Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Look East, a historic election is underway

India should proactively explore all areas of cooperation with Myanmar

India will be talking elections this Sunday. The one in Bihar is bound to drown out the other one in Myanmar. That does not in any way take away from the significance of elections in Myanmar. The coming elections might pave the way for a genuine democracy in the land of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate globally acclaimed as a “democracy icon". As India has learnt from China, albeit after a protracted dilemma, it should continue to engage with the government in Myanmar without burdening itself with the responsibility of promoting democracy in the region.

Myanmar has only recently come out of nearly 50 years of military rule and a long period of international isolation, all the while battling its way through ethnic strife and armed rebellion, to establish a nominally civilian government in 2011. In the past few years, Myanmar has moved from a tight embrace with China to diversify its international partners. It now plays, more deftly than ever, the India card with China and the China card with India. Opening of the economy to foreign investments has led to a surge in sectors like energy, transportation, telecommunications and retail, resulting in an impressive growth rate of 8.5% last year.

The peace and reconciliation process with the ethnic armed groups has also moved forward. Last month, a nationwide ceasefire agreement was signed with eight of the 15 identified groups. While two of the most important armed groups—the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army—have stayed away, the process cannot be termed futile as signified by the inclusion of the Karen National Union, which has led one of the world’s longest running insurgencies, in the agreement.

Myanmar is crucial to India’s fight with its own set of insurgent groups in the North-East. The June ambush that killed 18 Indian soldiers in Manipur was carried out by the Khaplang faction of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland, based in Myanmar. India’s famous counterattack inside the territory of Myanmar was carried out with the Burmese government on board. Signalling the importance of the security cooperation between the two countries, India’s national security adviser Ajit Doval and the prime minister’s special envoy for the North-East, R.N. Ravi, were present at the ceremony to sign the national ceasefire agreement on 15 October.

Myanmar’s significance to India is, however, much more than just security cooperation. Myanmar is India’s gateway to South-East Asia. If the government is serious about its Look/Act East policy, connectivity and economic integration with Myanmar is inevitable. India has, however, been exasperatingly tardy on most of the connectivity projects it has undertaken. The vast reserves of natural resources, including oil and gas, have made Myanmar an attractive investment destination for India’s energy sector companies. Only a small fraction of the existing potential has, so far, been tapped.

The elections in Myanmar are ridden with uncertainties. Suu Kyi, by far the most popular leader of the country, and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), start with a handicap as 25% of the seats are reserved for the military. In order to secure a majority, the NLD has to win 67% of the seats on offer—not an unachievable feat given its previous record of winning 392 of the 492 seats in 1990 only to see the elections getting annulled by the military. More recently, in the 2012 by-elections, the NLD won 43 out of 45 seats on offer. On the other hand, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party has to win only 33% of the seats, still a difficult proposition if the elections are completely free and fair.

The president will be appointed indirectly by the members of the legislature, a process which might take another four months, creating ample opportunities for destabilization by forces unhappy with the election results. The current provisions of the constitution bar Suu Kyi from becoming the president since her children carry foreign passports. In any case, she has made it clear that she will serve as the leader of the government if her party is voted into power. The arrangement that will make this possible is up for speculation. The upshot is that the future of Myanmar is hanging on a precarious balance—where hope is just about able to offset the apprehensions, for now.

Given Myanmar’s importance—strategic and otherwise—India will ignore the developments there at its own peril. India should continue to remain engaged and explore all areas of cooperation, including security, infrastructure, energy and institution building.

Should India pay more attention to Myanmar? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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