[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]


Need for new ties
Dipankar Banerjee on Indo-Myanmar relations
The Hidustan Times, 15/10/96
The low Patkai range covers the eastern flank of India. It has 
never been a major obstacle. Through it have passed 
numerous people in both directions. Many communities of 
eastern India trace their origin to migration from Southeast 
Asia. Even before the Christian era the Southern Silk route 
from Chengdu, the capital of Sichun province in China, came 
to eastern India through Myanmar. As New Delhi develops a 
deliberate "Look East" foreign policy and attempts to 
integrate with the dynamic economies of Southeast Asia, it is 
time to take a fresh look at the country immediately across 
these hills.
Myanmar was a part of the British Indian empire till 1937. On 
its independence India was the first to accord it recognition. 
An immediate assistance of tanks, artillery and motors helped 
save Yangon from the rebels who had almost reached its 
suburbs. More than any others country in East Asia, it was 
Myanmar which was the candidate for an economic miracle. 
Its enormous natural resources, educated people and an 
efficient judicial system were its major assets. But a turbulent 
decade of democracy was followed by General Ne Win's rule 
from 1962. His Burmese road to Socialism' and deliberate 
isolation from the world utterly impoverished the country. A 
new group of general took over after the students movement 
in September 1988, and called themselves the Standing Law 
and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC).
The SLORC has provided a stable government, not a 
democratic one. Its one attempt at democracy in 1990 proved 
a disaster. Aung San Suu Kyi's movements today remain 
restricted though she is no longer under house arrest. She is 
probably immensely popular, but I did not notice in Myanmar 
even a trace of disturbance in Yangon during the late 
September incident. The SLORC is by no means a repressive 
government like many martial law regimes of West Asia and 
Africa. Its general build Pagodas and take part religious 
processions than crack heads. Buddhism is deeply ingrained in 
its people and tolerance and compassion characterise the 
country. A convention of selected representatives to form a 
constitution has been meeting on and off since 1993. A senior 
official claims that the process is a about two-thirds complete. 
He feels that it should evolve slowly through consensus. 
Many positive developments have taken place in the last few 
years and the country is slowly but surely on the road 
Almost all insurgencies have ended. This happened not so 
much through state violence as by persuasion, adjustment and 
accommodation. Even the Communist Party of Burma 
dissolved suddenly in 1989 through mutiny. Khun Sa, the 
fearsome drug lord, was probably bought over. Only a faction 
of the Karens are entire nation in under central control, 
though admittedly somewhat tenuous.
Myanmar is looking outwards and integrating steadily with 
the world. It was accepted as an 'observer' in the ASEAN in 
1996. Full membership will follow sooner than later. The 
Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohamad has said it might 
happen as early as the 30th anniversary of the organisation in 
1997. Meanwhile it has opened up its economy. The results 
were slow in coming, but the last three years have been a near 
ten per cent growth in its GDP. Bu August 31, 1996 
investments worth US $4.3 billion were approved. The bulk 
of it is in oil and gas, hotel and tourism, real estate and 
mining. Much more needs to be done in infrastructure. The 
potential is clearly there.
The SLORC is building bridges, developing inland water 
transport along the Erawaddy and expanding ports. Four 
Light Infantry Divisions of the Tatmadaw are undertaking a 
major railway construction project south of Mandalay. 
Yangon is slowly attempting to regain its lost glory. The year 
1996 has been declared a "Visit Myanmar Year". Clearly 
Myanmar today is not what some time ago and definitely not 
what is often portrayed by the media in the west.
Before examining the possibilities of Indo-Myanmar relations, 
it may be pertinent to briefly assess the state and significance 
of Beijing's interactions with Yangon. The incidents of 1988 
(Myanmar) and 1989 (Tiananmen in China) brought both 
countries close. A military assistance package of US $1.4 
billion from Beijing boosted the Tatmadaw's capability. A 
steady stream of high level visit in both directions has 
strengthened political relations. Trade, both official and non-
official, is booming and extends up to Mandalay.
But this relationship has also to be seen in perspective. The 
arms sales is more an instrument of influence designed to  
enhance dependency rather than a strategic threat to 
Myanmar's neighbours. It has strengthened  the Tatmadaw's 
capability to  tackle its insurgencies but not attempt a major 
war. There is great disenchantment in the Army with the 
vintage and quality of Chinese equipment. The assistance too 
is petering out. The SLORC would like to get out of a 
dependency syndrome as quickly as possible. In a market 
economy as in China today, state subsidy for political gains is 
not easy to develop or sustain. AS a result China has 
withdrawn from many construction and other infrastructure 
projects in the last two years. There is hardly any Chinese 
assistance east of Erawaddy. China's economic presence at 
Mandalay though significant is much exaggerated. My visit 
there in end-September clearly showed no outwards signs of 
such a presence.
How should India approach Myanmar? there are two ways in 
which to took at a border. One as a barrier, to block hostile 
forces, influences and ideas. In recent years India has often 
followed this approach. The other is as a gateway- an 
opening, for interaction in all its forms, especially for 
commerce. Increasingly around the world and especially in 
east Asia the latter perception dominates. Trade triangles and 
quadrilaterals are opening up linking up natural economic 
territories (NETs) astride artificial borders. China and 
southeast Asia are actively involved in creating such an 
economic space. There are enormous possibilities of opening 
up once again the southern silk route.
More important, it is with Myanmar that we need to redefine 
our relations. A  return to the principles of Panchasheela, 
where strict noninterference in internal affairs is the credo,  
should be our objective. Just as we would brook no foreign 
interference in our domestic conditions, let us not impose our 
ideas on others. Our cause and national interests would be 
served better by a more pragmatic approach. A relation of 
partnership with our neighbour east surely a better policy and 
provide a constructive way of influencing developments.
It is not anybody's case that mutual cooperation is essential to 
deal with insurgencies in India or Myanmar. These are 
essentially domestic  problems and can be resolved only 
within. India is much too strong a nation to need anyone's 
assistance in this, only if it would get its action in order. But 
the larger question of stability and development, which are the 
fundamental issues today, needs joint effort. Interactions 
across the border will take place. Geo-economic condition s 
point irrevocably in that direction. It is best to do this in a 
planned and coordinated manner through effective border 
management and state encouragement. Much work needs to 
be done. Roads and railways have to be opened, bridges 
constructed and infrastructure put in place. It will take time, 
but a beginning needs to be made now.
Even more than a 'gateway', it is a bridge that we need to 
develop. A bridge that links people based on partnership for 
mutual benefit.