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Myanmar: Wishing away Suu Kyi

For India and China, who were patting themselves on the back for achieving some results through their ‘benevolent’ intervention in Myanmar to make the military regime to reintroduce democracy, the moment of truth appears to have arrived. The Myanmar’s decision to bar Aung San Suu Kyi from taking part in the elections to be held under the proposed new constitution in 2010 has laid bare the true nature of Than Shwe led military dictatorship’s concept of democracy. A guided democracy with the military junta vetoing participation of the leading light of country’s politics is not what the people aspire for in Myanmar. They want a government of their own, elected by free will.

Even those Myanmar politicians who have some differences with Daw Suu Kyi, will not dispute the iconic role this frail woman, with no history of political leadership, has played in bringing the struggle for democracy to national and global focus. This is what has hurt the military regime. She came as a breath of fresh air to lead the struggle for democracy in a country which had only unpleasant memories of democratic life. Myanmar had three decades of democratic politics soon after independence which did no credit to the concept of democracy. Corrupt politicians and squabbling political opportunists had sullied democratic rule and paved the way for perpetuating a military regime.

Daw Suu Kyi brought three ingredients absent in the ‘guided’ politics of Myanmar. These were: leading a focused political struggle with people’s participation for a regime change, reassertion of inalienable democratic rights of the people to lead a free life, and ability to draw international attention to the struggle and leverage it to the advantage of the people’s movement. These enabled her to gain global sympathy, paving the way for the United Nations to intercede, though in a limited fashion.

After the country became independent in 1948, no other political or military leader in Myanmar had been able to lead the whole nation to wage such a single-minded struggle as Daw Suu Kyi . Of course, she had the advantage of brand image inherited from her father Major General Aung San, the architect of Burma’s freedom struggle against the British and the Japanese colonialists. But more important is how she has used the brand image to the larger good of the people rather than her own benefit or comfort.

A referendum is scheduled to be held in May (of course, under the ‘supervision’ of the same dictatorial regime) to approve a new constitution for the country. The ruling junta approved the draft constitution on February 19.The constitution drafting came as a sequel to the consideration of a “road map for democracy” by a national convention of members handpicked by the military regime. The deliberations of the omnibus national convention of 1000 members dragged on for 14 years with the military regime arm twisting the participating members to toe its line. The major political and ethnic minority parties boycotted the convention denouncing its undemocratic ways of functioning. On the whole, the national convention lacking transparency and representative character was clearly used by the military junta to buy time to delay the process of democratisation mainly to satisfy international community.

The new constitution is supposed to provide for a ‘democratic set up’ for the country’s change over from military control of government to peoples rule. The constitution has been drafted by the Commission for Drafting the State Constitution, and chaired by the Chief Justice U Aung Toe. The 54 members of the commission were picked by the military regime. According to U Aung Toe the new constitution has been drafted in accordance with the six objectives of the National Convention. These included national unity, multi-party democracy, and values such as justice, liberty and equality.

The draft also provides for military participation in political leadership. This has kindled the fears of political parties fear that the new constitution would be used as an instrument to legitimise the role of military within a ‘guided democracy’ for perpetuity. This fear is legitimate as the 104 basic principles of the constitution are said to provide for reservation of at least 25 percent of the seats in all government bodies for the military. Ethnic minorities who form sizeable part of the population also feel uneasy with the way the military regime has road rolled the whole process. They have seen how the regime had used dubious means to dissipate the struggle of minorities for space in national power structure.

Naturally the major national political and ethnic parties have condemned the move to hold a referendum on the draft constitution which has not been made public. The National League for Democracy (NLD), which was not allowed to rule in spite of winning a thumping majority in the last democratic elections held in 1990, has asked for throwing open the draft constitution for public review. It has also asked the military regime to explain the essence of the constitution to the people before the referendum in May. These are very reasonable demands considering that the NLD did not have a say in the process of constitution making despite representing the support of the people as demonstrated in the last democratic election.

The Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win announced the decision not to permit Daw Suu Kyi to contest the 2010 elections, because she had married a foreigner, at a meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore. At present there is no law that could prevent Daw Suu Kyi from contesting the election. However, it is learnt that the proposed constitution bars a citizen who has a foreign husband and children, who are not Myanmar citizens from contesting the election. It is evident this clause is specially tailored to prevent Daw Suu Kyi from contesting the elections. Daw Suu Kyi had married British Professor Michael Aris and their two children are British citizens.

