January 16, 2012

Burmese spring

Jan 16, 2012, 12.00AM IST


Here's a genuine feel-good story coming out of our neighbourhood. Twenty years after its military rulers annulled the results of the 1990 elections, Myanmar appears ready to embracedemocratic reform and shed its diplomatic and economic isolation. Rewarding this effort is the US's move to restore full diplomatic relations. Washington's decision to exchange ambassadorswith Naypyidaw came after Myanmar's new nominally civilian government freed hundreds of political prisoners in an unexpected gesture last week.

In fact, the dispensation headed by PresidentThein Sein is credited with a slew of reforms aimed at transforming Myanmar's image. This includes a measured rapprochement with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. She was released sometime ago after years of house arrest and is gearing up to contest by-elections in April. Her inclusion in the new parliament - or even government - would give further legitimacy to Myanmar's democratic renaissance.

What's surprised Myanmar-watchers is the speed of the changes taking place. For example, the recent ceasefire between Naypyidaw and ethnic Karen rebels would have been unthinkable a year ago. It's in stark contrast to the junta's stand during 2007's anti-government protests. Although western sanctions on Myanmar are yet to be lifted, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's visit there in December indicated a shift in attitudes.

If anything, the latest developments vindicate India's long-held policy of engaging Myanmar, a country of major strategic and economic importance whether from the point of view of trade, transport and energy links or security. Myanmar can now slowly be encouraged to make democratic reforms irreversible. That way, it would not only address the aspirations of the Burmese people but also serve as a vital link between South and East Asia. That'll be good for the region - and for India.

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