The November 8 election in Myanmar produced a stunning victory for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who trounced the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.
However, a clause in the constitution will prevent Suu Kyi from becoming president, and the military is not likely to relinquish its dominance any time soon. Specifically, the 11-member National Defence and Security Council is the highest body in the government, and is dominated by unelected military personnel who have the authority to declare a state of emergency at any time. Significantly, the military is also constitutionally guaranteed one quarter of the seats in parliament plus the ministries of defense, home affairs, and border affairs.
Suu Kyi is unlikely to want to ruffle military feathers, and indeed has adopted a conciliatory approach, reaching out to incumbent President Thein Sein. Past experience in Asia suggests that this is sensible – leaders who adopt a belligerent approach towards the military before they have consolidated power often stumble, with democracy usually the major casualty. Suu Kyi clearly has her work cut out, needing to respond to the very high expectations of not just her domestic constituents, but also the international community, which will anticipate an acceleration of economic reforms.
One interesting question is the impact of the election outcome on Myanmar’s ties with other parts of the world, especially its neighbors China, Thailand and India.
For many years, India’s ties with the military junta were strained. This began to change in the 1990s, when then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao realized that India’s aspirations for relations with Southeast Asia would remain a pipedream without a working relationship with Myanmar. And over the past decade, India has begun to make its presence felt in its neighbor. While in the economic realm, India lags far behind China in terms of investment and bilateral trade, it has focused on assisting Myanmar with institution and capacity building, helping the country with English-language training, IT and agriculture.
In 2012, Manmohan Singh became the first Indian prime minister to visit Myanmar in 25 years, and he also met with Aung San Suu Kyi. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi also visited Myanmar in 2014 and met not just with Thein Sein, but also with Suu Kyi. Given her close connection with India, political ties with India could strengthen in the area of economics and connectivity. In a recent interview, Suu Kyi made mention of her education in India, and her links with Indian relationship.
Of course, China has also reached out to the NLD leader. In fact, Suu Kyi visited China and met with President Xi Jinping earlier this year. During an interview with an Indian media channel she made the very important point that Myanmar can play an important role in improving ties between India and China, and should not be looked at as a theater of conflict. This is a significant point because analysts in India and China, together with sections of the establishment, have long perceived Myanmar as a battleground.
There are areas where India, Myanmar and China can actually cooperate if Aung San Suu Kyi pushes for it. One area that is often highlighted is the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor, an important component of China’s massive One Belt, One Road project. India has long been skeptical of this project, with many analysts believing that it was being used to strengthen China’s “string of pearls.” Now, though, there is an increasing interest and regular meetings are being held. India believes that this will help give teeth to its Act East Policy. Interestingly, India and China have cooperated in other areas as well. ONGC Videsh and GAIL India both have stakes in the A1 and A3 blocks of the Shwe offshore gas field in Myanmar. The two companies are participants in the South-East Asia Gas Pipeline Company, Ltd., where CNPC is a majority stakeholder.
While India and China may compete in some areas, Myanmar’s geographical location is such that there is plenty of room for a healthy, cooperative relationship.
If one were to look beyond economics, Myanmar could learn from India’s messy but stable democracy. For this, strong institutions are essential, as is religious harmony. Myanmar has a number of choices to make. It can choose to follow the trajectory of Thailand, or it could model itself on India, which enjoys a stable democracy. For this, Myanmar also needs to ensure that all religions receive equal rights, in this context the rights of the minority Rohingya need to be safeguarded. A weak democracy and religious intolerance are a lethal cocktail – Pakistan is evidence of that. For its part, India needs to be supportive, while avoiding any suggestion that it is being obtrusive or patronizing.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a Senior Research Associate with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat.