Myanmar looks for inspiration from India

Myanmar is a country that not only shares common borders with India but also a common heritage — Buddhism. Post-Independence, India walked hand-in-hand with Myanmar in the non-alignment movement.

But the extended military rule substantially reduced Indian engagement with Myanmar with New Delhi giving a cautious response to the pro-democracy movements in its neighbourhood.

The year 2010 could prove to be an important milestone for Myanmar as the junta has promised to hold elections, raising national and international hopes of democratisation of the country. But given the fate of 1990 elections — the first free poll in Myanmar in the last 30 years — many a fingers are crossed. The elections which gave a clear majority to National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung Suu Kyi were then annulled by the military rulers.

Opinions are divided whether India should be more pro-active in supporting the pro-democracy leaders of Myanmar. Aung has been under house arrest since 1989. In Sept 2007, hundreds of monks paid respects to her at the gate of her home, which was the first time in four years that people were able to see her in public.
Cry for democracy
Besides, NLD, Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC), an apolitical organisation of the seven ethnic states — Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan — are the stakeholders for the future democracy in Myanmar. Some of these were independent states before the British colonisation.

“There is a deficit in Delhi’s work not only in context of Myanmar but also in Pakistan. There is a contradictory stand in India’s policy. We are a democracy but we not seen to be terribly active in the neighbourhood”, says Salman Haider, former foreign secretary.

Stressing on the possible impact of Indian institutions, Prof Sanjoy Hazarika, North-East Studies Centre, said the All India Radio played a crucial role in 1990 when Myanmar army generals snuffed out democracy by giving the ‘the other version’ on the developments.

Strategic consideration played on Indian mind in not giving full support to democracy, whereas China has built strong ties with the Myanmar regime, he said.
Prof Harn Yawnghwe, director, Euro-Burma office, felt the US is increasing its engagement with Myanmar as it has to deal with China if not to contain it. More so, it has plans to be active in the Association of South East Nations. The US cannot work with ASEAN as long as Myanmar is a problem. The US is worried that Myanmar may develop nuclear capabilities.

Former external affairs secretary Rajiv Sikri said until Bangladesh changed its hostile attitude, Myanmar was critical for India in respect to the north-eastern region. This, he said, is being realised by New Delhi as a part of ‘Look East’ policy.
The northern Kachin state of Myanmar borders Arunachal Pradesh which is claimed by Beijing. China is in effective control of Kachin state, he said. Sikri said India should fund more road and rail projects in Myanmar, encourage more people-to-people contact and the pilgrim tourism with Buddhism being a centuries old link.

Linguistic issues
Denial of right to decision making to ethic linguistic minorities vis-à-vis majority Burmans is a major issue in Myanmar. A member of Women’s League of Burma Thin Thin Aung regretted that India has no contacts with opposition parties and civil rights groups in Myanmar.

Dr Tint Swe, NLD member of parliament in exile, pointed to two important steps taken by the military establishment — ceasefire with most of the ethnic groups and promise of holding elections in 2010.

Victor Biak Lian, a member of ENC, spoke of ‘civil war’ in Myanmar and  refugee exodus to Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh. There were around 70,000 Chin refugees in Mizoram. He cited cases of human rights violation, forced labour, land mine victims, orphans in refugee camps, migration of most of the young population with only children and women being left behind in villages and deployment of one million army by the rulers. He sought greater international pressure to bring democratic rule in Myanmar.

While keeping a keen eye on 2010 election promise of the military Junta, India could possibly do well by exposing Myanmar to the ideals of democracy and help it build democratic institutions. By increasing its economic, trade and cultural engagement, New Delhi could impact the ruling dispensation more positively in the days to come.

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