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Complicated friendship - Myanmar's problems in transition

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Complicated friendship - Myanmar's problems in transition

Sanjay Pulipaka & Krishnan Srinivasan
The recent developments on the India-Myanmar border would have come as a surprise to many. On that frontier, there are no gunfire exchanges or mutual allegations of transgressions as there are on the disputed India-Pakistan and India-China borders. Not only is there an absence of such friction, but local people can travel up to 16 kilometres across the India-Myanmar border without any visa formalities. In spite of this relaxed atmosphere, or possibly because of it, there are numbers of anti-Indian armed groups that use Myanmar as a base for their operations, and a few months ago, some of these insurgent groups, such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang and elements of United Liberation Front of Asom have launched a common platform grandiosely called the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia.

Subsequent to this development, Indian security forces in Manipur were attacked on June 4 by militants that owe allegiance to this new grouping, resulting in the death of some 18 Indian personnel. It was in response to this attack that the Indian army conducted a cross-border raid into Myanmar on two locations along the Nagaland and Manipur border. In contrast to high-decibel rhetoric on the Indian side, Myanmar's position has been restrained about this incident. The Myanmar government stated that it would not allow foreign military operations or foreign rebels on its territory, but expressed willingness to "cooperate with the Indian government to handle the problem". The possibility that New Delhi might have informed our neighbour of an intention to conduct this raid, and more importantly, the involvement of Myanmar's own defence forces in similar counter-insurgency operations across its China border, are pointers towards understanding Myanmar's comparative reticence.

Unlike on its marches with India, the Myanmar government has to contend with many powerful insurgent groups on its border with China, such as the Kachin Independence Army and United Wa State Army. In March, during the clashes with a Chinese-armed Kokang ethnic group called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Myanmar air force bombed a Chinese village, killing around five civilians, causing the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, to term the incident "deeply distressing". Additional Chinese forces were deployed in the region and the Chinese defence forces later conducted a live-fire joint air-and-ground training exercise close to the Myanmar border in an obvious warning to its neighbour. Due reportedly to sustained pressure from China, this rebel group has now announced a unilateral ceasefire. In a further positive development, a draft ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar authorities and various insurgent groups was reached in March this year, and after eight days of confabulations in Law Khee Lar on the Myanmar-Thailand border, the ethnic groups constituted a special coordination team to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire accord. These discussions are to be assisted by special envoys from the United Nations and China. If a ceasefire is agreed to prior to the November elections, it will naturally increase the density of electoral participation.

On the other hand, disturbing sectarian violence involving the Buddhists in Rakhine/Arakan province and the Muslim minority population called 'Rohingyas' near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border has become a source of concern for all the nations in the neighbourhood. While Myanmar has often been accused of pursuing systematically discriminatory policies towards the Rohingyas, it claims that it has never harboured any Rohingya ethnic group and instead prefers to describe them as illegal Bengali immigrants originating in Bangladesh. This sectarian violence, coupled with severe economic distress, has resulted in the migration of thousands of Muslims in distress from the Myanmar-Bangladesh border regions to Southeast Asian countries on rickety boats. Most of these illegal migrants are the tragic victims of human trafficking networks, and are found adrift on the high seas or in appalling conditions in refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia. So far, at least, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has failed to address the problem, but it is likely to become a long-term transnational issue of considerable magnitude unless remedial steps are taken, which will involve the cooperation of several littoral countries.

Within Myanmar itself, the sectarian violence in Rakhine state has spread to other parts of the country including big cities such as Mandalay, and constitutes a continuing danger to Myanmar's political transition. As the election campaign picks up momentum, there is a strong possibility that shrill rhetoric along sectarian lines will gain greater momentum and with significant political consequences. The sectarian violence has distracted attention from the groundswell of anti-Chinese feeling on account of their economic activities, thereby lessening the prospect of this being expressed in any virulent form. Secondly, the Buddhist religious leadership has been pushed into the limelight on various political issues; and finally, Aung San Suu Kyi, widely considered to be the nation's conscience keeper, is now in an awkward dilemma. If she declares herself in favour of the Rohingyas, she would lose some of her support base among the majority Buddhists in the run-up to the elections. But if she remains silent, as is the case so far, she will lose her credibility with international, especially Western, opinion. This is already evident, with international news agencies questioning her silence on the issue. She has been quoted as countering this by saying that her silence is not because of political calculation, but due to concern that any statements may result in even greater violence inflicted on the Rohingyas.

