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Myanmar, the US, China: Shifting sands

Last updated on: January 02, 2012 16:18 IST

Will Myanmar's journey forward be a slow crawl out of the Chinese umbrella, or in quick step, asks Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

Amongst all the Southeast Asian countries, 2011 has witnessed one of the greatest changes in Myanmar.

A military dictatorial regime in power for decades made way for an elected government; albeit not as per democracy's definition by the book, but, at least a transition towards a freer nation.

The evening of 2011 also found US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton logging a historic visit to Myanmar that has also apparently been a success story for the new Myanmar regime.

Interestingly, her visit was followed by the meeting of the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar with the enigmatic Myanmarese leader Aung San Suu Kyi within a week.

Immediately thereafter, the Chinese councillor also visited Myanmar, to attend the Mekong river countries meet. He also met the Myanmarese leadership. Clinton's visit certainly catalysed a packed itinerary in December 2011 in Myanmar.

Clinton's visit was widely reported upon globally. However, many an issue of import that would have actually been the greater priorities for the Americans were perhaps not given the same emphasis either at the media briefings or statements released during her visit.

The Chinese councillor's visit hardly received any attention. Clinton focused on issues like a more democratic culture, an inclusive society, reforms in the political system, equation with North Korea -- not very different from what the Chinese councillor would have discussed in his meetings.

However, the response both would have sought from the Myanmarese leadership would have been quite different in many cases. Delving deeper into the contrasts and confluences makes an interesting study, just as Myanmar's predicaments under the circumstances, do.

Myanmar's calling off the Chinese-funded Myitsone dam and hydel power project just before Clinton's visit was a sound projection of the country adopting a more independent foreign policy.

While it did serve as good preparation for Clinton's visit, it was also a blow to the Chinese. Notably, post her departure and before the Chinese councillor's visit for the Mekong meet, Naypaidaw had already stated that it was ready to reconsider the Myitsone project.

Among Clinton's priorities were certainly Myanmar's nuclear programme and its relationship with North Korea. In fact, she stated unambiguously that the Americans would rather that Myanmar severs all military ties with North Korea.

However, Myanmarese Prime Minister Thein Sein could embarrass the Chinese if he were to do so. The arterial economic linkages that Myanmar has developed over the years with China, also serve as hurdles for the former.

The Chinese, on the other hand, would want the China-Myanmar-North Korea axis to remain a vibrant equation, especially now that North Korea could be in a state of flux with Kim Jong Il's death.

With 25 percent members of all elected houses being from the armed forces, Myanmar's parliamentary structures at the national and regional levels are definitely not laudable edifices for nascent democracies to build upon.

Will the current system continue till the next elections; be the format for the next; or be constitutionally amended earlier than both and re-elections held for the seats usurped by the armed forces is the moot question!

The Chinese with their huge investment in Myanmar would rather prioritise stability in their mutual relationship over democracy in Myanmar. Clinton, in her talks with Thein Sein, would have favoured hastening the transformation.

Clinton also met Aung San Suu Kyi and would have been keen about how she would assimilate the diverse militant ethnic groups into the nation-State should she head a democratic Myanmar.

The Chinese also face resistance in their projects from these groups. Further, there is an influx from the Myanmar side, every time the Myanmar army launches a major offensive against groups inhabiting the Myanmar-Chinese border. There is scope of common ground between the Americans and the Chinese, on the issue.

Suu Kyi's commitment to US and the West would have been Clinton's priority during the meeting. Having stood by her and helped all along, the West expects Suu Kyi to steer the country out of China's orbit.

Within a week of Clinton's visit, the Chinese ambassador met Suu Kyi, at her request. What transpired between the two is not known.

However, the ambassador would have certainly looked for Suu Kyi's support to the two nations continuing their close relationship. As of now, Suu Kyi will compete for elections to Myanmar's parliament, with her party having been granted recognition by the government.

Whether she will be able to influence affairs of her nation in a decisive way will have to wait for the time being.

Clinton would have wanted nothing better than to shift Myanmar's foreign policy's prime anchoring from being rooted in Beijing to a Westward shift. Her success can only be gauged over a period of time.

Will Myanmar's journey forward be a slow crawl out of the Chinese umbrella, or in quick step; a strategic shift or a balancing act will take time to crystallise.

What can definitely be visualised now is Myanmar being firmly on both US and Chinese radars, through 2012.

Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)