Back in focus: Bumpy road to full democracy

The tumultuous welcome and Head of State like reception extended to the opposition democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi in India and a week later the visit of the US President Barack Obama to Naypyidaw in mid November, has put Myanmar in centre stage of world politics.

Till last year considered a pariah State by the US and West, Myanmar is now being hugged openly in the expectation that the country will witness real democratic transition and free from the clutches of its big neighbor China which propped up the dictatorial military junta over last two decades with military and other civilian assistance.

Realpolitic demanded that India should also engage with the Myanmar junta to safeguard its own security interests and prevent total encapsulation of the country to China but it was natural for Suu Kyi to express her indignation against India openly during her Jawahar Lal Nehru lecture in New Delhi.

China, over last two decades, has supplied weapons worth a few billions of dollars to the country to help the military rulers save their regime and in lieu got huge economic benefits in terms of petroleum resources worth billions of dollars and contracts like upgradation of the Sittwe port, which will provide a strategic outlet to the Chinese business and military to the Indian Ocean.

As far as India was concerned her main worry was to prevent the outlawed north east insurgents from getting a comfortable sanctuary in Myanmar and at the same time to prevent total takeover of the country by the Chinese.
An ASEAN member under Chinese control would not help create a congenial atmosphere for India to deepen its linkages with ASEAN.

India did try to manage the military junta with assistance for the road projects and other developmental program, with an ultimate aim of making a trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand, that is now being proposed to be extended up to Vietnam.

International pressure

Meanwhile, India was also engaging with the military rulers on the need for early restoration of democratic rights to the people.

The international sanctions on the country was not hurting the military rulers too much as countries like Russia and India were already maintaining good rapport with the rulers but the military rulers understood the need for giving a façade of democracy to the people.

Under international pressure the military junta agreed to recast the constitution of the country and promulgated one such constitution in 2008 which gave some democratic rights and privileges to the people.

This allowed national elections for the Assembly which is a bicameral legislature with 440 seats for the People’s assembly and 224 seats for the National Assembly. In fact, 56 of the 224 seats in the national assembly and 110 of the 440 seats in the People’s assembly were reserved for the military member delegates known as Tatmadaw.

The Constitution also bars a citizen from becoming the President if he or she has spouse or children as foreign citizen. The military junta described the Constitution as a democratic one but the opposition leaders saw it as a tool for continuing military control over the so called civilian government which in fact could be dissolved by the military if the situation so demands in national interest.

Thein Sein, under civilian garb as the head of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, who assumed the post of President after the General Elections in which the National League of Democracy of Suu Kyi did not participate, was himself a former military commander and Prime Minister of the country from 2007 till 2011.

But the military generals who were backing the government allowed President Thein to release the democratic leader from house arrest along with many other incarcerated political workers.

Encouraged by some democratic reforms, with freedom to media and freedom to hold political rallies Suu Kyi along with her political colleagues took part in the bye elections for the Assembly in which they won 22 of the 24 seats.

Though under the current Constitution Suu Kyi cannot become the president, Thein Sein has recently stated that Suu Kyi can become the next president of the country during the National Elections to be held in 2015.

Tough journey

However for this to happen, the Constitution of Myanmar has to be amended and also various quotas for reserved assembly seats for the military delegates have to be cancelled to give the National Assembly a truly representative character.

Thus, the democracy in Myanmar has a long road to travel and for this Suu Kyi has sought the support of India and international community.

It is expected that the unprecedented and first ever visit of US President to the country will put enough pressure on the current backdoor rulers of the country to allow the Constitution to be amended to give it hundred percent democratic character.

Obama gave many subtle messages to the Myanmar leaders that they must take Myanmar to full democracy while praising the country’s remarkable journey since it embarked on reforms two years ago and also pledged to do “everything we can to ensure success.”

China’s concern was obvious when leading State run daily Global Times commented, “US cannot squeeze China out of Myanmar. Myanmar would not become alienated from China simply because of its domestic political adjustments.”

Global Times also gave a vague warning, “China is the biggest neighboring country of Myanmar and has irreplaceable influences on it. More importantly such influences are based on equality. It would be unwise to replace China with the west.”

However, ASEAN has taken steps to integrate Myanmar to its family, which will encourage Myanmar to move more towards its ASEAN neighbors. Since Myanmar has also been appointed to chair the ASEAN in 2014, the current rulers will have to show to the world that they are moving in the correct democratic path.

A democratic Myanmar holds promises not only for India but also for ASEAN and other western powers but will not augur well for China which has invested billions of dollars in various projects.

In fact, the first signs of kowtowing to public pressure came when the Thein Sein government cancelled the US$ 3.6 billion Myistone hydropower project which would have displaced millions of people.

The project was intended to export 90 percent of the 6000 MW power generated to China. This along with many other projects of controversial nature has made China and the Chinese very unpopular in the country. The future leaders of Myanmar would consider it politically risky to increase their association with China and its businessmen.

Though Suu Kyi, when asked in New Delhi about her views on relations with China, was very diplomatic in her answer. But an important member of NLD, Tint Swe, who lived in exile for 22 years in New Delhi, commented, “I am sure most Myanmarese generals also are not happy with only China’s presence in our country. I think India is trying to exploit that, but it is being too slow.”

Earlier, only China, India and some ASEAN countries were key players in Myanmar. “Now we are more international, and opening up to everybody. The West is coming in very fast and Myanmar needs to balance things out. We do not want any hegemony. China is already there, ties with the US are developing fast, and India is coming in behind. But we do not want to fall into the trap of favoring only one country.”

Though no government can openly favor any particular country at the cost of its relations with others, it is for India to capitalize on the favorable situation by working with both Suu Kyi and the Thein Sein government.

Undoubtedly, China will not feel comfortable but it can certainly put pressure on any future government by siding with the rebel and insurgent groups who may create problems for the future governments also.

The Myanmar government will have to take into account the nuisance value of its neighbor while framing its foreign policy and policy towards neighbors.