It is two months since the government controlled by Aung San Suu Kyi took charge in Myanmar. The elections that brought her to power were free despite western fears that the military regime would not allow freedom. The question being asked today is “to what extent will Myanmar change?” Amid what look like earth shattering events is there continuity with change? The military regime has ensured it by allocating to itself through the Constitution 25 percent of the seats in both the houses of Parliament and in the State legislatures. An amendment to the Constitution requires 75 percent plus one vote. Thus, no amendment is possible without the support of this bloc of unelected members. Secondly, the Ministers for Home, Border Areas and Defence are appointed by the Senior Military General and report to him, not to the president. Thus in practice there are two centres of power, the civilian president and the military general. That limits the power of the civilian administration.
Despite this apparent continuity one sees many positive signs of freedom. Though the military regime imposed constitution prevents Suu Kyi from becoming President, the Parliament has created a post that gives her effective control over the civilian government. She has also been trying to control corruption that was rampant under the military regime. Amid these changes one can also ask whether her government is introducing all the changes required or is there continuity with change in this domain too? One tends to believe that it is the case. For example, her government has freed many political prisoners but retains the restrictions on freedom of assembly that the dictatorial regime had put in place. Some analysts believe that while freeing the enemies of the old regime the civilian government is keeping its own enemies in jail. That should be verified.
Another area of concern is education that the military regime controlled. In fact, every fascist regime tries to take control of education. The Myanmar regime did it by nationalising all schools in 1965 with no compensation. It changed the curriculum to suit the needs of “one race, one language, one religion” imposed on everyone. Student movements were banned. There was repression as late as 2015 and the president (vice-chancellor) of Yangon University supported it fully. He has now been made Minister of Education. Despite this apparent setback one hopes that there will be more freedom in education.
Religious freedom is one more area of concern. Most minorities feel more secure under the new government, with the exception of Muslims. They were hounded by the fundamentalist groups under the old regime. The State disallowed the name of “Rohingya” that they use for themselves. The usual accusations of them being illegal Bangladeshi migrants and terrorists were hurled at them. After anti-Muslim riots a large number of them are living in refugee camps, behind barbed wires in inhuman conditions, without basic rights. Aung San Suu Kyi did not choose a single Muslim candidate for her party for fear that the fundamentalist groups would use them against her. One expected change in this attitude after the elections. But the Minister for Religious Affairs has made statements that are not far from what the fundamentalist groups said in the past. However, recently the government has appointed a committee to dialogue with the Muslims in the camps and one hopes that it will pave the way for towards religious equality.
Foreign policy is what matters in India. Though Myanmar is its next door neighbour and despite the “Look East Policy” India has not given it the importance it deserves. Dr Man Mohan Singh paid a successful visit to Myanmar and the President of Myanmar came to India. But Shri Narendra Modi has gone to Myanmar only for the India-ASEAN summit and has not paid a one-to-one visit to the country. As soon as Aung San Suu Kyi became its foreign minister her Italian, Canadian, Chinese and some other counterparts rushed to Myanmar to visit her but the Indian foreign minister is yet to pay her a visit. India seems to view Myanmar mainly as a place of competition with China and not as a neighbour whom it should court as a friend. Even some people in that country feel that India views it only as a place “Where India Meets China” which is the title of a book by U Thant’s grandson.
That seems to remain unchanged after the elections. India needs to develop one-to-one relations with Myanmar without being obsessed with China. It has advantages that it can use to mutual benefit. The communities in the border areas of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh that are separated by the international boundary consider themselves one. They have regular dealings trade, cultural and social exchanges across the border. Inter-dependence is high among them. India should be encouraging such people to people exchanges in order to improve friendly relations with Myanmar. Instead, a month ago India banned barter trade on the border though official trade is moribund. As a result the people to people exchanges may be called smuggling.
India has other advantages too such as middle level technology that Myanmar needs. During its transition to a new economy Myanmar can learn from its 25 years of experience of globalisation. Indian democracy has survived many challenges. Its people enjoy religious freedom despite growth of fundamentalism in the country. Its vibrant civil society is involved in peace processes so it can be an asset when the new government of Myanmar is re-launching peace parleys with the ethnic minorities that have waged an armed struggle for autonomy for six decades. In its turn at a time when the Indian government is becoming hostile to civil society and is misusing its power to punish groups that disagree with it, Indian NGOs can learn from their Myanmar counterparts who have experience of being hounded by the State.
Civil society can thus play an important role in relations with the neighbour but they cannot do it without the government. State-civil society cooperation is essential to improve people to people relations too over and above official links. Unfortunately the government seems to be concerned more about competition with China than with friendship with Myanmar. China cannot be wished away. But the best way of dealing with it is to treat Myanmar as a friendly neighbour whom we need as a link with China rather than as a competitor.
Dr Walter Fernandes is founder and Senior Fellow at North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati