Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Myanmar's Transition to Democracy: New Opportunities or Obstacles for India?

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Myanmar's Transition to Democracy: New Opportunities or Obstacles for India?

Article excerpt

In November 2015, Myanmar will hold general parliamentary elections, representing the latest step in the country's slow transition to democracy that began with political reforms in 2008. More than many other countries going through similar transitions, there is strong interest around the world in whether democracy will take hold in Myanmar. Myanmar has a superb geostrategic position as a littoral state of the Bay of Bengal, between two competitive rising powers in Asia, i.e. India and China, and forms a land-bridge between South and Southeast Asia. As an immediate neighbour of Myanmar, India is one country that is particularly interested in the fate of Myanmar's democracy. At stake are tantalizing opportunities for trade and investment with and through Myanmar to the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as core security interests in suppressing insurgencies, drug trafficking and arms smuggling in India's northeast region which borders Myanmar. In the period since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, the relationship between the two countries has swung from like-minded, to indifferent, to cold and, since the mid-1990s, to a form of pragmatic partnership.

This article focuses on attempts by India to engage with Myanmar since the mid-1990s and asks whether a more democratic Myanmar provides new opportunities or obstacles for the achievement of India's economic and security interests. It begins by briefly describing the history of India-Burma/Myanmar relations before moving on to analyse India's interests in engaging Myanmar, and vice versa. It then assesses the extent of the democratic transition that has taken place thus far and describes India's latest initiatives to engage Myanmar in the areas of security cooperation, trade and energy security. Finally, it assesses whether and how Myanmar's transition to democracy affects the likely success of these initiatives.

Background

India's relationship with Myanmar begins with their common history as colonies of the British Empire, with Burma being absorbed within the British Raj from 1826-1937. Over time, a significant number of Indians were brought into the country by the British to run the colonial administration, police and military while others established businesses, including as moneylenders. By 1942, Indians made up approximately 6-7 per cent of the population. (1) After both countries achieved independence, their shared history as subjects of colonial domination brought their then Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu, together as leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement. During this time, India assisted the fragile U Nu government in the light against emerging communist insurgencies within the country by providing arms and helping to raise financial assistance from Commonwealth countries. However, the initial promise in the relationship dimmed after General Ne Win seized power in a military coup in 1962. The coup ushered in an era of xenophobic "Burmanization" of society and the imposition of the "Burmese Way to Socialism" which included policies of nationalization of private businesses and expropriation of property without compensation that spurred the exodus of around 300,000 people of Indian origin during 1962-65. (2) As the junta withdrew from the world, relations between the two countries became distant.

Burma's mass-movement for democracy, beginning with the "8888" protests in August 1988 forced New Delhi to grapple with the question of how far the world's largest plural, multi-ethnic democracy should go in promoting democracy abroad. The engagement of authoritarian states posed the greatest challenge to these values, particularly those with the capacity to do great harm to India's core interests, or to close off game-changing opportunities. India's first reaction to the brutal suppression of the mass uprising in Burma in September 1988 was, however, unambiguous: democratic forces were provided with rhetorical and substantive support. …

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