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The one happening place

The one happening place
Myanmar is the one ‘happening’ place in a world hit by economic recession these days. With foreign investors and donors rushing to Myanmar for a share of its vast energy reserves, any talk of a world economic downturn sounds unreal in Naypyidaw, according to visitors.

The new pro-democracy government headed by president Thein Sein has recently announced the economic development of Myanmar as its top priority. After nearly 25 years, the country has decided to open up its economy to international finance and foreign investments, with some conditions attached. Most countries are responding enthusiastically.

For now, the days of near total Chinese domination of Myanmar’s economic development, as seen during the long tenure of the SLORC army regime, is a thing of the past. Pragmatic as ever, the Chinese have taken the ongoing changes in Myanmar, involving a considerable reduction it its earlier role and importance, in their stride – seemingly. Officially, they have welcomed the lifting of international sanctions against their neighbour. That is not to say that they have accepted recent changes there as a diplomatic ‘defeat’, according to analysts.

The Chinese, remain by far the biggest investor in Myanmar. They stood by their neighbour unflinchingly, as West-backed sanctions came into place, ignoring its miserable human rights records. The pot could not very well call the kettle black. Myanmar earned huge sums by way of revenue from its gas and energy sales to its larger neighbour, helping its economy to grow, bucking a virtual world boycott. China also helped Myanmar develop much of its road, rail and naval infrastructure. In terms of investments in Myanmar, China leads other countries with $14 billion. Most of its money has gone into projects in the power energy sector; oil, gas and mining. China accounts for a hefty 35 per cent of all investments in Myanmar.

It is quite another matter that some of the consequences of the Chinese domination had unforeseen side effects that eventually hurt China’s standing among the citizens of Myanmar. In some respects, there are similarities between the situations the US currently faces in Pakistan and China in Myanmar. With the proviso that the Burmese were more dependent on China, while Pakistan, not facing major international sanctions except briefly in 1998-99, had more options vis-à-vis the US.

The fact that over a period the Chinese used their own men to work in their Myanmar projects and set up colonies did not exactly endear them to the locals in the long run. People also resented the sale of their economic assets on a monopoly basis to China, at prices often virtually dictated by the bigger neighbour.

What also weighed against China was the history of the two countries. The Chinese had a past record of meddling in the ethnic struggles between the majority Bamar population in Burma and various armed ethnic minorities spread along its international borders. Also, China’s policy of non-interference in the affairs of its neighbours meant, in Myanmar’s case, a blind acceptance of the worst excesses and corruption of army rule. A common grievance among the Burmese was, the Chinese and Burmese army top brass enriched themselves economically while the people as an entity were ignored totally!

No wonder, China’s friendly advice, in its media recently, to Myanmar not to proceed too fast with its current experiment with consensus-based democracy has been strongly derided by most Burmese who have warmly welcomed the freedom they enjoy in the new system.

As Myanmar’s next biggest Asian neighbour, India certainly stands to benefit from present developments, in that for now the leadership of both countries are democratic in principle, unlike China. During the past few years India has also been participating in developing roads and ports in Myanmar, as a component of its Look East policy, as well as helping in the power sector. At present, trade between the two countries has risen to $1.5 billion annually. India is also participating in gas and oil exploration projects, although, unlike China it has not been able to complete its proposed pipelines.

Both China and India are far better placed than other advanced countries to help Myanmar open up and develop its economy to its fullest potential, because of their physical proximity, technological capabilities, expertise and financial strength.

However, an end to China’s economic domination of Myanmar, temporary or not, will automatically make it easier for India to fill its place or even increase its role in the expanding economy of Myanmar There are already enough indications that instead of having to counter strong Chinese influence in Rangoon earlier, India will have its work cut out to secure new business and collaborations, competing with international finance and investors, in Naypyidaw.

Only days ago, Myanmar authorities concluded several oil and gas exploration deals with foreign companies. Out of nine agreements signed, only one Indian company, Jubilant Energy, was involved in one of the deals.

While these are exhilarating times for Myanmar, ironically other experts besides Chinese are also advising it not to go too fast on the path of development. They advise that Myanmar should avoid mistakes usually made by late newcomers’, by planning and implementing judiciously.
Ashis Biswas

Ashis Biswas

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