Myanmar’s tryst with democracy, however managed it may be, seems to be bearing fruits as the international community is losing no time to embrace and also woo the country. After Myanmar’s military leaders formally stepped down in 2011, leaders from democratically elected countries have flocked to the country to encourage further political and economic changes. Leaders from the US, South Korea, India, Britain, and the United National Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made beeline to cultivate the leadership in Myanmar. While South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Myanmar in May last year, accompanied by several business leaders, including the president of Daewoo International Corp., which is spending $1.7 billion to develop a natural gas field in Myanmar and sell its production to China, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Prime Minister to visit Myanmar in 25 years. In particular, President Lee’s visit was significant in the sense that he travelled to Myanmar from Beijing, where he had met Chinese and Japanese leaders for an annual trilateral summit. This shows that both South Korea and Japan are on board so far as their countries’ Myanmar policy is concerned. In other words, there is recognition in the two East Asian countries about China’s incursion and growing influence in Myanmar, which has a large strategic connotation as well. Even India cannot ignore this fact.
South Korea is the fourth largest foreign investor in Myanmar after China, Hong Kong and Thailand. Apart from pledging economic support, Myanmar’s military ties with North Korea and alleged links for nuclear weapon programs are not only worrying to South Korea but to India as well. So far as India is concerned, the single most factor that is driving both India and South Korea is geo-strategic and economic considerations. Besides Myanmar’s geo-strategic significance, both the countries have taken note that Myanmar is a resource rich country where China alone accounts for more than 70 per cent of FDI in the hydrocarbon sector. In India and elsewhere, the victory of Suu Kyi’s party, NLD, in the by-election is seen as further opening the doors for political reforms in the country.
In the past, Suu Kyi has always urged New Delhi to play a more active role in democratization of Myanmar, insisting that India should not be driven purely by commercial considerations. While India always supported the pro-democracy movement, it also simultaneously courted the military junta as it tried to rein in rebels in the northeast and also to ensure that it did not lose out to other nations in tapping Myanmar’s considerable energy sources.
On its part, Myanmar too has responded positively to outside world’s readiness to embrace into its fold and to integrate to their economies. This was demonstrably clear during President Thein Sein’s five-nation European tour in February 2013. President Thein Sein’s five nation tour of Europe was a clear indication of the Myanmarese government’s eagerness to re-engage with the EU and its members. President Sein visited Finland, Austria, European Council, and Italy from 2 February to 7 March.
While in Finland, President Sein held meetings with Finnish President Saului Niinisto and Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari and held discussions on Myanmar’s on-going political reforms, peace-keeping processes and assistance in promoting human development tasks. The Finnish President promised to assist Myanmar in the establishment of good governance, rule of law and peace-keeping processes in the country. Nobel Laureate Ahtisaari discussed the role of the Crisis Management Initiative Group’s efforts in urging EU to engage with Myanmar.
While in Austria on 5 March, Austrian President Dr. Heinz Fisher discussed with the Myanmar President political reforms, nation-building endeavours, peace-keeping processes with national races armed groups as well as the full lifting of sanctions imposed on Myanmar by the EU. President Sein also had discussion with Austrian Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament and discussed further strengthening of ties at the inter-governmental, inter-parliamentary and people-to-people levels. He also attended the Myanmar-Austria Economic Forum and urged those present to invest in Myanmar.
In Brussels, President Sein called on the heads of the three EU institutions and discussed democratic reforms, peace-making processes with ethnic groups as well as promoting cooperation in education, health, tourism and exchange of culture between Myanmar and EU. What was significant was that the issue of human rights and lifting of sanctions were raised too. He also attended the signing ceremony on cooperation in Crisis Response between EU and Myanmar on 6 March.
Whilst in Rome, President Sein discussed with his counterpart Giorgeo Napolitano about ongoing political economic reforms, promotion of human rights, peace processes, closer cooperation in trade, culture and other sectors, assistance in Myanmar’s agricultural development drive and microfinance works, and cooperation with two armed forces. During the visit, the Agreement on the Treatment (Cancellation and Rescheduling) of the Debt and Agreement on Debt-for-Development Swap was also signed. The Italian President and Prime Minister recognized the positive changes taking place in the country and promised to offer more help and closer cooperation and agreed that EU should lift the overall sanctions against Myanmar.
What it transpired in concrete terms was that Myanmar was now eager to re-engage with the EU and its members. In the past, due to the sanctions imposed by EU, engagement at the highest level was unthinkable. The meetings in Brussels with the presidents of the EU Council, Parliament and Commission are signs that cooperation and readiness to engage with Myanmar are now gaining momentum. In his meeting with his counterparts and EU officials, President Thein Sein urged for the complete removal of sanctions as well as reinstating the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) to Myanmar. In return, EU committed more flow of aid, while at the same time adopting a wait and see approach. As part of its re-engagement policy, the EU has been in the forefront in providing assistance to end the conflict between the government and ethnic armed groups.
About the author: Rajaram Panda
Dr. Rajaram Panda, a leading expert from India on East Asia with focus on Japan and the Koreas, was formerly Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and is currently Visiting Faculty at the Centre for Japanese, Korean and Northeast Asian Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
E-mail: [email protected]