Information from Myanmar suggests that following the decisive victory in the November 8 elections, the winner — the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung San Suu Kyi — is engaged in serious transition planning. Plans are being made on the assumption that Suu Kyi will be in the driver’s seat, with the army as the co-driver. Cooperation between the two will mould the future foreign policy.
National interests do not change with change in governments, but their interpretations and the methodology to pursue them, otherwise known as diplomacy, do change. This happened under Thein Sein, the outgoing president. Through his reforms strategy, he opened up to the West, curbed the expansion of relations with China, and secured international acceptability for Myanmar.
Suu Kyi, the likely de facto president, could be her own foreign minister though someone else may hold that office. She has a global image and can be depended upon to chisel a foreign policy that blends values with interests in a pragmatic manner.
In managing external relations, Suu Kyi’s biggest challenge will be how to strike a balance between Myanmar’s ties with the West, especially the United States, and its relations with China. In her quarter century-long battle with the generals, she received huge support from western nations, whereas China was on the other side. The Chinese leadership ignored her completely until 2010, building only a perfunctory relationship with the NLD till June when, at last, she was invited to visit China. President Thein Sein’s reconciliation with Suu Kyi in August 2011 was responsible for the US — and its allies in the European Union, Japan, etc. — accepting the quasi-democracy with all its flaws. How will she deal with loyal friends and China, the giant neighbour in the north, at a time of sharpening strategic competition between the two?
Despite some distancing Washington displayed towards Suu Kyi before the elections, it is firmly behind her. The US is the only country still maintaining partial economic sanctions against Myanmar. An American official stated recently that the US was looking for ‘progress on a wide range of issues,’ including political transition, peace process and constitutional reforms. In simple words, the US will be more helpful if the army lets Suu Kyi govern the nation as freely as possible.
China will be the bigger challenge. In tackling ethnic reconciliation, Myanmar’s most complex problem, Suu Kyi may find China as the invisible interlocutor, with the ability to help or hurt. Using the opportunity of military rule, it has built long-term economic assets in the country that cannot be wished away. It also has the capacity to provide enormous financial assistance — albeit at a price.
Beijing may now want withdrawal of the suspension of the Myitsone dam project and revival of the rail link connecting Yunan to the southwestern shore of Myanmar. Having promised that she would ensure smooth and friendly relations with China, will she move far in that direction? ‘She has to fix ties with China,’ wrote Lin Xixing, an academic, ‘because she needs the economy to work’. Japanese and other investors will watch further developments with nervousness.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), which transforms itself into a new three-pillared community in January 2016, hardly figures in Suu Kyi’s list of priorities, but it should. Without achieving close understanding with the main Asean leaders, Suu Kyi cannot hope to play ‘the Great Game’ in East Asia, to Myanmar’s full advantage.
Relations with India will no doubt be important. But liberal critics of India’s Myanmar policy should move beyond attempting any psychoanalysis of Suu Kyi: Does she still nurse a grievance against New Delhi for its 1992 decision to build ties with the military government? She stated on record that she had overcome it. Even if some traces are still left, Suu Kyi in power is likely to be very different from Suu Kyi the dissident. She will need India as much as India needs her and Myanmar.
NLD rule, in partnership with the army, promises an era of even more cooperative relations with New Delhi if we pay enough attention and take early initiatives. India should do this to pursue its own legitimate interests and to help a friendly neighbour whose stability and development are important to us.
An early visit by the external affairs minister, say, in the first quarter of 2016, could help in multiple ways. This should be followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s long-delayed visit. His interaction with Suu Kyi and other leaders will send a clear signal of deep interest, especially if it is backed by financial generosity, as India rightly showed towards Bangladesh.
Finally, the task of expanding people-to-people relations should be taken up in right earnest.
Rajiv Bhatia, a former ambassador to Myanmar, is the author of India-Myanmar Relations: Changing contours. The views expressed are personal.