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    Posted on 09 December 2011
    OPINION  
    Suhas Chakma

    A country resurfaces

    Suhas Chakma argues only a democratic process in Myanmar can halt its plunder

    Illustration: Tim Tim Rose


    SOON AFTER the historic visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein signed a much-awaited Bill on December 2, 2011 that gives Burmese the right to peaceful protest under specified circumstances. Prior to the meeting with Clinton, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the press and reiterated that her position remains unchanged and she still supports sanctions against her country’s military-backed government. After the visit, Clinton, however, stated that apart from exchanging Ambassadors, the United States would relax after restrictions on international financial assistance and development programmes in Myanmar. This would allow imf and the World Bank to assess the needs of Myanmar. Whether the western sanctions imposed Myanmar during 1990s had a significant impact on the country’s political process beyond symbolism is debatable. At the time when Myanmar needed hard foreign currency, the Western sanctions were off-set by business with China, Thailand, Singapore and India.

    If the sanctions were not effective, it is equally pompous to claim that the so-called constructive engagement had an impact on Myanmar’s democratic political process. India has been desperately mimicking China – a fact abhorred by the pro-democracy activists – even when asean became increasingly vocal for the release of Suu Kyi and the need for national reconciliation. If Suu Kyi were to be under house arrest today, India would still be, quite deplorably, doing business as usual with Myanmar.

    There is a steady change of heart within Myanmar. After the prolonged isolation and alienation from world politics, today the change of heart originates from a realisation that maybe Myanmar is reduced to another Chinese province. The past 50 years are a testament to a country reeling under international sanctions, while curbing democratic movement within an ethnically divided Myanmar. The choreographed democracy therefore must be analysed. One of the despicable measures taken by General Ne Win following the coup of 1962 was to seize the properties of the Indian origin Burmese, who had been living in Burma for generations, by nationalising private properties in 1964. Over 3,00,000 ethnic Indians were also expelled. Ne Win feared domination of the Indian origin Burmese in the administration and major business enterprises.

    Fifty years on, Myanmar finds itself in the same situation, now with the Chinese. In the past twenty years, millions of Chinese have moved into Myanmar from neighbouring Yunnan and other provinces. From Burmese timber and gems to mines, oil and gas, the Chinese control everything. Mandalay today looks more of China than Myanmar with Chinese-owned hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and small businesses. The Chinese festivals have become an integral part of the city’s cultural calendar. The huge investments benefit China alone. The Myitsone Dam is being built at a cost of $3.6 billion in the Kachin State and is supposed to provide electricity to China for 50 years despite severe power shortage in Myanmar. As the Burmese have been pushed to the edges, resentment against the Chinese has become all pervasive.

    However, Myanmar cannot afford to expel the Chinese the way they expelled the Indians. It desperately needs to counter-balance China. Not surprisingly while the Myanmar’s foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin visited Beijing on October 10, 2011 to explain the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam at the cost of hefty cancellation fee of $42.5 million, the country’s president, Thein Sein, arrived India for a three-day state visit in October. India alone cannot be the counter-balancing alternative to the Chinese dominion built over 20 years of almost monopolistic access given China. Quite incredulously, China thinks it’s about them alone who could protect Myanmar from UN Security Council’s radar. China’s direct investment had risen to $15.5 billion in March 2011, up from $12.3 billion at the end of 2010. In comparison, India’s investment in Myanmar amounted to about $189 million as of June 2011 since the latter opened up to foreign investment in 1988. While China invested in every sector, of $189 million, India invested $137 million in the oil and gas sector. India currently ranks 13th in Myanmar’s foreign investors’ list. Bilateral trade between China and Myanmar in 2010 was about $4.4 billion in 2010 and during the first quarter of 2011, it hovered at $1.6 billion. In comparison, Myanmar-India bilateral trade reached $1.071 billion in 2010-11, way behind Thailand, Singapore and China. While China plans to build railway lines upto Kyauk-Phyu port in the Arakan province by 2017, India has no plans to connect even Aizawl, Mizoram.

    MYANMAR HAD no other option but to open up to the world which boycotts it. This calls for meaningful democratic reform including immediate release of at least 2,000 detained political prisoners and holding of free and fair by-election for the 48 parliamentary seats in the coming months in which Suu Kyi is set to contest. At the bilateral talks held in the Myanmar capital, Nay Pyi Taw on December 6, Japan stated that it intends to resume full-fledged Overseas Development Aid to Myanmar if the government improves its democracy process and human rights situation. If the military-backed government frees all the political prisoners and allows free and fair by-election in the coming months, the US and the EU must consider lifting the sanctions as the key to glasnost in Myanmar.

    Myanmar needs aid, as also foreign investment. Sanctions might not have had an impact to oust the citizens but the sanctions were instrumental in the prevention of western investment into Myanmar that could have only strengthened them. The sanctions have created a situation where Myanmar has been effectively reduced to a Chinese province; and this has also triggered the democratic reforms. The spotlight is on the natural gas resources including proven recoverable reserve of 18.012 trillion cubic-feet estimated reserve of offshore and onshore gas and 3.2 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil reserve. It is something that China has its eyes on. It is a thing that most developed countries would like to capture. It is essential to ensure a clear roadmap to the Myanmar democracy, before Japan and the notorious west join the rat race for exploitation of the natural resources of Myanmar.

    Suhas Chakma is Director, Asian Centre for Human Right


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    Posted on 09 December 2011
 

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