Seoul reaching out to Myanmar

Seoul reaching out to Myanmar

South Korea is the fourth largest foreign investor in Myanmar after China, Hong Kong and Thailand.

After its return to democracy, Myanmar is being wooed by the international community. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak became the latest international leader to visit the Southeast Asian country after its recent embrace of political liberalisation. President Lee met with President Thein Sein and pledged greater economic support. Both leaders discussed to curtail former dictatorship’s military ties with North Korea. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is too scheduled to pay a three-visit Myanmar starting on May 27 and have talks with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Myanmar’s ongoing transformation into a full-fledged democracy, besides meeting President Thein Sein.

Between the two visits, one thing stands significant. While President Lee’s was the first trip by a South Korean leader to Myanmar since 1983 when North Korean agents  attempted to assassinate visiting South Korean President, Chun Doo-hwan, in a Yangon mausoleum, Prime Minister Singh’s visit will be first by an Indian Prime Minister in 25 years. Also worthy to note is that Lee travelled to Myanmar from Beijing, where he had met Chinese and Japanese leaders for an annual trilateral summit.

Slain independence

In the 1983 bombing, four cabinet officials, three members of Parliament and 10 others were killed as they waited for President Chun to visit the mausoleum. Chun was not hurt because he arrived a few minutes late for a ceremony to pay tribute to Gen Aung San, the country’s slain independence hero. Three North Korean agents were arrested for the attack. One blew himself up while being arrested, a second was hanged in prison and a third died inside Yangon’s infamous Insein Prison in 2008. Four years later, a bomb exploded on a South Korean airliner flying above the Andaman Sea near Myanmar, killing 104 passengers and 11 crew members.
After Myanmar’s military leaders formally stepped down in 2011, leaders from democratically elected countries have flocked to the country to encourage further political and economic changes. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited in December 2011, followed by United National Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Besides welcoming Myanmar into the democratic world, the single most factor that is driving both India and South Korea is geo-strategic and economic considerations. Besides Myanmar’s geo-strategic significance, both the countries have taken note that Myanmar is a resource rich country where China alone accounts for more than 70 per cent of FDI in the hydrocarbon sector. India also sees the victory of Suu Kyi’s party, NLD, in the recent by-election as further opening the doors for political reforms in the country.

Even in the past, Suu Kyi has always urged New Delhi to play a more active role in democratization of Myanmar, insisting that India should not be driven purely by commercial considerations. While India always supported the pro-democracy movement, it also simultaneously courted the military junta as it tried to rein in rebels in the northeast and also to ensure that it did not lose out to other nations in tapping Myanmar’s considerable energy sources.  

President Lee’s visit is relevant in more than one way. Besides obtaining Myanmar’s compliance not to buy weapons from North Korea, while conceding it had deals for conventional weapons over the past 20 years and thereby honouring a UN ban, President Lee was assured that Myanmar never had nuclear cooperation with North Korea.

South Korea has maintained diplomatic relations with Myanmar since the mid-1970s. But after South Korea became a democratically elected government in the late 1980s, leaders in Seoul joined international efforts to encourage reform in Myanmar. In 2005, South Korea ended a longstanding programme to provide development loans to Myanmar, citing human rights abuses. In December 2011, Seoul announced that it would resume the loan programme. 

It cannot be missed that President Lee was accompanied by several business leaders to be part of the visit, including the president of Daewoo International Corp., which is spending $1.7 billion to develop a natural gas field in Myanmar and sell its production to China.

According to the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development of Myanmar, South Korea is the fourth largest foreign investor in Myanmar after China, Hong Kong and Thailand with a total investment of $2.67 billion for the 2010-2011 fiscal. The biggest share is in the energy sector. It is to be seen if Seoul is going to be successful in weaning away Myanmar from the North Korean and Chinese influence by its economic engagement strategy. 

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