A group of seven Nobel laureates including Desmond Tutu of South Africa and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet in a quick reaction to the announcement of elections has called for an arms embargo against Myanmar. Dismissing it as flawed plan if Daw Suu Kyi was barred, the laureates demanded the inclusion of representatives from the NLD and ethnic nationalities in the constitutional drafting committee. Already a sanctions regime including arms embargo imposed by the United States, Canada, European Union and Australia, among others, is in force.

However, the international sanctions regime has clearly failed to curb the style of the military regime because many nations have only been paying lip service to them for reasons of real politicks and perceived national interest. The November 2007 report of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has identified 27 companies in 13 countries as having investment interests in Myanmar’s flourishing oil and gas industry. Thirteen of these companies are owned at least partially by foreign countries through state-owned entities. These companies have invested in 20 of the 30 projects underway at present. According to another HRW report of 2006 the ruling military regime received the bulk of its income from off shore gas fields at Yadana and Yetagun. While the Yadana consortium consists of Total of France, Chevron of the United States and the Thai public enterprise PTT Exploration Co Ltd. The Yetagun consortium has Malaysia’s state owned Petronas and Japan’s Nippon Oil apart from the Thai PTT Exploration.

Myanmar earned $ 1 billion in gas revenue in 2006. This is likely to register a phenomenal increase in the coming years as more discoveries of gas are likely to be made in the coming years. The potential of gas resources in the newly discovered Shwe off shore gas fields alone has been estimated at $ 37 to 52 billion. This would benefit the country with an estimated profit of $ 12 to 17 billion. With the ever-increasing global appetite for energy resources the value income from gas resources would only go up. And in this race for gas resources in Myanmar, China and India are the front runners as their rapid development has boosted up their energy requirements phenomenally.

Apart from interest in Myanmar’s energy potential, both China and India have strategic interests due its geographic location on their borders. For China it is a key neighbour with potential to open a direct access to the Indian Ocean by-passing the more crowded and vulnerable route through the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca. China would like to develop a deep sea port in Kyauk Phru in Arakan state for shipping oil from West Asia to landlocked Chinese provinces through a shorter and more secure route. Myanmar also provides China yet another overland access to India and South Asia.

For India to articulate its ‘Look East’ policy aimed at opening up the markets in Southeast Asia, the cooperation and support of Myanmar is an important factor. Moreover, with a reluctant Bangladesh not allowing access across the country for India to its own landlocked states in the northeast, Myanmar can provide vital sea and land access. The absence of such an alternate route has stunted development of this region resulting in social unrest and insurgency. A friendly Myanmar would also provide a strategic space for India to its northeastern borders to cushion a potential Chinese threat.

However, without the participation of China, India and ASEAN in the sanction regime, the sanctions have failed to have the desired effect on the military regime. Their reactions to the question of imposing sanctions have varied from strong objection from China to studied indifference to the issue by India. Of course, ASEAN simply does not believe in such a move against one of its own member countries. So the military regime in Myanmar is sitting pretty, sourcing its requirements from these countries and buying time to find a permanent space in any democratic set up that would come in the near future.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with her unique national and international appeal represents the single factor that could upset the strategy of the military regime. This is the main reason for the military junta’s single-minded focus in physically controlling access to Daw Suu Kyi. This also the reason why it is preventing her active participation even in the limited political space it is prepared to allow for others. But the writing on the wall is clear. The regime cannot simply wish away Daw Suu Kyi and what she represents.

Most of the western nations have come out strongly against the Myanmar’s constitution making process and the charade of a referendum. They have also condemned the move to bar Daw Suu Kyi from participating in the elections. However, others have been lukewarm at best in their comments. Even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon could only call upon Myanmar regime to make the constitution making process “inclusive, participatory, and transparent” three qualities markedly absent in the military regime’s approach. He again stressed the need for substantive and time-bound dialogue with Daw Suu Kyi and political parties, just as his predecessor had done many times.

China, the main pillar of support of the military junta, will jettison its support when it feels the regime can no longer survive. China is well ensconced in the larger economy of Myanmar. It will continue to have strategic linkages with Myanmar regardless of the nature of the regime. So it cannot be expected to underwrite any change in the regime.

The military regime has outlived its relevance as there is a restive population in the country whose voice can only get stronger and louder. This was seen during the saffron revolution of the monks last year. Given this setting, it is for India and its democratic polity and conscience keepers to re-examine their national priorities. Should they put all their cards on a military regime that is trampling upon the very qualities that Indian Constitution cherishes? Definitely not. Time has come for India to take a re-look at its Myanmar policy to make it more people- relevant.

(The writer, Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence officer, is a specialist on Myanmar . He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail

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