IPCS Discussion

Contemporary Myanmar & India-Myanmar Relations

09 Oct, 2014    ·   4688

Teshu Singh reports on the discussion on transitions in Myanmar, organised by the IPCS

On 5 September, 2014, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi, organised a discussion on Myanmar. This was the third set of discussions, and part of the larger series of IPCS discussions on Myanmar. The discussion was held in two sessions: 

a. India-Myanmar Relations: Challenges and Opportunities for New Government 
b. Contemporary Myanmar: Political Transition and Ethnic Faultline

Ambassador Rajiv K.Bhatia
Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs

In Myanmar, developments have been taking place gradually, without any dramatic transformation. Given that the elections are fast approaching, it is important to address some pressing issues. The key aspects of upcoming polls will be constitutional reform, ethnic issues and the free and fair nature of the election.

The internal situation of the country could be dominated by the civil-military relationship – that will form the core of national reconciliation. This in turn will be dominated by the Tatmadaw. In terms of constitutional reforms, addressing Article 436 and Article 59F will be important. The Parliamentary Joint Committee to review the constitution has suggested changes in Article 436 but not for Article 59F. However, there is no constitutional reform expected.

The Myanmarese economy has begun picking up and its foreign policy is also gradually maturing. Although some red lines have been drawn vis-à-vis China, the Naypyiday-Beijing relationship is strong, particularly in defence and military areas.

In terms of India-Myanmar relations, there are some pending issues – such as the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, and the problem of cross-border insurgency. However, India’s Myanmar policy has been political fruit of India’s currently ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and erstwhile ruling Congress parties, both. This has given a degree of stability to the bilateral. Interactions at the Track I level have become robust but at the Track II level, they remain weak.  Needless to mention, India-Myanmar relations continue to swing between hope and reality.

Ambassador Ranjit Gupta, 
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman

Myanmar is the most ethnically divided country in the world. Perhaps the British rule accentuated this division. The Myanmarese military played an important role in achieving independence. Plausibly, if it weren’t for the military government in Myanmar, the country might have broken down. Given the central role it has played, the military has reserved a preeminent role for itself in the country’s future. Therefore, Myanmar’s transition from military rule to true democracy might not be easy and rapid.

After decades of military dictatorship, the country returned to civilian rule, with the 2010 elections. This precedent has not been witnessed anywhere in the world. The amendment of the constitution is in process. 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament has been reserved for the military, and discussions on the ceasefire agreement have been initiated.

As regards the marginalisation of the country’s Rohingya Muslim population, the term ‘Rohingya’ was completely unknown during the British rule; it was not used by any Burmese group and neither was it included in the eight censuses that have taken place until now. The term does not occur in any government gazette and none of the 135 groups in the country accept the Rohingyas as an ethnicity native to Myanmar. Curiously, Aung San Suu Kyi too is silent on their status. The Rohingyas live in terrible conditions in the country. There is a need for improvement of the situation for which the starting point must be to recognise the ground reality as is.  

Professor Shankari Sundararaman,
Chairperson, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The Myanmar’s political transition took roots in 2003 when the road map was launched. The period from 2003-10 witnessed two major developments: the saffron revolution and the adoption of the constitution. There are several indicators to understand the developments in the Myanmar.

a. Electoral Process: The 2010 elections took place after a gap of 20 years. 37 political parties partook in the election but the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Shan National League for Democracy party were debarred. A major aftermath of this election was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi itself. Soon, incumbent President Thein Sein launched the political reconciliation policy – that has led to the release of political prisoners, and to lifting the curbs on political participation on the masses. This is a critical change in the context of Myanmar. This development was followed by the April 2012 elections.

b. Freedom of Press: Since the beginning of the transition process, there has been a proliferation of media groups. The State-media relationship is complex, but, interestingly, Myanmar has been ranked higher than other Southeast Asian countries as far as freedom of press is concerned. 

c. Constitutional Reform Process: The 2008 constitution allows for a constitutional role for the National Defence and Security Council. This provision has actually ensured the presence of the military in political spaces: i.e. the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is tasked with appointing a representative to the legislative assembly. This is drawn from the Indonesian experience and is popularly known as the ‘dual function of military’. 

The federalism issue is important, and relevant to the ongoing peace process. The two ongoing debates related to the issue are: 

a. Is federalism itself an option?
b. Should the pattern of federalism Myanmar should adopt be symmetrical or asymmetrical? 

A related debate is based on whether federalism will be implemented on ethnic lines. 

Regardless, one has to be cautiously optimistic regarding changes in Myanmar.

Bibhu Prasad Routray, 
Visiting Fellow, IPCS

The ongoing peace process has two narratives: simple and complex. The simple narrative began in 2011 and pertains to the NCA. The time framework clearly states that the framework for the dialogue must be developed within 60 days of the signing of the Agreement and political dialogue must commence within 90 days. There has been enormous progress since then. Five rounds of the NCA have taken place and two drafts, amended. 75 per cent of the draft has been approved, 25 per cent is being debated, and approximately thirty words in the draft have to be defined.

Will Myanmar have durable peace? Myanmar’s future depends on whether the country has a vision for itself. There are expectations of political parties and international actors. Ethnic groups want a certain degree of self-determination, federalism, and international mediators and protection. The country is trying to define democracy with a local flavour.  

•Myanmar is an important neighbour of India’s. A monitoring system on Myanmar should be established under the auspices of the Indian prime minister’s office. 
•Since the Electoral College elects the president of Myanmar, along with the proportional representation, the Electoral College will also be important.
•The ‘Indian Federalism’ model is unsuitable for Myanmar. 
•Changes in Myanmar should be studied in light of comparative politics. Influence of external participants is evident in Myanmar. The EU has been focusing on the country, and the US too has been considering engaging Myanmar in its rebalancing strategy. 
•Sectarian violence is spreading rapidly. The Rohingya issue and the Islamophobia issue are being interpreted interchangeably. This is dangerous because it defeats the purpose of reconciliation.

Rapporteured by Teshu Singh, Senior Research Officer, IPCS