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Myanmar is changing; will New Delhi reach out?

October 11, 2011 13:11 IST

The Indian government has tread a careful line in its relations with Myanmar. When Myanmar's President Thein Sein visits India from October 12 to 15, it will be a further step in the slowly expanding relations between the two countries, writes Shubha Singh

The Myanmar government's decision to suspend the Chinese-funded Myitsone hydroelectric dam project caused a flutter in western capitals, where it was seen as a sharp snub to the Chinese government.

The Myitsone dam is the largest of a series of six dams to be constructed on the mighty Irrawady river, which are to produce electricity for consumers in China. The project, which would have resulted in submersion of rain forest and displacement of villages of the Kachin minority, had been opposed by environmentalists and political activists.

It is a widely held perception in the west that China, Myanmar's largest foreign investor, is its closest ally. But it is unrealistic to see the suspension as causing serious strains between the two neighbours. 

Myanmar has, on occasions, taken steps that are not to Beijing's liking; these have sometimes served to show Myanmar's independent posture. But such disagreements have been 'settled' through negotiations without undue fuss.

The suspension of the Myitsone dam project was the first decision taken by the new Myanmar government that has shown it to be sensitive and responsive to public opinion on a major issue. It is a sign that Myanmar is changing. Elections last November were widely dismissed in the west as a flawed exercise carried out by the military regime while remaining firmly in control behind the scenes.

The elections were a lost opportunity for national reconciliation as Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy did not participate in the elections. 

The military regime's new constitution had effectively debarred her from contesting and her NLD was disbanded as it did not register under the new rules. But it brought in a government in civilian garb that promised political and economic reforms. 

Among the steps the new government has taken is the setting up a 15-member Human Rights Commission. Opposition leader Su Kyi has been released from house arrest and restrictions on her movements have been lifted; she has been receiving foreign visitors and has also met Myanmar ministers as well as President Thein Sein.

Myanmar has been taking small steps to open up to the wider world; its elected government is proving to be less isolationist in its stance than the previous military regime. The Myanmar government is interested in getting the western sanctions lifted and also preparing itself to assume chairmanship of the Association of South-East Asian Nations in 2014.

When Myanmar's President Thein Sein visits India from October 12 to 15, it will be a further step in the slowly expanding relations between the two countries. It is the Myanmar leader's second visit abroad after becoming president; his first foreign visit was to China in May. 

The new President, a former general and prime minister in the military regime, had announced an agenda of reforms shortly after he had been appointed in March this year.

The Indian government has tread a careful line in its relations with Myanmar. After full throated support to Aung San Suu Kyi during the 1988 military crackdown after her NLD party had swept the polls, New Delhi changed its stance in the early 1990s and began a slow engagement with the Myanmar government. 

India and Myanmar share a 1643 km long land border along India's four northeastern states as well as a long maritime border. Insurgent groups in the north-eastern states that freely used Myanmar territory as safe havens to escape the Indian security groups forced a rethinking in New Delhi's policy of minimal relations with the military regime in Myanmar.

There were also concerns about China's increasing influence in Myanmar.

The slow process of engagement flowered into to brisk economic and political interaction during the past decade, even though the western countries were insistent on isolating the military regime. The policy of engagement led to cooperation along the border region, reining in the free access that the insurgent groups enjoyed earlier.

New Delhi has held that it is more effective to talk quietly and persuade the Myanmar government rather than impose sanctions or hector it publicly on democracy. 

At the time when the Nargis cyclone devastated vast areas in the country, Indian ships, relief materials and medical assistance were readily accepted by the Myanmar government while it rejected aid from other countries. This approach has helped India and Myanmar enhance their political, economic and strategic cooperation, but New Delhi has not been able to build its leverage to be anywhere near Myanmar's other two neighbours, China or Thailand.

During a recent visit of Myanmar's Commerce Minister, U Win Myint to Delhi for the fourth meeting of the Joint Trade Commission, the two sides set a target of doubling bilateral trade to US $ 3 billion to be achieved by 2015.

India obtains a significant part of its imports of pulses from Myanmar as also timber. Another border trading point in addition to the Moreh-Tamu trading point is likely to be opened soon at Zowkhatar in Mizoram while there is potential of opening trading points at the Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland borders in the future.

The Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport project being constructed in Myanmar by 2013 will provide another access route to India's northeastern states. It will allow direct transport of goods by sea from India's eastern ports to Sittwe port in Myanmar and upcountry through inland river transport followed by road transport to Mizoram.

Myanmar has become a link, however weak, in India's Look East policy. But the slow implementation of various projects has hampered progress in the relationship.

Indian business has also been slow to take advantage of the business opportunities opening up in the neighbouring country. An Indian business delegation is due to visit Myanmar in November. 

A new government in Myanmar that is ready to usher in market economy should be the opportunity for India to set a faster pace in the bilateral cooperation.

Shubha Singh in New Delhi