IDSA COMMENT

Recent Developments in Myanmar

November 2, 2007

International pressure on Myanmar’s military government has intensified following the recent political upheaval triggered by a hike in fuel prices in August. This has brought into sharp focus the policies of Myanmar’s neighbours – China, India and the ASEAN States – whose reaction to the Naypyidaw regime has differed from capitals that are relatively distant. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari held consultations with leaders in New Delhi besides meeting Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo recently. This has raised expectations of a resolution of the situation in Myanmar.

Many factors have given this movement great prominence. First, the demonstrations in Myanmar’s many cities, including Yangon, attracted wide international attention as the events occurred under intense new age media glare including internet blogging. The movement successfully sidestepped media restrictions and censorship to reach out to the wider international audience by taking advantage of modern technology. Second, these events occurred at a time when the SPDC had taken the first step on the road to democracy by completing the work of the National Convention (convened to prepare a new Constitution). Another irony is that the generals were trying to implement IMF injunctions to cut fuel price subsidies when public wrath engulfed them. Third, Buddhist monks, the most revered institution of Myanmar society, are taking the regime head on. In terms of numbers (about 400,000), they almost match the military, and both institutions have equally deep roots within society. Fourth, the protests coincided with the UN General Assembly session in New York. UN Special envoy Ibrahim Gambari met Myanmar’s Than Shwe and Maung Aye in Naypyidaw on October 2. He also met Suu Kyi twice. The result has been increased dissemination of information on day-to-day events.

The viewer’s vantage point has often determined the approach adopted towards Myanmar. The United States and the European Union have traditionally been at the forefront of imposing sanctions against the regime for not complying with international standards of human rights and democracy. Countries in Myanmar’s neighbourhood have, however, generally adopted a more flexible approach. Starting with the 1988 movement when the regime suffered international ostracism and sanctions, it has been China that has come to Myanmar’s rescue with military and economic aid besides moral and diplomatic support. Both ASEAN and Japan have also favoured a policy of engagement, though this approach (of engagement and non-interference in internal affairs) has been questioned. During the ongoing developments, Tokyo changed tack immediately after a Japanese video journalist got killed while filming the demonstrations.

India’s understanding of the geopolitical context has led it to favour a policy of engaging the regime in power. It desires stability and growth in Myanmar, and has sought to balance geopolitical imperatives with its commitment to democracy. Factors that have necessitated the accommodative Indian approach are: the importance of containing insurgency in India’s northeast, growing Chinese influence in Myanmar, and energy requirements. New Delhi’s policy has traversed the entire spectrum from support to the pro-democracy/opposition groups to support for the military regime. It has also attempted in the past to ride two horses at the same time – with mixed results. The lessons learnt from these experiences have possibly shaped its current approach.

When fleet-footed Beijing bagged the contract for offshore Arakan gas, India was made to realize the costs of delay. It was this which possibly prompted Indian Oil Minister Murli Deora’s recent visit to Myanmar, when three accords were signed between the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and its counterpart Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). India also pledged US $150 million for gas exploration in three blocks, the AD-2, AD-3 and AD-9 off the Rakhine coast.

India’s policy has its critics among some of the opposition parties plus the 88 Generation Myanmar leaders based in India. They have sought to put pressure on the Indian government to re-examine its policy towards the ruling junta in Myanmar. New Delhi, however, sees merit in working through quiet diplomacy and has nuanced its position in the light of the developing situation. When External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee met his Myanmar counterpart Nyan Win on the sidelines of the UN General Debate in New York on October 2, he expressed the hope that “the process of national reconciliation and political reform, initiated by the Government of Myanmar, would be taken forward expeditiously.” At the same time, he also expressed “concern at the present situation” prevailing there. India also voted for a UN Human Rights Council resolution calling on the authorities to release Aung San Suu Kyi, despite expressing differences over the text of the resolution. Mr. Mukherjee suggested that the Myanmar government should consider undertaking an inquiry into recent incidents and the use of force on pro-democracy protesters in that country. This was a move forward from his earlier statement at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, on September 21, when he had emphasised the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country.

Various options have previously been tried in dealing with supposedly ‘recalcitrant’ states. Under current international circumstances, the military option is perhaps not a serious choice. At the same time, international diplomatic pressure has persuaded the military junta to make some conciliatory gestures. Sr. Gen. Than Shwe has offered to meet Aung San Suu Kyi personally albeit on the precondition that she stops supporting sanctions. Possibly a sustainable solution to the situation can be found through an active role for the United Nations and Myanmar’s neighbours including India and ASEAN.

India knows that the Military is a deeply entrenched institution in Myanmar and controls every lever of power. Though the Buddhist monks may balance the military numerically, and have great moral clout, economic and coercive power is vested in the military. If this institution were to be abruptly displaced, the result could be utter chaos. As Myanmar scholar Thant Myint-U points out, if you expect that by peeling away the Military you would find something underneath you would be terribly disappointed.