Winds of Change: The time is ripe for India to scale up its ties with Myanmar

Myanmar is of great strategic and economic importance to three major powers of this century — the United States of America, China and India. With the first signs of a thaw in Myanmar after 60 years of self-imposed seclusion, it is an open question if India can benefit more from the potential opening up of our neighbour than from being one steed in a two-horse race for influence in that country, as has been the case for the past 20 years.

Even 12 months ago, any prospect of progress in Myanmar appeared utopian, but winds of change are now in evidence, with hopes of a movement towards a pluralist political order. The electoral laws for the elections last year to the national and provincial legislatures had mandated that political parties could not have convicts as members, which constrained Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, since its chief was under house arrest and other senior leaders were in prison. The outcome was a boycott by her party that had overwhelmingly won the free, but later annulled, elections of 1990.

Amid allegations of widespread malpractices, the 2010 elections brought the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party to power and the former prime minister, Thein Sein, to the presidency. There were few expectations that the new government would be any more responsive to human and civil rights than the previous army junta. Yet, Suu Kyi was swiftly released from detention and allowed free movement, and some political prisoners were released, with credible indications that many more could be released soon. Restrictions on accessing online media sites are being eased, and the State-run media have refrained from criticizing the press abroad. Legislation permitting the right of workers to unionize and strike has been enacted, the right of people to demonstrate peacefully is awaiting presidential approval, and Burmese in exile are being encouraged to return. Citing environmental concerns and popular protests, the Thein Sein government has halted construction of a giant hydro-electric project on the Irrawaddy in northern Myanmar that was being constructed by Chinese companies mainly to supply electricity to China.

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