Seeking tips on democracy

Print edition : November 19, 2004

General Khin Nyunt (right) with his successor Lieutenant-General Soe Win. - AP

THE state visit to India by Chairman of Myanmar's State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Senior General Than Shwe is seen in East Asian political and diplomatic circles as an indication of a new dynamic not only in Myanmar's foreign policy but also in India's.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues, signed during the visit, is estimated to be of considerable importance. Signed by External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh and Myanmar's Minister for Foreign Affairs U Nyan Win, it reflects a commitment to enhance bilateral cooperation against terrorism, arms smuggling, money laundering, drug trafficking, organised crime, international economic crimes and cyber crime. The check-list is indicative of New Delhi's concern about the activities of some anti-India guerilla groups that are using Myanmar's territory. At the same time, the Myanmar junta is concerned about the activities of groups belonging to the country's ethnic minorities and pro-democracy bands in exile all over the world.

A cultural exchange programme and an MoU on the establishment of a hydroelectric power project in Myanmar were also signed. For India, Myanmar is economically important, in its own right and as a corridor to countries such as Vietnam.

Looking beyond these bilateral aspects, East Asian observers were quick to note that Than Shwe had suggested that "India, with its well-established traditions of democracy, could support Myanmar" in its own efforts to "bring about democracy". While the specifics of any help that India can extend to Myanmar on its "road map for democracy" will be difficult to foresee at this stage, the diplomatic nuance behind the Indian spokesman's statement on this issue is not lost on experts. Myanmar's key neighbours such as China, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam are already Yangon's key interlocutors, besides the United Nations and the Association of South East Asian Nations.

In a historical context, Myanmar's strategic relationship with China is seen to have improved rapidly after the military coup of September 1988 in Yangon. While some of Myanmar's strategic experts like Hla Min had even discerned long-term intentions of the West to try and include Myanmar in an attempt to encircle or contain China, some others like Tin Maung Maung Than have reckoned, at the other end of the spectrum, that nationalistic Yangon is unlikely to become a satellite of Beijing. It is in this strategic milieu that Than Shwe's latest move to seek India's help for democratisation of Myanmar acquires importance in the wider regional context.

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