Irrawaddy dreaming

When Prime Mini-ster Manm-ohan Singh arrives in Yangon this coming week for a historic three-day visit, he will have effectively reversed India’s policy towards its largest eastern neighbour, impoverished but no longer ignored and long part of China’s orbit.
In reordering Delhi’s orientation, Dr Singh will be signalling India’s enthusiastic participation in the opening up of Asia’s newest frontier, hoping to be one step ahead of the mad scramble to rebuild a country that has remained largely unchanged for millennia.
In announcing a $300 million line of credit before he leaves for Yangon, Dr Singh will place India front and centre in the midst of the infrastructure boom that is waiting to happen, laying the groundwork for the much-talked-of highway that would connect Kohima in Nagaland, the so-called Stalingrad of the East, all the way across some of the most forbidding landscapes that have long served as a geographical bulwark against China.
The highway, the first brick in Dr Singh’s much-talked-of Silk Road integral to his Look East policy, will snake through the lush Irrawady and Salween plains and down to bustling Bangkok.
The Burma-Bangla-India oil-gas pipeline, meanwhile mooted some years ago, awaits a green signal from Dhaka, looking to Delhi for ways to get around the cussed Mamata Banerjee to melt over the Teesta. That’s for another day.
The Burmese thaw has been some time in the making. Dr Singh’s government dropped the cold shoulder given by the Rajiv Gandhi government to the generals, choosing a more pragmatic line, which paid dividends when Yangon cracked down on the terror enclaves that harboured separatists from the Northeast.
Delhi sent Nirupama Rao, former foreign secretary and now India’s envoy to Washington, and external affairs minister S.M. Krishna to Burma last year to prepare the ground for the visit. Ms Rao was particularly keen to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, newly freed from 23 years of house arrest and the woman who has come to represent Burma’s dogged fight for democracy.
Insiders have hinted that India’s policy of talking to the generals was watched with keen interest in Washington — and by an increasingly nervous Beijing. It may have even led US President Barack Obama to change the hectoring tone he adopted on India’s Burma policy while speaking in Mumbai to one of quiet approval.
Dr Singh will not be the first Asian leader to land in a Yangon, where even the rooms of the half-way decent hotels are named and numbered in the Chinese script. Chinese tourists and businessmen have been Communist China’s foot soldiers in mufti, probing the possibilities of Asia’s Wild West, ever since Beijing woke up to the resources that lay waiting to be tapped in a country whose own northern border with China had seen a rapid multiplicity of Chinese enclaves.
As Thant Myint-U recounts in his book Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia,Where China meets India, these have become footholds of future influence just inside the frontier. China’s support for a leadership shunned by everyone, Delhi and Washington both, was clearly fuelled by its worldwide hunt for raw material that would feed the economic boom of its own hinterland; in keeping with its befriending of pariah nations in hitherto ignored Africa like resource-rich Sudan and Zimbabwe.
There were other early visitors like Pakistan’s Zardari-Bhuttos. Probably the result of the eagerness of the young Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to meet his hero Ms Suu Kyi, whose book Letters from Burma was on his reading list, and the fact that the Burmese leader shares a birthday with his slain mother, the equally iconic Benazir.
In the grand new capital Naypitaw — which means seat of kings and new city, depending on which Burman you talk to — President Thein Sein has hosted US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and South Korean leader Lee Myung Bak. They won’t be the first or the last
leaders to crash China’s party.
Gen. Than Shwe’s visit to Delhi in 2010, Mr Obama’s handshake with the then Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein at an Asean meet, President Thein Sein’s subsequent visit to India in October last year and his top general’s visit to Beijing, soon after restrictions on Ms Suu Kyi were eased, were the first public indication to anyone that the new Burma was ready to play Beijing off against Delhi and Washington.
It was preceded by Burma’s shock scrapping of the Chinese-funded $3.5 million Myitsone dam across the upper Irrawaddy, which would have displaced and dispossessed hundreds and thousands of the nation’s riverine communities.
China has poured billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in Burma that would feed its own booming economy in the Chinese hinterland, particularly in energy-hungry Yunnan. The Myitsone hydel project alone would have accounted for three per cent of Yunnan’s power needs. China’s infrastructure investments were in roads and pipelines across the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers, and ports such as Ramree which would give it access to the Bay of Bengal.
Whether Burma will look for other partners, who put the interests of Burma first, will be interesting to watch. Most Burma-analysts have revelled in the “China and India Contest” of the century analyses. And India’s pragmatic embrace of the Burmese generals, as they moved from closing off the world to cautiously dropping the regime’s barriers — be it ever so slowly — may well be part of the oft-repeated hedge against China line, with the goal being to stop Chinese influence from crystallising fully.
With China already controlling Burma’s Coco Islands, which abut crucial sea lanes in the Bay of Bengal, the closest listening post to India, will Delhi seek accommodation or confrontation?
Analysts have written of India’s pre-Independence colonial links and its cultural reach marking out countries from Burma to Bali as “Farther India”. An Irrawaddy dreaming. Dr Singh’s tour of the Shwegadon temple and the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar will use that soft power to build ties anew as Delhi, like China before it, marks out Burma as its springboard into Southeast Asia.

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