Naypyidaw’s long awaited dawn

Myanmar has taken a giant step towards democracy, even as it is shackled by the Army, which will do everything to turn the clock back. But, fortunately, the country has the rare gift of a leader who is highly intelligent

Myanmar has been in the news in recent weeks generally for one single reason, namely the problem with the Rohingyas. Significantly, most commentators have generally ignored the larger reality of Myanmar as it has now emerged from a long nightmare of repressive rule by the military. At the time of the 2016 change in Government, an article in a leading magazine on the prospects of the country under the new power structure highlighted five challenges facing Burma’s new civilian Government. It rightly prefaced a description of the five challenges by mentioning that a young population is grasping new opportunities, and some hope that the resource-rich nation could finally fulfill its potential.

Myanmar is a country of over 57 million people, of which over 43 per cent are below the age of 24. It has a relatively high literacy rate, but two-thirds of the population is still rural and dependent on agriculture for its livelihood. The population covers diverse ethnic groups, including almost 70 per cent Burmans and several minorities including two per cent, who have roots in India. It needs to be emphasised that the Burmese, who are devout Buddhists, have generally been tolerant of other religions. For instance, the small Hindu minority consisting of 0.5 per cent of the population has complete religious freedom. There are Gurdwaras and Hindu temples in different parts of the country. Even in a small place like Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin) in the northern part of the country, there is an Arya Samaj building, which is more than a hundred years old, and a Gurdwara which till recently was very active.

The big challenge for the country is to bring about rapid development in both urban as well as rural areas. Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi places great emphasis on the well-being of the farmers, and mentioned in a conversation, that she is deeply worried about the impacts of climate change on farming, which is suffering declines in productivity, quite apart from the devastation from frequent and widespread floods, many of which can scientifically be attributed to the impacts of climate change. Agriculture in Myanmar needs help and urgent transformation, including the spread of adaptation measures by which the impacts of climate change can be countered.

India can play an important role through development assistance directed at the farming sector. The first Indian Director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Pusa and the first Director General of the Indian Council Agricultural Research (ICAR), BP Pal, was a product of Rangoon University, from where he obtained his MSc when the British ruled both India and Burma. He then went on to study at Cambridge University, where he was awarded his doctorate. Following that he wrote his seminal paper on ‘Search for New Genes’, which provided the conceptual foundation for India’s green revolution, and which Pal implemented as Director General of the ICAR in the 1960s. Pal is highly revered in Myanmar, and an agricultural assistance programme, named after him, if introduced by the Government of India for the benefit of farmers in Myanmar, would have emotional appeal apart from huge socio-economic significance.

If the world is genuine about bringing about a smooth transition in Myanmar, involving political stability and the strengthening of democracy, then its civilian leadership must receive large scale support in its fledgling efforts. The only path to the strengthening of democracy and possible reform of the 2008 constitution is to ensure that there is substantial improvement in the living standards of the populace. The Army retains unhealthy control over power, and a small misstep by the civilian Government is all that it needs to grab absolute power all over again. Under the 2008 Constitution, 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament are reserved for serving military officers. The ministries of home, border affairs and defense must be headed by serving military officers. Hence, the country’s civilian leaders have little influence over the security establishment.

Critics of Aung San Suu Kyi have, unfortunately, ignored this crucial reality, as they have ignored the frail nature of Myanmar’s democracy, which has emerged from brutal dictatorship and a closed economy which lasted half a century. Myanmar’s infrastructure is dilapidated and broken. The roads and railways are unsatisfactory and unsafe. In the northern part of the country, there are trains which run over bridges which are on the verge of collapse. The country needs a large infusion of capital in the form of development assistance and private sector inflows.

It is highly significant that Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently visited Nay Pyi Taw, and held a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who carries the title of State Counsellor, since the country’s Constitution debars her from assuming the presidency, just because her two children are British citizens. India must assume a dominant role in helping Myanmar’s development. That would be in the interests of peace and political stability in our immediate neighbourhood, but of great benefit to a population suppressed for much too long.

The World Bank has projected that Myanmar’s economy is likely to grow at an average of over seven per cent per year in the next three years as inflationary pressures are expected to ease up, and private and public investments in infrastructure services and non-commodity sectors such as light manufacturing and hospitality, are forecasted to rise. While the macroeconomic outlook seems favourable, there are several risks, essentially because the country has a narrow production base, a global market which is becoming increasingly competitive, a lack of diversification in commodities, vulnerability to natural disasters and higher prices for international commodities.

One important — and perhaps the only — chance of today’s bright dawn continuing in Myanmar lies crucially in the current Government’s success. The nation has taken a giant step towards democracy, even as it is shackled by the Army, which would do everything in its power to turn the clock back. But, fortunately, Myanmar has the rare gift of a leader who is highly intelligent, knowledgeable on a range of subjects and intimately aware of the problems faced by the people in her country. And there is not another leader in the world today who has suffered and sacrificed as much for bringing power to her people.

Suu Kyi perhaps faces the same level of unreal expectations as did Mahatma Gandhi, and the same exposure to unreasonable criticism as was often heaped on the Mahatma notably during 1947, and till he died in 1948. Gandhiji was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because there were powerful forces ranged against him. The Lady has powerful forces ranged against her because she deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Source : The Pioneer

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