Why Myanmar’s elections must matter to India

Modi seems to have lagged behind China in building a rapport with Suu Kyi, who may now be calling the shots.

 |  4-minute read |   07-11-2015
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There are many firsts in the general election to be held in Myanmar on November 8. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the indomitable Aung San Suu Kyi, is contesting nationwide for the first time after it swept the polls in the first-ever multiparty elections in 1990 with a battle cry to end the military rule. Of course, the military junta alarmed at the results clamped down on party politics and tightened its stranglehold on democracy thereafter.

Democracy

For the first time, there will be no Muslim member in the incoming Parliament as they do not figure in the electoral list of candidates of national parties, including the NLD. Similarly, it will also be first time the Rohingya minority have been disenfranchised and excluded from participation in the election.

For the first time, there will be no Muslim member in the incoming Parliament as they do not figure in the electoral list of candidates of national parties, including the NLD. Similarly, it will also be first time the Rohingya minority have been disenfranchised and excluded from participation in the election.

President Thein has gained some credibility among the people and in the West after he removed some of the irksome fetters on freedom of expression. He freed the media of controls and eased the restrictions on the use of Internet. He also released many political prisoners, lifted the ban on political parties, including the NLD, and their activities. These actions enabled him to rework USD’s image, particularly after he improved his interface with Suu Kyi and the NLD.

President Thein cancelled the Chinese-aided Myitsone dam power project, heavily weighted in favour of China, in deference to public protest on environmental concerns. With the assistance of international aid agencies, he has introduced structural reforms in fiscal management to check currency volatility. These positive actions led to the easing of stringent Western sanctions, resulting in increased foreign investments and ending China’s unchallenged domination. But on the flip side, much of the development work is yet to yield dividends.

Though public turn out at Suu Kyi’s election rallies is massive, can she lead the NLD to a spectacular victory as she did 25 years ago in the 1990 election? Even Suu Kyi sounded a little guarded on this question in her interview to an Indian TV station on October 7. She stressed winning the election was the first step.

Though many analysts seem to be sure of the NLD winning most of the seats, it may not be able to repeat its 1990 story. Despite the internal divisions, the USD as a party in power has a huge clout with a large network of branches and has promised a lot of favours.

Look east

However, there seems to be a lack of public interest in India in the happenings in Myanmar, perhaps due to perennial preoccupation with Pakistan. But the relations with Myanmar were revamped when India adopted the Look East policy, though it lacked vigour. After PM Narendra Modi took over power, it has picked up greater momentum.

India and Myanmar have strengthened their close security relations to cooperate and coordinate their operations on both sides of their borders, which are troubled by ethnic insurgencies. This was demonstrated recently when India’s national security adviser was invited to witness the signing ceremony of a ceasefire between the Myanmar government and the armed ethnic groups. This has become vital for the success of India’s recently concluded agreement with NSCN(IM) which has had links across the border in Myanmar.

Security

Building upon our security relations with Myanmar has become even more relevant as China’s unique status in the country’s security space has diminished with ushering in of democracy. In fact, the two northern neighbours have had a face-off over Myanmar’s crackdown on the Kokkang insurgent groups of Chinese ethnicity sometime back.

But Modi seems to have lagged behind President Xi Jinping in building a personal rapport with Suu Kyi who may be calling the shots in Myanmar after the elections. In a recent Indian TV interview, she regarded her meeting with Xi as detailed and cordial; Modi came across as a “reserved but rather nice person” after her brief meeting with him last year. She termed the relationship between Myanmar and India as “not bad”, an improvement over what it was three or four years ago when India was overcautious about support for the democracy movement in Myanmar.

Perhaps that’s where the answer lies. We need more people-to-people interaction at all levels with Myanmar.

Writer

Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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