There is substance in the comment of Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Imphal Free Press, that the overall Indian character is westward-looking and the reluctance to look East should explain to a great extent why the Northeast remained India’s area of darkness for so long. This explains our lack of interest in developments taking place in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, though in the immediate post World War II period, Jawaharlal Nehru championed the cause of liberation of Asia and Africa from colonialism.
Two conferences of Asian communists under the auspices of the Communist Party of India, held in Calcutta in December 1947 and February 1948 decided to intensify armed Communist movements in Burma, Malaya and Vietnam.
The Communist Party of Burma was formed in 1939. Several Indians played key roles. This gave the CPI some influence in the Communist movement in Burma.
The formation of armed wings in north, east and south Burma during World War II among the Kachin, Karen, Shan, Chin, Wa, Mon and other ethnic groups with British help to fight the Japanese, was the beginning of the destabilisation of Burma that we see today. And that is because it equipped the “geopolitical ethnic groups” — minorities in the country — but “the majority ethnic groups” in their areas with military power.
Martin Smith in his analysis in “Burma insurgency and politics of ethnicity” has pointed out that what began as Communist insurgency with Chinese support was transformed into ethnic insurgency and later degenerated into a drug mafia-sponsored organised crime. It used political slogans to camouflage the crimes of violence, drug smuggling and extortion, especially after 1988 when Tatmadaw — the army high command — took complete control over the country (This is a pattern of insurgency that North-east India is all too familiar and equally self-defeating).
However, the “liberated zones” formed during the Communist Insurgency (1948 -1989) continue as areas of ethnic insurgencies and so it appears that they have used their Communist and socialist badges quite fruitfully! Consequently, the central government’s effective control, even on a liberal estimate, is a little over 60 per cent of the geographical area. And, this fact makes nation building a critical factor in the transition of Myanmar to democracy and a modern state.
The other complicated issue is lack of any agreed population data on an ethnic and linguistic basis right from the 1931 Census, partly because, as a British official observed then that “some of the races and tribes of Burma change their language almost as often they change their clothes”.
Many ethnic groups feel that no true census has ever been undertaken and hence the figure of 68 per cent being the proportion of the dominant ethnic Bamars in Myanmar’s present population of 53. 90 million, as per the 2015 UN estimate, is questionable. Even if it is accepted and the geographical distribution of ethnic groups is taken into account, Myanmar emerges as a multi-ethnic, multireligious and multi-lingual polity. This is seen in the present division of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar under the 2008 Constitution into one Union Territory, five self- administered zones, including a Naga zone, seven states and seven regions.
The Shan, Karen, Kachin, Mon and the Rakhine Buddhists are major ethnic groups in the list of the 135 recognised. Unfortunately for Myanmar, most of these groups have now become distinct “political societies” with ambitions to have states of their own. They have styled themselves as “nationalities” and now negotiate with the government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Thus, five out of 21 ethnic armed groups formed an umbrella organisation called the Unified Nationalities Federal Council and has started ceasefire negotiation with the Centre as a prelude to a serious effort to a “democratic and federal nation”.
At present there is a joint ceasefire monitoring committee-support platform, a team backed by 13 countries and the United Nations, but this body could achieve little more than emphasising the need for a peace process. There is, in fact, a deadlock because while the UNFC wants the international platform to look beyond a ceasefire at a lasting political solution — a constitutional reform — the Army high command and the NLD government want a role limited to ceasefire monitoring as they fear dilution of the centralised and ethnic Bamar-led government, built since 1958 when the first Army coup took place.
It is sad indeed that the first democratic constitution of Burma that Sir BN Rau, ICS prepared for the Burmese nation did not survive while his other monumental work, the making of the Indian constitution as the constitutional advisor to the Government of India has given us a structure of a modern state. In this background the challenge before Aung San Suu Kyi is manifold, stiff and fraught with risk of further drift to misgovernance as she is only the “State Counsellor” and not the executive head. She is functioning under a Constitutional arrangement made in 2008 that allocates 25 per cent of seats in parliament to the military and placed crucial ministries of home and internal security, defence and foreign affairs under military control.
This arrangement is wholly opposed to what a “modern democratic state” is and despite this constraint she has initiated steps to address the grievances of the ethnic minorities and the issue of citizenship in Rakhine faced by Muslims apart from measures to develop the regional economy. She is thus heading, what observers call, “an ostensibly civilian government” put in place in 2011 with the task of building a nation first through a peace and reconciliation process and then a modern democratic and federal state with the consent of all ethnic groups. No national leader of Asia today is confronted with such a complex task.
However, geo-politics seems to be on her side because despite the international outcry on the crackdown on the armed Rohingya movement for a separate Muslim state in Rakhine in the last two months, she continues to enjoy the support of India and China as both have high stakes in peace in the Rakhine region.
A 1060-km gas pipeline from Kyaukphyu on Myanmar’s west coast to Kunming in Yunnan province of China has been functioning since July 2013 and an oil pipeline from January 2015, enables China to obtain oil and gas directly from West Asia, a huge strategic advantage, as it reduces China’s dependence on the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea route. India’s stake in stability of Rakhine is high for the success of the Kaladan Multi-modal transport project to give the Northeast an alternative and closer access to the Sittwe port in Rakhine which might even encourage Bangladesh to allow transit facility to Chittagong port. It seems that there is a sort of convergence of Indian and Chinese interests in Myanmar.
With a relatively low population, as compared to the area and arable land of 10.6 million hectares; vast, largely untapped, strategic mineral resources, on-shore oil fields, proven gas reserves; a GDP of $ 64.3 billion and Foreign Direct Investment of only $5 in 2014, and that too mainly from China, Thailand and Hong Kong, Myanmar is a potential Asian tiger economy.
The present high growth of about eight per cent from 2012 is a product of low base effect rather than an outcome based on attainment of “take off” stage. Myanmar is lucky to have a neighbour like India, which has returned the resource-rich Kabaw valley of Manipur to it in 1953. India also did not make an issue of expulsion by the junta of about 300,000 Indians — mostly merchants and professionals — in 1968.
To realise the growth potential, stabilisation of the internal environment is the first step to put in place growth inducing institutions; and for that to happen Myanmar has to settle for something more than a federal polity.
Possibly a federation with some features of a confederation might provide a political framework capable of meeting the aspirations of the diverse ethnic groups in an era when nation states are giving way to sub-regional union of states for peace and progress. Only then, the “transition” may not look like “a bridge too far” but could make Myanmar again “a country like no other”, the way George Orwell saw its greatness.
(The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre and has served as a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the government of India)