Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What's Happening in Burma?

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her historic visit to Burma today, the first by an American official of such high rank in over half a century. She was welcomed by the Army-backed civilian government in the capital Nya Pyi Daw.

Since the pseudo-civilian Government was elected to power after decades of direct military rule, several changes have taken place in the country - not least of which is the rapprochement of ties between democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, there are even reports that her National League for Democracy, which recently got itself registered, is planning to get her elected to Parliament in a by-election.

From freeing a number of political prisoners to cancelling a hugely unpopular dam project backed by China, Burma is clearly undergoing the most sweeping changes since it was partitioned from British India. One way to explain this is that Burma seeks to free itself from its vassal-like existence vis-a-vis China, for which it would have to ally itself with regional powers - particularly India - as well as the US.

Of course, the change is only visible in the Burman areas - in Kachen, which has a raging insurgency, there is nothing short of direct military rule, a cruel one at that. Yet, it would be wrong for the SecState would to expect monumental changes. At best, an assurance of greater freedom and democracy is what can be expected. And the US itself should seek to offer a carrot by partially lifting sanctions on the South East Asian country.

India has a huge stake in Burma, mainly on account of energy and security issues. But even historically, Burma has always been closest to India culturally. Suu Kyi, an alumnus of Delhi University, is deeply respected among Indian Burma-watchers. A move within Burma, not imposed from outside, to bring her back to the political mainstream is undoubtedly good for India.

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