Why Myanmar president’s visit to India matters

The pivotal issue is whether Indian and Myanmar leaders would consider according a higher priority to political and strategic dimensions of the relationship.

By Rajiv Bhatia, former Indian ambassador to Myanmar.

President Thein Sein visits India this week against the backdrop of crucial developments that would impact on India-Myanmar relations. The visit takes place in a context which is significantly different from that of last year when his predecessor, Senior General Than Shwe, visited India.

Myanmar is no longer a pure military regime nor, of course, is it a full-fledged democracy. Following elections in November 2010, a ‘civilian’ government took charge, with an elected parliament and regional assemblies starting operations under the new constitution. Even as the endeavor to unveil a limited democracy appeared unconvincing to many, the new president launched a bold program of political and economic reforms in end- March.

Very little happened until early July, but the movement for change has gathered momentum in the past three months. Reconciliation with the icon of the democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been unfolding in full public view. In early July, she called the recent elections “a mishap”, stressing that no change had occurred. But after a series of positive developments, including a rare meeting with the new president as cameras panned on her father Aung San’s portrait in the background, she presented her revised assessment. She said President Thein Sein “wants to achieve positive change”, adding subsequently that Myanmar is in a situation “where changes are likely to take place.”

Dialogue has replaced armed conflict between a few ethnic minorities and the Myanmar Army. The country’s relations with the West, particularly the US and the EU, are improving. Negotiations are under way that could lead the government to accept a key demand by Western capitals about the release of political prisoners.

A major new element is the seesaw characterizing Myanmar’s relations with its principal ally, China. During Thein Sein’s visit to Beijing in May, the two countries decided to proclaim “a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership”. Recently, however, Myanmar’s decision to suspend the construction of the Myistone dam in the northern Kachin state, a project meant to supply electricity to China which was being executed by a Chinese corporation with massive Chinese investment, has caused substantial tensions. Immediately on Thein Sein’s return from India, his senior vice president will leave for China presumably to address this matter.

Although former ‘strongman’ Than Shwe was never defensive while talking about the country’s political system under his watch, Thein Sein will have an easy time conveying happy tidings to Delhi during the Oct 12-15 visit. He would no doubt inform Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Myanmar is now introducing a broad-based, inclusive governance – as advised by India. The two neighbours are now ready to initiate an active programme of dialogue and interaction between their parliamentarians. Visit by a Myanmar parliamentary delegation is on the cards.

Observers believe that the Myanmar authorities would reduce their sensitivity about possible meetings between Indian political leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi in future. Playing safe, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna had chosen to skip meeting the democracy leader in June and instead arranged the foreign secretary to hold discussions with her.

As on previous occasions, Thein Sein will review progress of various development cooperation projects as well as possibilities for stronger trade and investment linkages. After the recent visit by Myanmar’s trade minister, the two governments announced a decision to double bilateral trade to $3 billion by 2015.

But the pivotal issue is whether Indian and Myanmar leaders would consider according a higher priority to political and strategic dimensions of the relationship. Should it not be upgraded from “the multi-dimensional relationship”, a key phrase used in the Joint Statement of July 2010, to ‘a strong strategic partnership?’

The change would occur when elements such as sustained, not episodic, cooperation in border security management, regular intelligence-sharing, defense cooperation, maritime security and long-term energy and connectivity cooperation are expanded qualitatively. This is the central challenge the two countries need to address, situated as they are in a highly complex regional environment.

Three additional points should be noted. First, Myanmar is fully aware of the growing unease in India about the former’s deepening dependence on China. The visit provides an excellent opportunity to Thein Sein to convey an unambiguous signal that he wishes to maintain a careful balance between Myanmar-China and Myanmar-India relations. Second, he is known to be keen on securing the chair of ASEAN in 2014 and needs support. India may not have a vote in the decision, but its voice counts; it would be in our interest to support Myanmar on this score.

Finally, Thein Sein will extend an invitation to the Indian prime minister to visit Myanmar. Instead of putting the invitation in a back drawer, our officials have the option to ponder on the meaning and contours of unfolding change. No Indian prime minister has travelled to Myanmar after Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1987. If Myanmar continues to move in a positive direction, time may be approaching, nearly a quarter century later, when such a visit should be considered.

Write to Rajiv Bhatia at rajivbhatia@airtelmail.in

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