Arab’s Jasmine Revolution – Aroma and Stench

On 17th December 2010, in Tunisia, a 26-year old vegetable vendor doused himself because of local municipal authorities refused to hear his plea after his vegetable produce got confiscated and his deceased father was insulted by a local policewoman.  Subsequently, there was a protest in his town Sidi Bouzid [190 miles South of Tunis] and subsequently the heavy-handed response by police sparked a wave of violent street protests through and ousted the longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14th January 2011.

2] Just after Tunisia, couple weeks later, Protests broke out in Egypt on 25 January 2011, ran for nearly 3 weeks. During this time, President Hosni Mubarak and his government attempted to block country’s internet access to stop protestors using social media for organizing protests and later he dismissed government, appointed new cabinet with significant transfer of power to Vice President Omar Suleiman but protests continued pressing for President’s resignation.

3] Finally, President Hosni Mubarak relented, resigned and gave up the power to Egyptian Armed forces. Its supreme council vowed the lifting up of 30-year old emergency laws and suspended the constitution. Hosni Mubarak and few of his members of government were convicted life in prison for their failure to stop the killings during first few of days 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Meanwhile, his successor [Mohamed Morsi] from Muslim Brotherhood Party was sworn in as Egypt’s first democratically elected president before judges at the Supreme Constitutional Court.

4] On 15th of February 2011, protests broke out against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Benghazi, Libya which officially started the uprising which spread all across of Libyan borders and soon turned into a civil war. While EU and others announced “no fly zones” in the name of civilians to contain the regime’s security forces which gave room to rebel forces. In the last couple weeks of August 2011, Battle of Tripoli, occurred in Libya. Rebel forces captured and effectively gained control of the capital city of Tripoli and practically made the ruling regime powerless. On 20th October 2011, in the city of Sirte, Gaddafi was captured and killed, by rebels. On 23rd of October 2011, National Transitional Council officially declared an end to the 2011 Libyan Civil War.

5] On 10th of January 2012, the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, gave a speech, in which he blamed the uprising on foreigners, and said that it would require the co-operation of all Syrians, in order to stop the rebels. On 15th of July 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross officially declared that the Syrian uprising was now a civil war. On 18th July 2012, a bombing in Damascus killed many members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, including his brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat and the civil war continues even today more viciously as ever.

6] In January 2011, shortly after Tunisian government got ousted, protests broke out and built up in the Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a. From demostrations for unempolyement, amending the constitution etc it shifted focus asking President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down from power. He refused to these demands but unrest continued and bloody clashes erupted between security forces and few hundreds of Islamic Militants who took over coastal city of Zinjibar on the last weeks of May 2011. President Saleh flew to Sauidi Arabia and the King Abdullah broked a deal, transfer of power to Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi didn’t yield much results but eventually Mr Hadi sworn in as took over as President of Yemen after winning the elections which were held in 2012.

New Delhi’s nascent Naypyidaw

India and Burma (Myanmar) are seen – especially by many in India – as civilizational neighbors and people-to-people ties are, indeed, one of the corner stone of their relationship. On the business viewpoint – in the past years and decades, India’s bureaucratic hurdles repeatedly put many sporadic speed breakers on the prevailing lethargic public investments and Myanmar’s long military junta rule which made private entrepreneurs shy away from the limited opportunities, if at all feasible to do business. To revive the ties with realization of its fullest potential, private partnership and their investments are vital. In order to achieve that, Myanmar’s quasi-democratic setup and participation of their uniformed men inside in the law making forums makes it difficult to move on with full-fledged strategic negotiations which probably would transform the current model of investments by state-run public enterprises to private businesses. Moreover, lack of connectivity – mostly importantly land roads and rail links – between two countries in the border areas poses a laborious challenge to establish a land based transportation corridor between India and South East Asia.

India engaged with Myanmar extensively since President Thein visit to India back in December 2012. Security and Internal Affairs high level group meeting held in New Delhi on the last week of December 2012, to discuss the eliminating insurgency elements, drug smuggling and illegal arms trade activities along with extremism and terrorism in border areas. Border Liaison Offices were opened on the border lines to strengthen the existing cooperation between security forces. Subsequently, India’s Defense Minister AK Anthony traveled to Myanmar on January 2013 and met with top political and military brass of the country. Another vital series of events, which went largely unnoticed, is that the unprecedented visits of all three Service Chiefs of Indian Military to Myanmar within the time period of 18 months, prior to defense minister’s visit, reflected the desire of the Indian government to strengthen the depth of existing ties and framework of defense cooperation. First coordinated patrol of Indian-Myanmar Navies in March 2013 with the aim of flushing out extremists operating from Myanmar soil and Navy-to-Navy understanding has been established. It was, indeed, an eventful year which one may wish to continue and move in the right direction in the future.

While having these recurring political, diplomatic and military contacts is, indeed, focal to deepen the existing ties but it would be equally vital, is to revive the people to people contacts and especially from the trade perspective on the border areas. In the past couple years, Myanmar is moving ahead with their political and economic reforms, India must take a closer look on expanding its strategic interest’s spectrum. Traditionally, India government pushed the public enterprises or state-run firms to invest in Myanmar which didn’t yield the results as expected because of sustained bureaucratic hurdles. Actually, private partnership and their investments are the ones which required for Myanmar’s infrastructure development and building capacity in various fields but they hesitate to proceed further because of the current quasi-democratic setup and the participation of uniformed men in the law making forums.

