Investing in Burma

acLast month, from July 25 to 29, Senior General Than Shwe, the leader of Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which is the official name of the Burmese junta, was on a goodwill visit to India. The visit was marked by several high-level meetings with political leaders in India, pilgrimages to Buddhist holy places and to key centres of information-technology.
The discord that this visit has resulted in flows from Burma’s appalling record of human rights violations and the manner in which the junta has crushed all political dissidence. As such, the visit turned into a serious debate between the pro-democracy forces both within and outside Burma, and the official groups supporting greater engagement with Burma.
Though the visit began as a religious one, it had several official elements. Three high-level meetings were held — with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, external affairs minister S.M. Krishna and President Pratibha Patil — and India and Burma signed several agreements. Most of these agreements relate to cooperation in the field of information technology and industrial assistance.
Both in terms of technical and technological support, Burma faces a key lacuna which India can and must meet. The prospects of cooperation have also been increased with the agreement whereby Tata Motors will start a truck-manufacturing plant in Burma. Another area where the two countries are seeking to engage is in infrastructural development. As a critical part of the India-Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) Free Trade Agreement, the necessity of assistance in the development of infrastructure will play a vital role in India-Burma relations.
Burma is the land route through which India is connected to Asean and this factor cannot be undermined. Moreover, the opening up of this route will result in an influx of trade and movement through India’s Northeast, a development that is certain to reduce the developmental gap between the Northeast and the rest of India. In that sense, economic cooperation with Burma is significant. This was a factor pushed by India with a view to securing its strategic interests in the region, particularly because of the influence that China is having on Burma.
If one considers these aspects, then India’s realpolitik approach is not misplaced. Also, given that isolation will only push Burma further from the path of any political reform, it is incumbent that India remains engaged with Burma.
One of the factors that drives the debate against the visit is that in some sense the visit was seen as an attempt by Senior General Than Shwe to elicit India’s support for the forthcoming elections. While the October elections are likely to bring in some changes in terms of how the military junta is restructuring its goals and perceptions, there is a high chance that the process of national reconciliation will not get a head start. Unless the election process includes all the political voices in Burma and allows for these voices to be heard, there is little point in holding elections.
In an attempt to recast its image, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) — a front for the junta’s political activities — is in the process of changing its name to the Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP). By shifting its priorities and trying to refocus on political reform, the junta believes that its stakes in the political administration will gain more legitimacy. The fact that the military is redefining its political role reflects its apprehension that its legitimacy to rule the country will eventually be challenged from within. This shift is also important given that there has been international pressure for Burma to reform from within. But while the push for change needs to be a part of diplomatic initiatives from other countries, it needs to be negotiated between the opposing political groups within Burma.
Within the country, the junta controls all the administrative structures and remains very much in control. Today when one looks at the Burmese political situation, given the absence of an active civil society and groups to represent alternate opinions, only the junta has any sort of mechanism in place.
Burma has remained under military rule for nearly 50 years, since the coup in 1962 under General Ne Win. Even after the 1988 uprising there was little political change within Burma. In contrast, the external environment, both regionally and globally, has changed and this will have an influence on Burma in the course of time. Burma for its own sake cannot afford to remain isolated anymore.
Lack of engagement with Burma is not a solution. But engagement with a focused approach to national reconciliation should be the course India takes. While this is the rhetoric emerging from Delhi, its endorsement of national reconciliation remains merely in words.
Burma and India have an integral link from past shared history. Till 1935, both India and Burma were governed under the same administrative structure. Historical commonality, cultural linkages and political cooperation at the official levels can allow for a space to be created for India. And given that India has increased its leverage within Burma and the junta, India could offer to play the role of a mediating party in the process of national reconciliation. What is needed is a more nuanced approach in which India mixes its practical approach with realpolitik.
The process of change within a country such as Burma, which has remained in isolation for far too long, needs to be slow-paced and enduring. This cannot be achieved without bringing about reconciliation. The biggest step that India can take at this juncture is to be the catalyst towards that process. This will not only strengthen India’s stand vis-à-vis the Chinese and Asean positions, but will also ensure goodwill within the political groups in Burma that are seeking to engage with India.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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