Sustaining change in Myanmar: Part 1

Written by: Col R Hariharan
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[This article formed the basis for Col Hariharan's presentation "Political and economic change in Myanmar" at the Federation of Indian Export Organisation (FIEO) seminar "Doing Business with Myanmar" at Chennai on March 16, 2013.]

Strategic context of change

Myanmar is in the throes of change since 2010 after the first-ever multi-party election was held after two decades. President Thein Sein has surprised all the stakeholders by the speed with which he is transforming the government from an insensitive military dictatorship to a democratic rule of sorts, despite the limitations imposed by the Constitution 2008. As a result Myanmar has become the focus of international attention and even approval.

Geographically located on the eastern borders of India, and on the South and Southeast of China, Myanmar's strategic value for two most populated nations of the world is immense. This is further enhanced with the impending completion of two infrastructure projects linking Myanmar with China and India.

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The China-funded Kyakpu port project with road link and gas and oil pipelines to Yunnan in China is likely to be completed in the next few months. This would provide China a direct strategic access to the Indian Ocean by passing the choke point at Malacca Strait. Apart from security implications, it would make Chinese exports to the under exploited South Asian market more competitive, while helping the development of Yunnan province.

Similarly India's Kaladan multi modal project providing easier road and river access for India's troubled Northeast to Sittwe port in Myanmar is expected to be completed in May 2014. This link could act as a catalyst for the development of Northeastern states of India as it would open a direct route for India's trade with Myanmar and the rest of ASEAN.

In tandem with China's direct access through Kyakpu, Sino-Indian trade will have greater opportunities to flourish. And we can expect China to enlarge its foot print further in South Asia.

China's increasing belligerence in East and South China seas has become a cause for concern for Japan and its close ally the US. It threatens to destabilize the US's dominance in East Asia and longstanding strategic equation with Japan, South Korea and Philippines.

China's contentious territorial claims on South China Sea have become louder. To contain this development, the US has been trying to enlarge its strategic periphery from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific. As a key geostrategic entity in this region, Myanmar is well on its way to become a focus nation of the U.S., shedding its out caste status of earlier years.

During the last three decades, China had carefully cultivated Mynamar's military junta by providing vital economic and political help to soften the crippling effect of international sanctions imposed upon the country after the military refused to hand over power to the democratically elected civilian government in 1990. China chose to ignore the struggle for restoration of democracy by the National League for Democracy (NLD) under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Although India and ASEAN countries did not observe the sanctions and built their own links with the military regime, it is Chinese influence that predominates in Myanmar, particularly in the armed forces, infrastructure, mining and trade and commerce.

The cosy relationship China had built over the years in Myanmar is under threat now. Sustained international pressures and support to Suu Kyi's campaign spearheaded by the US ultimately compelled the military regime to come out with the 2008 Constitution which gives limited democracy to the people. China had no option but to go along with the international community on the democratic reforms in keeping with its growing international profile.

Ever since the civilian government came to power and started taking up political, economic and structural reforms process, the US has started rebuilding its relations with Myanmar. As a result the US sanctions are progressively being lifted to facilitate greater opportunities for U.S. business in Myanmar.

President Obama's visit in November 2012 came perhaps as the final recognition of President Thein's earnest effort in the democratic exercise. As increasing US presence in Myanmar is eating into the Chinese sphere of influence, it has become a matter of concern to China. Chinese media had been lamenting the failure of its policy makers to cultivate the democratic constituency in Myanmar.

Though the Chinese are trying to repair their relationship with leaders like Suu Kyi, in the amorphous state of politics in the country it will be quite some time for results to emerge. However, China as a neighbour with enormous economic and military power will continue to enjoy widespread influence in Myanmar for some time to come.

However, China would always be on watching with extra attention the US initiatives in Myanmar in the context of regional security and trading regimes. This would become even more important when Myanmar assumes the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014.

Unlike China, India's relationship had been more laid back. However, Myanmar's historical cultural and religious experience and shared colonial history with India makes Myanmar more comfortable in dealing with Indians.

India's presence as a friendly and powerful neighbour enables Myanmar to somewhat balance China's overwhelming influence. This could become a potential game changer as and when India-US strategic relationship grows. Indian efforts to enlarge its economic and strategic relationship are not on the same league as China.

However, given the entrepreneurial spirit of Indians which is second only to the Chinese, we can expect it to grow more rapidly in the coming years. Indian leadership of all political hues is aware of the importance of Myanmar in India's overall strategic spectrum. And as democracy comes to stay in Myanmar its equation with India is likely to make rapid progress.

Myanmar's ability of to sustain political and economic changes now underway has to be viewed in this overall strategic context.

[See Part 2]

(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia and its neighbourhood, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. His email address: colhari@yahoo.com)

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