U. Myint Thant, chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, spoke in an interview about the state of democracy in Myanmar, the involvement of different stakeholders in its affairs and the difference between Indian and Chinese engagement with the resource-rich country. Myint Thant, author of Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, explained the challenges facing the country, Myanmar’s perception of foreign firms, growing inequality and the importance of India’s North-East in the scheme of things. The Harvard and Cambridge educated writer also rued the lack of a direct flight between Yangon and New Delhi. Edited excerpts:
How has the Indian government’s engagement with Myanmar been?
In many ways, the strengthening of relations between India and Myanmar, even under the old military government, had many positive aspects because it did prevent a situation where the country became extremely isolated. Under Western sanctions, it was already isolated from the West, but I think to be isolated from the neighbourhood as well wouldn’t have been a good thing for the country.
I think we have to make some distinctions here. Diplomatically, the reason China was so important and countries like the US and the UK would have been more important is because of their membership of the UN Security Council. If you remember, a few years back a lot of pressure (on) the military government was coming from the US through the UN Security Council. And India not being a member couldn’t provide the diplomatic protection China could.
On the military side, I think India could have helped to fill in some of the gaps. I think, on the Myanmar side, the feeling was that a stronger relationship with America was the one thing that would give them more space with China. Whether it was in terms of negotiating economic deals or in terms of government-to-government relations as well. One of the reasons why India hasn’t been able to be present on the ground as China has been over the last two decades is because for China, their ability to roll out big infrastructure projects, to invest in lot of natural resource exploitation industry, is much faster than India. In India, the private sector is independent of the government. Even if the government of India wanted it, it’s not that the companies would do their bidding.
You have been critically appreciative of involvement in your country by China and India as they have been catering to their interests. Since your book, have you changed your mind?
No, not really, because one of the things that I have tried in my book is to give the bigger picture of these countries, going back thousands of years. Whatever happens over a year or two doesn’t change that very big picture, which is that over the last few hundred years we have seen both Indian and the Chinese civilization coming closer and closer to Burma, or Myanmar now. With demographic change, with environmental change, with new infrastructure, this is a long-term process and I think that influence from both sides can be good or bad. And to us in Myanmar, (we have) to manage this in the best way possible. In the long term, India and China are our huge neighbours and these connections with new technology have now increased.
You talked about Myanmar’s engagement with the US and the UK. Are there too many stakeholders in Myanmar and how does one mange these multiple stakeholders?
There are so many different countries that are interested in Myanmar, (it) could be a good thing. The country is in a uniquely favourable position of having many different suitors, many different countries that want to help. I think, in general, there is no country, whether it’s India, China, US or Japan that means Myanmar ill. I think everyone sees a better Myanmar, a stable Myanmar, a prosperous Myanmar as a good thing.
How would you rate India’s engagement with Myanmar vis-à-vis that of China’s?
On China’s side, much of the relationship has been driven by China’s hunger for some of the natural resources. But that’s not directed from Beijing, that comes from Yunnan. As the Yunnanese economy is growing, companies from its capital are coming here to set up mining projects or hydroelectric projects. And that’s very different than the relationship with India, where you don’t have a similar kind of frontier. Again if you cross the border from Myanmar to China, you get to Yunnan, where the per capita income is twice that of Myanmar.
While when you cross the border from Myanmar to India, you get to Manipur, Nagaland. These are places where the economy has not been much more developed in comparison on the Myanmar side. That’s very different.
The second thing is the strategic importance of Myanmar for China goes back to our access to the seas. For India, the strategic importance for Myanmar is that it is the eastern flank of the country, the way it has been since the days of the British Raj.
There is a lot happening at a rapid speed. How can this be managed?
Sure, this rapid pace is because of internal reforms. In a way, one could say that (after) the inertia of 60 years of military rule, nothing other than a rapid momentum will be able to lock in the improvements, to ensure that we move in the right direction. In terms of foreign policy, it’s possible for this country to be friends with, have close relations with multiple countries. Whether it is big powers or neighbouring countries.
You are a part of the elite and represent the intelligentsia. How have the common people reacted to this change?
