New Delhi/Yangon: Myanmar, which Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits on Sunday, was for decades isolated from the world but has begun opening up and embracing democracy.
Sandwiched between India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos, Myanmar is being wooed by both neighbours and developed countries.
Visitors from both the West and East are “landing there like an avalanche”, says India’s former ambassador Rajiv Bhatia.
For India, Myanmar is a gateway to the economically vibrant Southeast Asia. For Myanmar, India – with which it shares a 1,600 km border and centuries-old civilisational ties, is the bridge to the growing economy of South Asia. The prime ministerial visit comes after 25 years, the last being Rajiv Gandhi in 1987.
Sanctions had crippled the country that has seen nearly 50 years of military rule. Today, a nominally civilian government rules the country.
A former diplomat referred to it as a “controlled or managed democracy” where political reforms still have a long way to go.
The military occupies 25 percent of the seats in the national parliament, whose prominent member now is the India-educated pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The dramatic reforms initiated by President Thein Sein since last year has earned appreciation for Myanmar. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became Myanmar’s most high profile visitor in November last year. It was the first by a top American official in over 50 years. John Foster Dulles visited Myanmar in 1955.
Myanmar was ruled by the military junta from 1962 to 2011. The first parliamentary election in 20 years was held in 2010 but it was boycotted by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD won a landslide victory in the previous multi-party election in 1990 but was not allowed to govern.
A nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein – who served as a general and then prime minister – was installed in March 2011.
According to an estimate, some 30 international companies from over 10 countries, including India, are involved in Myanmar’s oil and gas sector. About 30 percent of neighbouring Thailand’s electricity is generated by natural gas from Myanmar.
Yet, the country of 54 million is among the poorest in the region. Myanmar is also well-endowed with rich hydropower resources with an estimated potential of 37,000 megawatts.
Another former Indian ambassador describes it as a land of “interesting possibilities” but cautions against being “too optimistic” about political changes.
A principally rural and forested country, Myanmar is the world’s largest exporter of teak and a principal source of jade, pearls, rubies and saphires. It has extremely fertile soil.
But Myanmar has also faced years of ethnic tension. The largest ethnic group are the Burman who dominate over Karen, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Chin, Kachin and other minorities.
India shares a winding and porous border with Myanmar. For a long time, insurgents from India, particularly those from the northeast, operated openly in Myanmar. But as New Delhi’s ties improved with Yangon, the situation changed and anti-India insurgents were forced out of its jungles.