On the constitutional front, a bill to amend the Constitution has been introduced in Parliament, and its modest reform proposal ensures the military's continued dominant role in the polity. An existing provision provides that a presidential candidate should not have any family members with foreign citizenship, but according to the proposed amendments, persons with a son-in-law or daughter-in-law as foreign citizens are eligible to contest for the office of president. This seems to be a compromise formula, but even such an amendment would bar Suu Kyi's candidature because her sons are British citizens. Currently, the consent of 75 per cent of members of parliament and 50 per cent of eligible voters in a referendum is required to amend the Constitution, and the amendment bill seeks to lower the barrier to 70 per cent of MPs. Significantly, it does not refer to any reduction in the Myanmar military's presence in legislatures from the current 25 per cent. Therefore, unless something dramatic takes place, like Suu Kyi launching a major agitation, the Myanmar military has stalled any attempts to reduce its role in the decision-making processes. The Parliament constituted after the November election this year will witness pressure for further democratization, and though Suu Kyi will not become president even if her party secures an electoral majority, she will continue to be a major political player. If the electoral verdict is fragmented, then ethnic parties will have greater say in determining the trajectory and the pace of the democratization process.

During her recent visit to China, Suu Kyi seems to have adopted more of a pragmatic than a normative approach. China is Myanmar's most important economic and political partner and, therefore, her meetings with both the president and premier of China have attracted attention. She did not call for the release of the Nobel peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, from detention, and her silence on human rights, which would have disappointed the West, is an indication that regardless of the outcome of the November elections, Myanmar will maintain the closest cooperation with China, and will be a very important factor in the Chinese Belt and Road initiatives. Certainly the Chinese leadership would have no interest in pushing the Myanmar military to expedite the process of any political reform. China enjoys a long-term and tested relationship with the Myanmar military, and Myanmar's ruling establishment has rarely allowed the outside world to set the pace of its domestic political evolution.

For India, the emergence of a stable and democratic Myanmar is as important as that of any other country in South Asia. After the suspension of sanctions, Myanmar has registered an impressive economic growth touching about 8.5 per cent in 2014-2015. Any sustained economic growth in Myanmar should have a positive spill-over in India's Northeast as well. However, the deterioration of the security situation on the Myanmar-China border or a full-scale humanitarian disaster on or from the Bangladesh-Myanmar border will worsen the security environment. India needs to study in detail the impact of the democratization process on Myanmar's states, regions and the self-administered zone proximate to our border. There are cognate ethnic groups on both sides of the border, and there is the possibility that anti-Indian insurgent factions from these ethnic groups might participate in the Myanmar elections or even gain control of the Naga SAZ.