My sense is that the people are very happy to see the back of military rule. The people are happy to see economic reforms taking place in the hope that their own lives may be better. But I think there is anxiety as well. No one knows exactly who is going to benefit the most and who is not. Even the growth of the tourism sector—what kind of change will it bring? What kind of foreigners will it bring to the country? And I think the biggest challenge that this country is going to face in the future, other than possibly ending the ethnic conflict, is the question of how it will manage this less-isolated situation, when you will have more people here, foreigners doing jobs, people coming, having to deal with the outside world, even as the country’s political DNA, going back 110 years, of the founding of modern politics in this country, is very much based on a sense that integration with global market leads to exploitation. Exploitation, unwanted immigration, that companies would exploit the country, that the Burmese would wind up at the bottom of the totem pole. And that’s very much the heart of how the people think about themselves. I think that tendency, that scepticism is still there. The next several years will be a very important testing period.
This is what the Burmese think of foreign companies. What about the divides within?
I think much more inequality has developed over the last 20 years. Under the old socialist regime, in a way everyone was poor together. And now, (with the economy) opening up since the early 1990s, you see much bigger differences in wealth. I think, for now, people are expecting out of it. In a more democratic environment, will there be new politicians who tap into that inequality and use it? There is a lot of talk about ending armed conflict, democratic change. I think (what) people often miss is the plight of 20-30 million ethnic Burmese people in the centre of the country who are extremely poor. In a more democratic spirit, it will be very easy for future politicians to tap into that in a very negative way, which is arousing national sentiments, maybe anti-minority sentiments. It doesn’t happen now, but it could. So I think that making sure that everyone is pulled along to some extent..., but that means perhaps a much greater focus on rural life.
How will the presence of so many different ethnic groups play out for Myanmar’s future?
On (the) one hand, one can be deeply optimistic that the government of Myanmar and all other ethnic groups will come to a ceasefire agreement as in North-East India. How that transitions to permanent peace is a much more difficult equation. I think it’s possible that the government will agree to a greater autonomy in the regions, look at issues of resource sharing, try to have less discriminatory policy against minorities. But the thing is at the time of so much else changing, what does it mean for the small areas, say on the China border, to become autonomous and at a time when the Chinese influence is also increasing. But the other thing that is happening is urbanization. As the country grows, and if the experiences of other countries are to go by, this country would quickly urbanize as well. And that would mean, so to say, that if the rural population decreases from 85% now to even 70% over the next 15-20 years, it would mean millions of more people coming into the cities.
My sense is that future ethnic tensions and communal tensions will be urban rather than the old type of insurgency. It’s crucial that we manage our urban growth in a way that lessens the possibilities of such tensions.
Is this transformation for real?
I don’t think we should measure this against some other model. I think it’s more important to take these changes on their own terms in the history of this country. I think we clearly had three or four major transitions over the past few years. This country wasn’t really run by the junta in the last 10 years. It has been run under a single person, under a senior general, and he is retired now. So that alone has led to a vacuum in power that has been filled by a much broader captive canvas of characters than a single person. We don’t have that sort of autocracy. We have a new constitution which may be flawed in some ways, but we have a new constitution which genuinely divided powers between different branches of the government. We have a much more competitive set of politics. We have a much freer media space, and place for organization as well. But if democracy also means much more mature political parties, if it means much more informed citizenry, I don’t think we are there, but I don’t think that many other countries are there either.
There have been economies that have been heralded as the next big thing, but then have fizzled out. What are the key concerns here?
If we look over the next 10 years, when the infrastructure improves and the borders open up—initially, what may come across those borders is not knowledge or training or good investment or mutually beneficial trade, but criminality, it could be gun-running, drug trafficking. Once the border opens up and the actors on either side are not able to manage it, we could also have negative consequences. In the long term, in a future 20-30 years down the line, we can have growth when China, India, Myanmar have a much higher per capita income, good highways connecting each other then, of course, Myanmar will be a gateway to other parts of Asia from the east of India. But in the short term, the importance of Myanmar for India and for Indian policymakers depends on the importance of North-East India for Indians. If North-East India is important, then Myanmar is very important. If it is not, then Myanmar is not a gateway to anywhere else. In the future, if Myanmar has to be a gateway for anywhere, an imaginative focus on North-East India is going to be critical.
Has Indian policy gone astray somewhere?
I think there hasn’t been any attempt to really strengthen India’s soft power inside the country. There were many connections between India and this country during the early part of the 20th century. Almost all of those people-to-people connections have been cut. Just a fact that if Myanmar was important, there should be a direct flight between Yangon and Delhi, even a subsidized flight.