Meanwhile, India must take the issues like Rakhine violence (Rakhine state has been the site of inter-communal violence since June 2012, with clashes between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, which eventually led the Government to declare a state of emergency there) and Kachin separate issues (in January 2013, Government announced a unilateral ceasefire following a three-week offensive against ethnic Kachin rebels. Then in May 2013, the Government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) concluded a seven-point agreement by which they agreed to, among others, establish a political dialogue) into it’s consideration and must watch them closely on how they unfold before the 2015 general elections.

Myanmar’s Transition and India’s Position

India’s relation with Burma (Myanmar) is not something new since it goes to few hundred years back if you look at from historical stand point; nevertheless, from foreign policy stance, India as a neighbor sharing border of about 1600 KMs with Myanmar has been some what floundering, if I may say so, because of reversing support after 1990 elections; probably the foreign policy establishment might have thought that they may loose some strategic and economic grounds to the Chinese who were busy at that point of time in establishing partnership.

Most recently in December 2012, President Thein Sein was here in New Delhi to participate in ASEAN India Commemorative Summit and it came after Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Naypyitaw to expedite the bilateral connections and also to greet their political reforms agenda proposed by quasi-democratic government which still has significant presence of uniformed men from their armed forces. Although Indian PM Singh’s trip came long after US, Britain etc. it is noteworthy in the sense that ‘better now, than later’ approach given the massive  economic and strategic interests from across the globe and most notably Chinese aggression in that part of the world.

As many in the west and geopolitical circle argues, Myanmar should swiftly move towards democratization by removing remaining military presence from the parliament and most notably, open up the economy for lucrative opportunities and export of  natural resources, allow foreign investments for setting up businesses, trade agreements etc.; In that context, India also shouldn’t be simply sitting down and watching what others are doing there rather it should move swiftly towards by taking multiple strategic things into consideration in parallel not as a emerging regional power but as a friendly neighbor.

As a first step to walk towards that direction, India should indeed be cautious on expecting a normalcy and full-fledged democratic activities since there may be shared hidden interests among uniformed men who are still occupying seats inside their parliament. Also, India must and maintain develop more communication channels with all possible stake holders ranging from political opposition to armed forces to businesses without pinching the existing diplomatic setup but by diversifying its school of thoughts to other strategic areas as well.

It must encourage and help them to establish a set of vibrant democratic institutions which may pave a way for the smooth political transition prior to their general elections which are expected to be held in 2015. Needless to say, those political contacts must be refreshed occasionally and most importantly India must ensure that the diplomatic engagements happen frequently.

Almost at the end of December 2012, Myanmar launched air strikes on KIA who is their rebel group controlling parts of Kachin and fighting for a separate state which shares its border with China. It shows that Myanmar moves ahead on controlling them and the existing the ceasefire agreement got broken. Meanwhile, many news reports noted that Naypyitaw is looking India’s help on engaging with Kachin rebels and also India looking for help from it’s counterpart to deal with illegal immigrants especially on controlling insurgence in its north-eastern border areas. In view of that, India should continue to pursue its diplomatic approach cautiously and see if any potential opportunities in resolving the Myanmar’s internal matters like Kachin state independence, violence on minority groups in Rakhine state etc. and in any case, ensuring the continuity in supporting human resettlements and giving necessary relief for affected people in those areas.

With respect to Chinese influence in Myanmar, its not as upright as many perceived rather if you look at the key developments like dam construction project by Chinese state-run corporations at Myitsone on the Ayeyarwady River was stopped by President Thein Sein after there was an uproar from locals and civil society groups that most of the electricity generated by the project planned to be pumped to China’s neighboring Yunnan Province and not only that, it may be the source for serious impacts including environmental degradation, massive displacement of locals, loss of fishing activities etc. Also, Chinese way of dealing with protests against Monywa Copper Project which was followed by a crackdown had not gone well among locals and various rights groups.

Now with Japan and South Korea gets into the picture with huge investments on developing physical infrastructure and ports, it’s time for India to stop being hibernators by watching those activities rather it needs to take efficient steps which should in a way to encourage it’s own entrepreneurs,  business groups to engage with Myanmar and explore opportunities in knowledge-intensive sectors like tele-medicine networks, information technology, biotechnology, e-governance which are distinctive in addition to the existing work of building an advanced center for agricultural research at the University of Agriculture in Yezin in the capital city.

Finally, on India’s look east  policy and ASEAN India strategic lines, its imminent to consider the possibility of expediting not only the decisions on building road/rail links connectivity in addition to increase in more direct flights, encourage cultural ties, tourism activities between both countries but also start implementing it on the ground. Also, to ensure bilateral ties continue to focus in the areas like strengthening borders, maritime engagement, natural disaster management, education which would immensely help the north eastern parts of India and in the long run, needless to say that both the governments should work towards winning hearts of the people and that’s the only best way to keep our relationships sustain in the forthcoming decades.

Last updated: January 12, 2013 – 8:24 AM IST