S. Pulipaka is a fellow at ICRIER, New Delhi. K. Srinivasan is a former foreign secretary


Aftermath of 1965 war

Kuldip Nayar
The war between India and Pakistan in 1965 is 50 years old. Even today, hostilities are attributed to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then foreign minister. This is correct. General Mohammad Ayub Khan, who was heading Pakistan at that time, admitted in an interview that he did not want to disturb peace, however uneasy.
When I checked with Bhutto, he did not deny his role. In defence he said he felt that if there was a time when Pakistan could defeat India, it was then. He argued that India had only a few ordinance factories and “we had an edge over you because of the US military assistance.”
Pakistan’s hand was confirmed by Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard E. Anderson of the United States Air Force who, in a letter to Time in October 1965, said: “…In April, I returned from Pakistan. We all knew then that this fight was coming: The Pakistanis were painting their ground equipment battle grey over the original yellow, were building revetment for their aircraft, etc…”
Pakistan’s attack in 1965 began with hundreds of infiltrators—Ayub called them Bhutto’s mujahids (liberators)—sneaking into Kashmir. The report of the intrusion first appeared in the Indian press on 9 August 1965, along with Ayub’s assurance to Kewal Singh, while accepting his credentials as India’s high commissioner in Rawalpindi, that Pakistan would reciprocate every move from India for better cooperation. He justified that infiltration into Kashmir was not the same thing as infiltration into India. The ‘uprising’ that Pakistan expected failed because local Kashmiris did not help the infiltrators. Bhutto called them hatos (labourers), with utmost contempt.
When I interviewed Bhutto, his explanation, as recorded, is: "There was a time when militarily, in terms of the big push, in terms of armour, we were superior to India because of the military assistance we were getting and that was the position up to 1965. Now, the Kashmir dispute was not being resolved and its resolution was also essential for the settlement of our disputes and as it was not being resolved peacefully and we had this military advantage, we were getting blamed for it.
“So, it would, as a patriotic prudence, be better to say, all right, let us finish this problem and come to terms and come to a settlement. It has been an unfortunate thing. So, that is why up to 1965, I thought that with this edge that we had we could have morally justified it. Also, because India was committed to self-determination and it was not being resolved and we had this situation. But now this position does not exist. I know it does not exist. I know better than anyone else that it does not exist and that it will not exist in the future also."
The 1965 war is a watershed in relations between India and Pakistan. Till then there was estrangement but no hostility. Big war gates were installed at the Attari-Wagah border. With a rigid visa system introduced, even the limited informal trade on the border came to a halt.
The then popular leader Sheikh Abdullah could have aligned with Pakistan. But he preferred secular India to Islamic Pakistan when he found that it was not possible for him to stay independent. Sufism was what the Kashmiris followed and they found secularism akin to it. The Sheikh was able to have a special status for the state. The Indian Constitution spelled it out in Article 370. Except three subjects—Defence, Foreign Affairs and Communications—the Indian parliament had no power to legislate without the consent of the state legislature.
The undertakings given at that time are sacred and cannot be written off by people who think differently. The state had adopted even a separate constitution to make it clear that it would not compromise on its autonomy. Watering it down now will amount to betrayal of the confidence which the people of Jammu and Kashmir had reposed in New Delhi. If any change has to be made, it has to be done by them. The Indian Union which the state had joined cannot amend its powers without the consent of the state’s people.
Those who agitate for the deletion of Article 370 do not realize that they may reopen the entire question of Kashmir’s accession to India. The Constituent Assembly of Jammu and Kashmir endorsed it on the basis of a special status. If any amendment is to be effected, it has to be done by the state’s Constituent Assembly. Neither the state assembly nor the Centre’s parliament can usurp the power which vests in a Constituent Assembly. Is New Delhi willing to risk the entire status of the state by convening another Constituent Assembly, which may also be illegal?
In the meanwhile, the Kashmiris have come to develop a different thinking. They do not want either India or Pakistan to be the arbiter. They themselves want to decide what is suited to their genius. The voice of fundamentalists may be loud but the Kashmiris want the pandits to be part of their culture as has been the case for centuries.
Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed has shown a middle path by giving an equal space to the Hindu-majority Jammu in the state’s affairs. But he has delineated, in the process, a line between the Muslim-majority Valley and Jammu
This is what a tall leader like the Sheikh could have done to evoke support in the entire state, including Ladakh. The pigmy leaders of today can find a formula to placate different communities, but they cannot bring back the atmosphere of pluralism which prevailed once. Islamic fundamentalism has gained ground in the Valley and Hindutva in Jammu because the sufi ideology has got polluted.
Before acceding to India, the Sheikh sent his confidantes to Pakistan to assess the mood. He came to the conclusion that pluralism was the best option for his people. One remark attributed to the Sheikh was that he did not like Pakistan because too many Muslims were there.

The writer is a noted journalist, columnist and commentator.


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