Burmese President Thein Sein visited India from October 12 to 15, further indicating the policy shift being developed by the Burmese regime away from China, the country’s main political and economic backer, and toward a rapprochement with the US and other Western powers. As a part of their geo-political rivalry, New Delhi and Beijing have been competing for influence in Burma, also known as Myanmar.
During their talks, Sein and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to increased cooperation in oil and gas exploration. New Delhi will get more access to Burmese oil and gas reservoirs, which are vital for India’s growing energy needs. Sein also promised encouragement of Indian investment in his country’s energy sector.
This is a contrast to India’s failure in 2009 to secure an agreement to build a pipeline to transport gas from the Shwe fields in Burma’s Arakan state, even after three years of negotiations with Burma from 2004 to 2007. China’s PetroChina won the deal to pipe gas from that area.
Singh offered a $US500 million line of credit—India’s largest ever—for infrastructure projects in Burma, including irrigation. This is in addition to $300 million of credit extended last year for the construction of railways, roads, power transmission lines and oil refineries. He hailed Sein’s government as one in the process of “transition to democracy”.
Sein’s Indian visit came just two weeks after his government’s September 30 announcement of suspension of work on the Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam hydro-electric project on the Irrawaddy River. At the same time, Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin was in Washington for talks with US State Department officials. Lwin was the first Burmese foreign minister to be invited to the US State Department since the military junta took power in 1962.
For many years, the Burmese regime has received economic, political and diplomatic support from Beijing and in return provided significant economic and strategic concessions, in the form of almost exclusive access to raw materials, including oil and gas, corridors for pipeline routes, a naval listening post and port facilities.
In an attempt to counter Chinese influence in Burma, the US and other Western powers imposed various sanctions on the country and criticised the junta for the suppression of democracy. Their concern was not the democratic rights of Burmese working people and other toiling masses, but the marginalisation of the pro-Western opposition, notably Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).
Now, under intense pressure from the US and Western powers, the Burmese regime has begun to reorient its foreign policy. As a part of its moves, Burma has turned toward developing relationships with two major US allies in Asia, India and Japan. After visiting Washington, Myanmar Foreign Minister Lwin arrived in Japan on October 20 for three days of bilateral talks, the first official Burmese visit to Tokyo in 16 years.
Developing trade with Burma is also significant for Japan. Among the vital raw materials that Japanese business hopes to import from Burma are rare earth metals, which are used in manufacturing batteries for hybrid cars, wind turbines and other technologies. This year, Japan lifted its ban on all aid to Burma, and the country’s largest business association, Keidanren, visited Burma last month.
To facilitate its shift, the junta has made some cosmetic changes in the country’s political establishment. It held elections last November, and in March handed over power to a nominally civilian government, dominated by retired military officers. The regime began releasing long-term prisoners, so far including an estimated 200 political prisoners. Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest and invited to official functions. Media restrictions have been partially lifted.
The domestic aim of these measures—while hailed by the Indian prime minister as a “transition to democracy”—is to contain political opposition amid rising class struggles internationally, as demonstrated by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the mass protests and strikes against austerity measures in Europe, and the international Occupy Wall Street movement.
Whatever its “democratic” façade, the military still dominates the government. President Sein, a former general, was the prime minister under General Than Shwe. He retired from the army before contesting last November elections, in order to present a “civilian” face.
Above all, Sein’s moves to allow Suu Kyi and her party to engage in some political activities, and his talks with her, are bound up with the regime’s accommodation toward the US and other Western powers. The imperialist powers and their Asian allies calculate that the NLD leader’s incorporation into the Burmese political establishment would facilitate the shifting of the country’s economic and foreign policies in their favour.
Two decades ago, New Delhi called on the military to hand over power to Suu Kyi, particularly following the junta’s suppression of mass protests in 1988 and the NLD’s landslide victory in the 1990 elections. From the mid-1990s, however, the Indian elite changed tack as it became apparent that its policy of not engaging with the junta had led to its further marginalisation from affairs in Burma, permitting its rival Beijing to boost its influence.
New Delhi’s new “Look East” policy—extending its political and economic clout to Southeast Asia—its military operations against various separatist groups in India’s northeast, and its interest in Myanmar’s energy and other resources forced it to engage with the junta. Over the past decade, New Delhi has hosted the junta’s entire top brass, including General Than Shwe and Sein, then a prime minister in uniform.
Underscoring Burma’s importance for New Delhi, India’s foreign ministry spokesman, Vishnu Prakash, said this month: “Myanmar is the only Southeast Asian state with which we have a land boundary and as such it is a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia and a gateway to the ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations] region.” Prakash particularly highlighted Burma’s importance for India’s quest for “energy security”.
Indian business is pressing for closer collaboration. B.G. Varghese, an Indian political commentator, wrote: “Rather than be a passive spectator or late actor, India should move energetically to engage the new Thein Sein administration.” He demanded visits by “high level Indian political and trade and investment delegations” to Burma “as early as possible”.
Sein’s delegation included a number of his ministers, including industry minister Soe Thein, who held talks with his Indian counterpart, Praful Patel. India’s Tata Motors is in discussions with the Burmese government to set up a bus assembly line, as well as to supply passenger vehicles to Burma. Some Indian companies are considering investing in rubber plantations and the manufacture of rubber products.
For its part, the Obama administration is seeking further concessions. Derek Mitchell, the US State Department’s special representative for Burma, visited the country last month. Speaking to the media on October 17, he hailed his meetings with Burmese officials as “very, very productive and candid,” but insisted that more needed to be done.
“[T]here are still questions about how far they are going to go and where this is going to lead,” Mitchell said, adding: “We made it very clear that we could not have a transformed relationship as long as these credible reports of abuses occur and there is no dialogue with these groups and with the opposition.”
Sein’s Indian visit took place amid mounting US pressure on China throughout the Asian-Pacific region, and growing tensions between India and China over strategic influence in Asia. Burma’s reorientation will further escalate the geo-political rivalry.