Millennium Post

Myanmar’s democracy is India-friendly

It seems that in the conduct of effective regional diplomacy, a delicate blend of patience and moderation counts for a great deal.

Recent tensions between different sections of people in Myanmar and ethnic Chinese settlers clearly illustrate this. For decades, India, which never really supported the Western economic sanctions against Myanmar, has been castigated for its stand on most issues relating to its Eastern neighbour. From US President Barack Obama downwards, most Western leaders have slammed India's 'lukewarm' attitude on the human rights situation in Myanmar.

In contrast, the overwhelming presence of China in the highly strategic, energy rich Buddhist country seemed irrevocably final. As Indian diplomats explain, 'The more Europe and the US tried to reduce Myanmar to a pariah status internationally, the firmer was the Chinese embrace,' during the last two decades.

Present developments suggest that for once, the Chinese overplayed their winning hand in Myanmar. It appears they failed to learn from developments in their own neighbourhood.

It is common in diplomacy that most nations do not necessarily love their benefactors. Even after sacrificing nearly 15,000 soldiers in its 1971 war against Pakistan to help free Bangladesh, the common Bangladeshi did not necessarily feel beholden to India or Indians. The US has aided and indeed, kept Pakistan going economically, for ages. While such help has enabled a section of Pakistanis grow rich, it has neither helped Pakistan prosper, nor made the US particularly popular.

For some time past, there have been reports particularly from the Northern provinces of Myanmar, that the local people are finding it hard to get along with 'new ' Chinese immigrants to their country, mostly from Yunnan province. The Burmese normally had little trouble in accepting Chinese presence, even permanent settlements. The earlier migrants shared common values of Buddhism and had no difficulty in learning the Burmese language. But the newcomers from Yunnan were different, the reports suggested. Mostly the Chinese came as investors in projects which they discussed and cleared with the ruling army Junta authorities, no doubt greasing palms wherever necessary. As a recent study noted, they came as hardnosed business people looking for new markets and opportunities. In part, the Western economic boycott of Myanmar helped, in that they could assume a position of total domination over an immensely energy rich area facing very little competition. The official process of the acquisition of Burmese citizenship had been greatly simplified by the Myanmar administration to accommodate their benefactors.

According to available media reports from Myanmar, which are few and far between on account of the kind of press censorship that has existed over the decades, latent anti-Chinese feeling were common among the people of the Irrawady delta, south of the Bhamo area. What the army authorities and the Chinese wanted to project as an 'economic miracle of Myanmar' did neither enthuse nor impress the locals. They saw only the long term effects of Burmese 'industrialisation' - heavy pollution, destruction of the environment, the poisoning of its rivers, the loss of its forests - all the travails of development seen on a bigger scale within China itself.

Even worse was the fact that the Chinese who prior to 2010 had invested over $1.85 billion dollars in 90 projects involving 70 Chinese corporate houses, had not helped the local industries to grow or flourish. Taking advantage of the low-tech levels of industries in Myanmar, the Chinese mostly sold cheap consumer goods, the sales going up from $546 million in 2000 to $2 billion by 2008. It did not take the Burmese very long to realise that while 'the Chinese get richer in Burma, the Burmese get poorer'.

Kolkata-based Burmese dissidents, mostly Arakanese, conforming these trends, estimated that while no official figures were readily available, the number of Chinese settlers in their country was over 4 million. The blind political support the Chinese gave to the ruling army junta only increased the frustration and anger of the Burmese commoner.

As one dissident put it, it was not enough that the Chinese were exploiting their country's oil, gas and hydrocarbon resources. Far worse was the forced relocation of entire communities at short notice from one area to wretched locations where no infrastructure existed. There was no compensation, homes were bulldozed, protestors were beaten up and jailed, even killed. Particularly galling was the sight of Chinese men settling and working on sites where the Burmese had been living earlier! It was brutal colonisation all over again in modern times. Only a small trickle of facts was available by courtesy of the underground press (although the later arrival of the internet improved things considerably for the Burmese pro-democracy forces).

It may be recalled that in the 1960s, there had occurred riots involving the Chinese and Burmese communities in some parts of the country. The iron rule of the army had effectively ensured that there would be no outward manifestation of anti-Chinese sentiment. Nevertheless, in recent times, the Burmese army units have been involved in skirmishes with the Chinese in parts of Myanmar. A recent explosion in one area claimed nearly 300 Chinese lives, but no group claimed responsibility. There have been tensions between Beijing and Naypyidaw over the construction of dams in the upper Tibet regions by the Chinese, which may affect the flow of the Irrawady and other rivers flowing through Myanmar. The climax came after the civilian Burmese leader Thein Sein ordered the suspension of work in the proposed $3.6 billion dam project built by China.

Clearly, the ongoing shift to democracy and elections had caused fresh winds of change to blow in Myanmar, which is currently exploring closer cooperation and ties with other countries, looking beyond Chinese horizons. As its big neighbour, India enjoys a distinct advantage, on account of its level of economic development and the warmth of existing bilateral relations. As India helps Myanmar upgrade its infrastructure, helping it build its ports, dams and roads, trade and business is slated to grow from the present $2.7 billion to around $7 billion by 2015.
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