Myanmar President Thein Sein appears to have his shoulder firmly on the wheel of transformation to democracy and internationalism. Addressing a meeting of top officials in Naypyidaw on May 11, President Thein warned that “Conservatives who do not have a reformist mindset will be left behind” while the country is on its path to change. He admitted lessons must be learnt from the last bye elections to the Parliament where the opposition NLD won 43 of the 44 seats up for contest.
Thein Sein has his fingers on the pulse of the country. He advocated a “Citizen centered” strategy with officials giving high priority to helping and protecting citizens, and counter bribery and corruption. Officials were also asked to adjust their outlook to attract foreign aid and investment, technology and human resources to develop the country.
Internationally, Myanmar is also making strategic corrections. Thein Sein assured visiting South Korean President Lee Myung-back last week that Myanmar had dropped all intentions in the nuclear field, had no military relations with North Korea, and was in support of UN resolution on North Korea’s long range missile test.
This was the first visit of a South Korean President to Myanmar since 1983 when North Korean agents tried to assassinate visiting South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. President Lee’s visit would not have materialized unless Seoul was sure that Myanmar had adopted a new perspective on military relations with a troublesome state like North Korea. Lee also travelled with a delegation of businessmen signaling intentions.
This is not to say that the military junta in Myanmar had no nuclear ambitions. Credible reports say that Myanmar had sent nuclear scientists and technologists to Russia for training, and there were reports that Moscow was in talks to set up a nuclear power plant in Myanmar. That has been definitely buried for now.
There have been a stream of visits of foreign dignitaries to Myanmar, starting from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit last December to that of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s more recently. International expectations are high.
Two recent foreign policy initiatives have, however, been remarkable. One was the first ever Myanmar delegation to the European Union earlier in May. The Myanmar delegation was led by Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, a rising star. The President of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz described the visit as a sign of Burma’s emergence into the international community. This development is expected to open gates of EU countries to Myanmar.
More important was the visit of another Myanmar delegation to the US in Mid-May. This delegation led by Foreign Minister Wunna Mang Lwin saw the strongest power and player responsible for the hard sanctions on Myanmar welcoming the path undertaken by Naypyidaw not only in words but in concentrate action.
In a joint press conference with Maung Lwin in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled US policy. She declared the appointment of Derek Mitchell as Ambassador to Myanmar. Mitchell, as Special Envoy for Myanmar has wide experience with the country and its leaders. Maung Lwin also announced the appointment of their Ambassador to the US, U Than Shwe, Ambassador to UN with considerable experience in the US. Most important was the US suspension of sanctions and permit American investments in the country and export of US financial services. US companies now will be allowed to invest in the oil and gas sector of Myanmar and work with Myanmar companies which are clean.
Hillary Clinton’s words “I want to salute President Thein Sein for his leadership and the leadership of his government” for the political direction they had taken, is highly significant, and encouraging to those in Myanmar’s government who support Thein Sein.
One would say the “die is cast”, or just short of it. Sanctions have not been totally lifted following most other US partners, to maintain a leverage. Myanmar opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has also cautioned against total lifting of sanctions. Are there still strong opponents to democracy?
This question is answered by the quiet removal of Vice President-I Tin Aung Myint Oo in the first week of May. Myint Oo is supposed to have resigned on health grounds after a medical checkup visit to Singapore. But the free media has been warned not to report on Myint Oo’s departure. Enough hints, however, been given by the government that he is not in his position. Such careful handling suggests that Myint Oo is not the only undesirable element, and some others may be eased out quietly. These are all Senior Military officials who still have loyalists in the army. Publicly denigrating them could lead to a backlash.
Myint Oo was a known pro-China hardliner. Given the decades of isolation when Myanmar became dependent on China in almost all areas, sometimes reluctantly though, created a strong pro-China constituency in Myanmar. This constituency enjoyed wealth and comfort from bribery and corruption reflected in the high living of their families. This is a deep rooted constituency and must be given a face saving way out.
Of other challenges that President Thein Sein is facing include ethnic conflict, and release of political prisoners. Both issues were taken up by Hillary Clinton. Ethnic conflicts go back six decades, and is crying for a resolution. The issue of political prisoners can be resolved soon as most have been released and the rest about 300 are being assessed.
Myanmar has emerged as a country of strategic importance as the global focus turns on Asia. It is rich in natural resources including much sought after oil and gas. It also juts into the Indian Ocean a very strategic point.
Myanmar’s strategic importance to China is immense. Oil, gas and electricity from Myanmar has been China’s quest. China is also building oil and gas pipe lines from Myanmar’s coast to its Yunan province so that its hydrocarbon through the Indian Ocean does not have to traverse through the Malacca strait. It is also a proposed road way to Indian Ocean and to Bangladesh.
As a member of the ASEAN, Myanmar is both a challenge and opportunity for this grouping. Almost all ASEAN members went way forward to encourage the Naypyidaw junta towards democracy and opening up to the outside world.
While the USA saw Myanmar as dictatorship and a cauldron of human rights abuses, this really was lesser of the interests. More important reasons included China’s grip on Myanmar, Myanmar’s relations with North Korea especially suspected nuclear co-operation, and Myanmar’s role in the region under these conditions. Both China and the US have said that they have no reason to clash in Myanmar. But truth is otherwise. China has invested substantially in this country over the last three decades and they are not prepared to lose. The US has spent a lot of efforts over these same decades to turn the same country in the direction of its choice.
It would have to be seen how resistant is President Thein Sein and his team is. There is an imperative need for the army backed government and Aung San Suu Kyi and the democratic forces at her command to work together. Too many squabbles between the two sides could derail the train.
(The writer, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi; Email:email@example.com)