Underlining India’s productive engagement in Myanmar

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As Myanmar (formerly Burma) is opening up to the world, various experts are advocating for India’s pro-active initiatives in this fast  changing neighbourhood. Two recently concluded discourses in different parts of northeast India revealed that the participants in large numbers supported New Delhi’s aggressive involvement in the process of sustainable development in the southeast Asian nation.

The first meet, held at Shillong on 20 &21 April and organized by Heinrich Boell Foundation, Institute of Social Sciences, Burma Centre Delhi and Asian Confluence, was attended by media persons, former diplomats and experts from both the countries, whereas the second meet was organized by Guwahati Press Club on 21 April as an interactive session with a Yangon (formerly Rangoon) based Assamese journalist and political analyst.

Bidhayak Das, who hails from the alienated region, emphasized the immediate role  New Delhi needs to play to shape up Indo-Burma policies with regards to present day needs. Advocating better ties
with Myanmar, journalist Das asserted that the country had changed its face rapidly after the 2015 November general election, where Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory.

The soft spoken analyst observed that Myanmar had been adopting a quasi-democracy that would directly or indirectly bring enormous benefits to the people of northeast India. The situation in Myanmar, which was ruled by the military generals for decades, has been improved rapidly in recent past. Commenting on Suu Kyi, Das claimed that  the daughter of Burmese independence struggle hero General Aung San is still respected by all communities in Myanmar. He argued that she could really do wonders in reforming her country for a full-fledged democracy after decades of dictator’s rule.

The NLD earlier won a massive victory in 1990 general elections, which were largely free & fair, but the brutal & isolationist military regime did not recognize the voters’ mandate and refused to hand over
power to the elected representatives. The head of the regime Senior General Than Shwe, who grew enmity towards Suu Kyi, even ordered brutal crack downs over the NLD activists. Subsequently Suu Kyi was put under under house arrest as a political prisoner.

After 15 years of house arrest, Suu Kyi was released, but her party was not allowed to participate in the last polls for lower house of Myanmar Parliament that took place in 2010. The military backed Union
Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) swept the polls.  The immediate past President Thein Sein came to the scene in place of Than Shwe and the reform process started gaining momentum. The media was also moderately freed from the clutches of censorship.

Journalist Das was however apprehensive about Nobel laureate Suu Kyi’s  roles in the Htin Kyaw led Myanmar government at NayPieTaw, as she might face an uphill task to deal with the Burmese armed forces (popularly known as Tatmadaw).  Moreover, the 2008 Burma Constitution, which prevented her to become the President of the country, cannot be changed without the support of more than 75 percent lawmakers.

At the same time, it is noticeable that the Burmese armed forces have 25 percent Parliamentarians reserved in both the houses of Myanmar Parliament. Myanmar’s lower house of Parliament (locally known as  House of  Representatives or Pyithu Hluttaw) has 440 seats, where 110 Army candidates got appointed by the commander-in-chief of Tatmadaw. Similarly, the upper house of Parliament (known as House of Nationalities or Amyotha Hluttaw) has 224 seats, where 56 military personnel were nominated by the Tatmadaw chief. With more to it, the ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs are kept under the control of the military. Hence, the Yangon based analyst argued that the Myanmar’s new foreign minister Suu Kyi, for the time being, might embrace the Tatmadaw as a partner in the process of democratization of her country.

Speaking about the opportunity of northeast India’s virtual capital Guwahati as a health, education and tourism hub, the journalist turned an expert on political affairs commented that the political will and
supports from the locals would be essential to materialize the dream. He also insisted that the Myanmar government should open a diplomatic office in Guwahati and a direct flight from the city to either
Mandalay or Yangon be operated for the benefit of the commuters. He however did not forget to mention about various challenges in chasing the dream as a number of militant outfits from northeast India were still taking shelter in the jungles of northern Myanmar. The rebel outfits are also reportedly enjoying China’s inherent support.

As Beijing remains influential to the Myanmar government till now, the northeastern militants may continue enjoying the privileges there for some more years. However, it seems to be difficult for the militant outfits including Paresh Barua run United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent) to
achieve much from their hideouts in Myanmar, even though the militants from the region recently formed an umbrella of insurgent outfits named United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia.

Earlier addressing the Shillong meet, titled as India- Myanmar Media Dialogue, former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Rajiv Bhatia argued that the media, strategic community, academia and civil society should come together and collaborate in the initiative to understand India’s immediate eastern neighbours. Bhatia also referred to several achievements in Myanmar since the reforms were initiated by the President Thein Sein.

The Institute of Social Sciences director  Ash Narain Roy emphasized on more media representation in the bilateral initiatives primarily focusing on the borders areas of India and Myanmar. The Burma Centre Delhi director Alana Golmei also supported his views claiming that the meaningful interaction between the scribes of both the  countries would help in the practice of capacity development and partnership.

Khin Zaw Win, who came from Myanmar, expressed hope that the media in both the countries can help boosting ties between the two neighbours. The Tampadipa Institute of Myanmar director also commented that the Act East Policy, adopted by New Delhi should be helpful to the people of Indo-Myanmar border areas. Award winning Myanmarese  journalist Ester Htu San commented that the Indian media has better opportunities to be more visible in her country.

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