Is Myanmar on the way for a transition to democratic ways? It is already a democracy by textbook definition as it now has an elected government, but is it also on the way of becoming democratic in letter and spirit? Many, led by well known academic and author, Thant Myint-U believe so and they have been lobbying hard to have the United States and the European Union, among others, to lift their trade as well as aid sanctions on the country claiming these sanctions are proving counter-productive for instead of mounting pressure on the military leadership into submission, it has been hardening them and by force of circumstance, cosying up into the waiting arms of the rising economic and military superpower – China. It goes without saying that this lobby very much shares the unease of the West of rising China. This regardless, what is important is, has there been any sign the West is about to shift stance. This issue is pivotal, for if Myanmar opens up and the West acknowledges this in spirit and reciprocates the gesture, it could be just what the entire South East Asian region, including Northeast India has been waiting for in all these decades. So far, Myanmar has been a big black hole that nullified any integration of this natural economic region to the extent desired. India’s “Look East Policy” has also been stumbling into this road block consistently.
Signs are, according to a report in The New York Times, the Obama administration is looking for a thaw in its relations with this resource rich and geographically massive SE Asian country. On its part, the military regime has ostensibly eased out of the administration after the last “democratic” elections in the country, although sceptics still say they are still the real bosses behind the scene, and that the elections in question was unfair and undemocratic. However, the new president of the country, U Thein Sein, himself a former general, reports say has taken everybody by surprise by pushing radical reforms in the country preparing for a deeper democratic transformation of his country, perhaps much beyond what the former military junta would have wanted. He has set for himself some daunting targets including combating poverty, corruption and not the least resolving the numerous deadly ethnic conflicts plaguing the country. A recent article in the NYT says amongst the initiative of the president was “by June, state pensions for nearly a million people, most of them very poor, were increased by as much as a thousand-fold, taxes were reduced, and trade cartels were dismantled. The government redrafted banking and foreign investment rules and began revising its foreign exchange rate policy — all of this in consultation with businessmen and academics. That alone was a huge step, because army rulers had long shunned any civilian advice.” In what the same article also sees as a symbolic gesture, on July 19, Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who was released from house arrest last November, was invited to the annual Martyrs’ Day ceremony, a holiday that memorialises the 1947 assassination of her father, Aung San, considered the architect of the country’s independence. It also says several independent newspapers have come to life as also restrictions on internet lifted. And now, according to the latest information, Al Jazeera Television reported the government is preparing to release political prisoners interned by the former military junta and still languishing in Myanmar jails.
If these reports are anything to go by, it does seem it will not be long before Myanmar opens up to the rest of the world. It will of course not be the end of all the problems of this rather enigmatic country. It would for instance have to deal with the ethnic strife within, which by all accounts is even more complex and violent than what we in the Northeast are witnessing. But this notwithstanding, if this development is true as these informed observers are claiming, it would have profound implications for the Northeast India. Above all else, the claustrophobia of being distant physically and psychologically from New Delhi and also from the bustling capitals and commercial cities of South East Asia, would begin to ease. The Look East Policy too can begin to acquire a lot more optimistic and feasible future. Of all the Northeast states, Manipur would be the one faced with the most challenges as well as opportunities. The ancient trade routes that connected Imphal with Mandalay, Bhamo and beyond, to Thailand, Yunnan etc would also suddenly begin to acquire a different visage. In other words, the old question, would the state and its people be prepared for what can veritably be predicted to be a paradigm shift in regional relationship, has become not only relevant but extremely urgent. Would the government as well as the people by and large take note please?