The Asian Balance: Myanmar’s Narasimha Rao moment?

A pleasant surprise from the east

This is the unedited draft of today’s column in the Business Standard:

In a matter of months, Myanmar’s infamous junta diluted itself out of power, a new ‘elected’ government took office, duly freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, lifted some curbs on the local media, unblocked YouTube, declared that censorship ought to go, announced the intention to introduce economic reforms and — hold on to your seats, ladies and gentlemen — bowed to public pressure and suspended construction on a huge hydro-electric dam that Chinese companies were building on the Irrawaddy river.

So far, so remarkable and so quiet have these developments been that even seasoned observers are in a state of surprise. It seems impossible that a country which appeared so utterly hopeless even twelve months ago — with a closed-minded, curmudgeonly junta presiding over the destruction of generations of human capital — has turned around even to this extent. Then again, this is 2011, the year of geopolitical surprises, where the unexpected is a daily occurrence. Myanmar is unique because the changes happened without ceremony, without round-the-clock television coverage, without foreign fighter aircraft flying sorties over the capital, even without that symbol of early twenty-first century revolution — the twitter hashtag. And so far, at least, it has been good news.

The country may be at its own Narasimha Rao moment. President Thein Sein, who was in India last week, was a top-rung general in the previous military regime and had served as prime minister. Like Rao, he is an unlikely figure to open his country to the world. And like Rao, he might well be the most appropriate. It is way too early to declare that Myanmar has climbed out of the pit its generals dug for it. The new government’s moves are tentative, but they are in the right direction. What happens next depends as much on how the world responds to Thein Sein’s overtures as on his ability to carry his country’s armed forces along.

Because some of Thein Sein’s key decisions preceded or coincided with his trip to New Delhi, some have portrayed them as a vindication of New Delhi’s approach of engaging the erstwhile junta despite its odious human rights record. Such an argument, however, must be tempered with the fact that the Myanmarese foreign minister visited Washington, which had shunned and sanctioned the junta, two weeks prior to Thein Sein’s arrival in India.

Others have cast the developments within Myanmar in the context of a grand contest between India and China, with reformist-democratic forces gravitating towards New Delhi just as conservative-authoritarians are aligned to Beijing. This is misleading.

Take for instance the halting of construction of the Myitsone dam that angered the Chinese government. Given the enormity of public opposition to the dam which mainly benefits China while causing environmental damage in Myanmar, the Thein Sein government confronted a choice between antagonising its own people and angering China. That it chose the latter is a credible signal of its approach to governance. That said, the geopolitical consequences of rubbing a powerful neighbour on the wrong side had to be managed, which explain the overtures to India and the United States. This does not mean that Myanmar will now start favouring India over China in commercial dealings. Rather, it will seek greater policy autonomy for itself by balancing its relationships with regional and world powers. This is still a positive for India, but only to the extent that the playing field will be more level that it was earlier.

So it is up to the Indian government and Indian industry to capitalise on the opening promised by the Thein Sein government. China’s success in South East Asia over the past decade has been due to a combination of money and speed. India’s announcement of a $500 million line-of-credit for development projects in Myanmar can make a meaningful different, but the our government is unlikely — for good reason — to be able to match its Chinese counterpart in the spreading of largesse. We should not get into a spending race. But we should not make excuses for the glacial pace at which India’s developmental projects move forward.

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, which connects India’s eastern seaboard to its north-eastern states through Myanmar, is of strategic importance. You should be properly horrified to hear that it is proceeding “slowly”. Also, last week, when one of Thein Sein’s cabinet colleagues broached the idea of re-opening the World War II-era Stillwell Road (which connects Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to Myanmar) our minister of development of the north-eastern region’s reply was: “We have told them that Government of India would consider the proposal after it is formally submitted.” In triplicate, he might have added.

We cannot say for sure that the Thein Sein government will sustain its current course. It may only be aiming at gaining greater international legitimacy and foreign investment while only marginally transforming the nature of the regime. In such circumstances, a tit-for-tat strategy — rewarding desirable movement and punishing backsliding — is called for. New Delhi should work in cooperation with the United States, Japan and key South East Asian countries to put Myanmar on an irreversible course towards freedom, democracy and development.

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