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Monday, April 16, 2012

Myanmar at the crossroads of global politics

Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — Prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) recently won a landslide victory in the by-elections, taking at least 40 of the 45 seats being contested.

Though the parliament still remains dominated by the military and its allies, who hold the vast majority of the 664 seats, these elections mark the start of a new era in Myanmar. The NLD was competing in its first elections since 1990, after boycotting the 2010 polls, and was one of 17 opposition parties that took part.

Tectonic plates are shifting in the Indo-Pacific region, and nowhere is this more palpable than in the transformation of Myanmar. Internal changes of great significance are taking place in this country at a time when the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China has attained a sharper edge.

The U.S. has been at the forefront of global criticism and isolation of the military junta of Myanmar ever since the landslide victory of the NLD in 1999 general elections was quashed, leading to the brutal repression of the prodemocracy movement in the country. Sanctions were imposed and the country was famously described as being of "very little strategic interest" by Washington.

Democracy and human rights became the prism through which the U.S.-led West viewed Myanmar, leading to the entrenchment of China in the nation.

Now, as the U.S. pivots to the Indo-Pacific in a substantive manner, new equations are emerging that might just give New Delhi a critical role in the changing strategic realities.

In a landmark visit to Myanmar in December last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled categorically that the U.S. priorities are changing, praising "democratic reforms" initiated by the new president, Thein Sein.

Washington intends to normalize its ties with Naypyitaw by appointing a new ambassador after almost two decades and by helping Myanmar to join the global mainstream.

Myanmar has reciprocated at a number of levels. There has been a significant release of political prisoners, and easing of Internet and press censorship. And now with the NLD participating and winning in the latest by-elections, a gradual normalization of the democratic process in the country seems to have begun.

But what has surprised most observers is the way in which the Myanmar government has dealt with China in recent months. China's role in Myanmar is critical as its second-largest trading partner and biggest source of foreign investment. The armed forces of Myanmar depend largely on Chinese largesse. And the support of China has been crucial in diplomatic forums such as the U.N. Security Council.

The suspension of the China-backed $3.6 billion Myitsone dam project, which was expected to provide crucial hydroelectric power to China's Yunnan province, has certainly upset Beijing's calculus, though it soon recognized that there is no point in upping the ante.

China's growing economic role in Myanmar is not universally popular, and historical memory about China's support to the Communist Party of Burma in the 1960s and 1970s remains a bone of contention. Most Chinese investment is in the resource sector and has failed to produce positive externalities for Myanmar.

Myanmar is reaching out to other powers by promising political reform in order to balance China's preponderance. In many ways, the recent Western shift on Myanmar is recognition that India's policy of engaging the military government of Myanmar is the way forward.

The U.S. may not be willing to say it in so many words, but there is a tacit acceptance of the fact that its policy of isolating Myanmar's junta had not really been working and, in fact, had let to the reinforcing of the status quo.

India, in turn, should welcome this development as a greater Western involvement will lead to a significant curtailment of Chinese inroads into the region. New Delhi alone is not enough to balance China's might in the country. But India will now have to push more vigorously to expand its economic presence in Myanmar before the West starts making its presence felt.

There are new opportunities for India to exploit. The Indian prime minister will be in Myanmar in May to attend the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation summit meeting.

Myanmar's strategic and economic importance for India remains vital. It remains India's gateway to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. India has signaled its interest in joining the mega-project for the development of a deepwater seaport and special economic zone in Dawei, Myanmar, which is being sponsored by Thailand. This project has the potential to have a great impact on the regional economies as well as geopolitics.

Last month Myanmar was part of a 14-nation joint naval exercise with India in the Bay of Bengal, aimed at combating piracy and terrorism. The stability of Malacca Strait remains a key concern for the economies of Asia-Pacific including India and Myanmar.

China, too, remains worried about the U.S. naval presence in the region and views its trans-Burma Shwe pipeline as a possible solution to its Malacca dilemma. China's growing presence in Myanmar has facilitated China's entry in to the Bay of Bengal.

India's lack of a proactive role in exploring and developing gas reserves in Myanmar has marginalized India. India's economic involvement in Myanmar, largely through the public sector, has not been up to the mark with complaints about implementation delays and quality controls.

Now the Indian private sector wants to move in as opportunities expand but it will have to compete with the Western companies. Beijing's influence is not going to disappear overnight. It will fight hard to retain its presence in a country of strategic importance.

Still, India's Myanmar policy has traveled a long way in just past two years. The U.S. president had criticized Indian policy when he was in India in November 2010. Now Washington seems to pursuing a trajectory in Myanmar that is similar to India's. It is for India to take cognizance of the rapid changes taking place in its periphery and find its own unique role and voice.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London.

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