundreds of prisoners to improve human rights situation. In the last week itself, 651 political prisoners were freed including Min Ko Naing, a prominent pro-democracy leader. More are expected to be freed in coming days.

Citizens now have the right to form unions and conduct peaceful protests, which was beyond even their dreams in the past half-a-century. The government has institutionalised mechanisms to keep the dialogue going with Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi’s decision to re-register her party and participate in the by-elections, due in April this year, manifests burgeoning bonhomie between the two sides. Sein government has also realised the seriousness of ongoing ethnic strife in the country. To end incessant ethnic clashes in country’s different parts, it has signed ceasefire agreements including the January 2012 agreement with Karens, as also those signed with Shan and Kachin rebel groups in December 2011.

It has also hosted around a dozen senior diplomats, politicians and military official lately, from countries across the globe. Latest additions in the list include- UK’s foreign secretary William Hague, Congressman Joe Crowley and special envoy Derek Mitchell from the US, and India’s Chief of Army Staff General V K Singh. Singh paid a five-day visit to Myanmar in early January, where he met with Naypyidaw’s top brass including the president. Clearly, his visit was aimed at securing India’s security interest in a rapidly changing Myanmar. Not surprisingly, except the Chinese, most of the visitors seemed vocal and appreciative of Sein government’s moves. Apparently, though still ‘confident’ of its ties with Naypyidaw, Beijing is taken aback by Sein’s decision to suspend the $3.6 billion worth Myitsone project in Kachin state.

While a lot is needed to ensure a democratic Myanmar, Sein’s recent steps are getting positive response from outside. Whether the Sein government is working in tandem with the military on reform issues is subject to speculations. What is certain, however, is that he is on a reconciliatory path to placate the international community.

These developments are encouraging but demand a careful attention. A country that had not tasted freedom for decades might go restless in acquiring it now. The Sein government’s attempt to avoid an ‘Arab Spring’ in the country might lead it to a revolution of another kind.
In that context, the military’s ability to be at the drivers’ seat all through the transition is also questionable considering international pressure on the government, a tottering economy and rampant corruption. Thousands of determined and now freed political prisoners might get more assertive and restless by election time. Ongoing ethnic conflicts in many parts of an ethnically diverse nation complicate the situation in Asia’s second poorest country.

Greater demands
History tells us that piecemeal changes by authoritarian regimes lead only to greater demands from the society, which eventually leads to a point where they find it difficult to remain in control. The ‘safety valve’ theory has rarely been a success in the history of Westphalian states. It is indeed going to be a tightrope walk for the two parties, as a step off-the-track might prematurely push Sein government into history textbooks; the same applies to Suu Kyi’s side too.

The international community, which ignored Myanmar for so long, is getting a little too restless about it. If recent diplomatic visits are any indication, sanctions are not going to be lifted anytime soon. Seemingly, Sein initiated most of the reform process hoping that the west would reciprocate. USA’s restoring of full ties with Myanmar has partially lived up to that expectation. However, the ever-mounting charter of the US-UK demands would only disappoint reformers if Myanmar doesn’t get comprehensive incentives soon. Uncertainty in Naypyidaw’s corridors of power would lead to rifts within the leadership -- if at all that hasn’t happened yet. Such a situation will not be in the best interest of those who wish a peaceful transition.

So far as India is concerned, it has to think through a contingency plan, as any instability in Myanmar will affect neighbouring Indian states which share border and ethnic connections with Myanmar’s Kachin, Sagaing and Chin states.

India has to proactively engage both Sein government and the opposition to ensure peace and tranquility in Myanmar. India’s consistent and balanced approach -- the middle path, is likely to strengthen its benign power image -- which will help accrue diplomatic dividends in coming days.

(The writer is a researcher specialising on Southeast Asia, at IDSA, New Delhi)

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