By Rajiv Bhatia*
Governments and corporates are key players in forging and sustaining relations among states, but between two neighbouring democracies, the role of ‘Third Space’ – media, academics, think tanks, civil society etc – is beginning to be appreciated widely. This applies specifically to the development of relations between India and Myanmar now. India’s this important neighbour has a democratic government in power, under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party had achieved a magnificent victory in the general elections in November last year.
A generation back, when the Burma’s famous Nobel Laureate was imprisoned in her lakeside residence, her only link to the world was a small radio set which gave her access to BBC and other stations. Further, in providing succour to the Burmese people suffering a cruel military dictatorship, the Burmese service of All India Radio (AIR) made a valuable contribution, although the generals were much distressed in the process. Finally, Norway-backed Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) became an iconic name, with its sterling support to pro-democracy forces in their long struggle.
Stressing the pivotal role of people-to-people relations, Suu Kyi has often observed that ‘governments come and go, but people stay’; hence, investment in deepening relations at the people’s level is of a lasting nature. This can make a difference only when the media of the two countries begin to articulate and exchange views with each other. In this task, they need a special synergy with the intellectual class, comprising universities, think tanks, civil society and media organisations. The more their views find place in traditional and social media, the more awareness of the stakes involved will increase. This will also generate the requisite pressure on governments and business communities to enhance their mutual cooperation at all levels.
Journalists and scholars find it easy and natural to be ‘judgemental’ on others. But, for once, some of them decided to be self-critical and take concrete steps on their own to bring their countries closer. In this connection, a sizable group of carefully selected intellectuals from India and Myanmar assembled in Shillong on 20-21 April at the laudable initiative of four institutions: Institute of Social Sciences, Heinrich Boll Stiftung, Burma Centre Delhi and Asian Confluence. The event was named ‘India-Myanmar Media Dialogue.’ The remarkable synergy among the host institutions created a congenial atmosphere for a candid dialogue; it also encouraged participants to help in forging a practical way forward.
Democracy and free press go hand in hand. As the quotient of democratic governance increases, media in Myanmar savours freedom and feels empowered. Proliferation of dailies and periodicals, broadcasting stations and internet connections, mobile phones and social media represent a remarkable development of the past five years. This will get further strengthened under the NLD rule, although some apprehensions continue. Esther Htusan, the Pulitzer Award-winning AP journalist, who participated in the Shillong workshop, made two significant observations. First, although democracy has returned, it would take time for freedom of expression and speech to be fully restored. Second, people have high expectations from the new government. “They blindly believe in Aung San Suu Kyi.” Other Burmese participants lauded the strength and vitality of the Indian media, referring to the immense scope for mutual cooperation.
Indian participants were of the view that, while New Delhi has been ‘upbeat’ and vocal about its Act East Policy, there is little awareness or excitement about it in the North-eastern region, western Myanmar or Myanmar on the whole. This necessitated early and effective endeavours to create engagement with the policy’s components from ‘the bottom to the top’ and ‘the periphery to the centre.’ The need to enhance connectivity was stressed – within the North-eastern region, between Northeast and India, and between North-eastern India and Myanmar, especially its western region.
Much dissatisfaction was voiced over the inadequate coverage India receives in the Myanmar media. The eastern neighbour figures in Indian media – but only episodically and only due to the contribution of a handful of columnists and journalists. The urgent need was to facilitate wider mutual exposure of journalists to each other’s country through a regular exchange of assisted visits, familiarisation tours and training programmes for young media professionals. Links at the level of Press Councils should also be established. These measures will result in increased awareness of the two peoples about each other. A Myanmar participant stated flatly: “People in Myanmar know more about China than India.” A pointed reference was made to a huge presence of Chinese media personnel in Myanmar, with many of them being fluent in Myanmar language.
Consensus also emerged that, with new changes in place, ‘India is now on test on Myanmar.’ Initiatives to deepen cooperation in political and economic domains and at the people’s level should come from the Indian side. And these would need to be sustained through timely delivery and perseverance, informed by a long-term, vision.
Strategic community, an essential constituent of the ‘Third Space’, should play a leading role to rejuvenate bilateral ties. A few think tanks sent delegations of scholars to Myanmar in recent years. A long hiatus has set in, which should be ended through regular dialogues involving principal think tanks. They, in turn, should invite young scholars from both countries to become active role-players in this process. Scholars from our states bordering on Myanmar should be a part and parcel of these dialogues. In fact, the Northeast must be encouraged and helped to emerge as ‘the hub of specialised knowledge and expertise’ on India’s eastern neighbours – Myanmar and Bangladesh.
According to a Burmese journalist, many in Myanmar were disappointed that the first foreign minister to visit Myanmar, after the new government took over, was of China, not India. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will visit Myanmar shortly. There is an expectation, both in Myanmar and India, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi (who is about to begin his third year in office) may undertake his first bilateral visit to Myanmar – before President Xi Jinping arrives there.
South Block, equipped with a fresh dose of goodwill, enhanced financial generosity and a sincere commitment to turn present relations into a ‘strategic partnership’ is in a sound position to court Myanmar successfully. This will be in mutual interest. It will prove those critics wrong who argue that Myanmar still remains ‘an incomplete bridge’ between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
*Rajiv Bhatia is a former ambassador to Myanmar and author of India-Myanmar Relations: Changing Contours (Routledge) and a Distinguished Fellow at Gateway House