Thursday, April 9, 2009

3-2-09 Myanmar’s Bid for SAARC Membership

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3 February 2009
Myanmar’s Bid for SAARC Membership
Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman
MPhil Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Mani Shankar Aiyar, Union Minister for Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER), often comments that Southeast Asia begins from Northeast India, and South Asia begins in Myanmar. It is useful therefore, to examine Myanmar’s bid to enter SAARC against the backdrop of this statement. Myanmar had in May 2008, officially applied to the SAARC Secretariat, for full membership to SAARC. India is seen to be endorsing Myanmar’s bid, and that has encouraged the latter.

The bid for entry into SAARC by Myanmar has been seen differently by various members of the regional body, which had recently taken in Afghanistan as a full member. India and Bangladesh are the only two countries which have a land and maritime border with Myanmar, and none of the other countries in SAARC have any substantial cooperation with Myanmar. The country has been aloof from the South Asian vision and imagination for a long time now, and even when it was under the rule of the British colonialists.

Geostrategic and geo-economic factors are the prime reasons which have prompted some amount of support from India and Bangladesh, for Myanmar’s entry into SAARC. The strategically changed position of Myanmar and its vast reserves of energy, both oil and gas, and other natural resources, make it attractive for India and Bangladesh, and more so in the future, for countries such as Bhutan and Nepal and even Pakistan.

India should support fully Myanmar’s entry into SAARC, as it holds a lot of promise for their engagement which at a strategic and economic level, would prove to be mutually beneficial. It becomes more important in the context of China coming to exercise much influence over Myanmar in the recent past. India should take the lead and facilitate the integration of Myanmar into SAARC, and demonstrate its will to engage purposively with Myanmar, which is geostrategically important for the entire region. In fact, both India and China would agree that Myanmar should come into SAARC and act as the melting pot of regional integration arrangements in the region.

Myanmar would act as the land bridge between India and Southeast Asia, and engaging with it in a more comprehensive framework will only be beneficial for India. There seems to be no reason to why China would object to the inclusion of Myanmar into SAARC, as it would only increase the leverage of China in SAARC with a trusted partner entering, given its strong bilateral ties with Myanmar.

ASEAN should look at the issue of Myanmar entering SAARC in a positive light, as it has itself been struggling to integrate Myanmar into its strategic and economic framework in a comprehensive and proper manner. Myanmar has been the singular obstacle to a comprehensive ASEAN regional success story as it has proven to be the biggest obstacle to better integrating India and ASEAN, through the land border.

India, however, should tread the diplomatic path carefully. India cannot risk undermining its new found economic and strategic partnership and cooperation with ASEAN, which has taken a new meaning with the recently concluded India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. The diplomatic signaling therefore should be accurate, and positions made clear, from both sides, before taking any concrete steps. This would ensure that both India and ASEAN benefit from the inclusive engagement with Myanmar, and bring it out of the throes of uncertainty, and guide it towards a promising economically resilient, and strategically sound future.

India is looking to improving its leverage within SAARC by following a conscious policy of expansion of the SAARC membership. For India, this serves many purposes, which includes offsetting the persistent challenges and hostility from some of the member countries of SAARC, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh. With the inclusion of Myanmar, India is seeking to bring in more friends into SAARC, so that it cannot be cornered, as has happened in the past. The same rationale was followed when the question of inclusion of Afghanistan came about in SAARC. India supported Afghanistan’s inclusion, as it would be useful to have leverage with a nation which Pakistan considers it own backyard, and has huge stakes in.

This then, explains the position taken by Pakistan on the issue of Myanmar’s bid to enter SAARC which has been muted and non-committal. While Bangladesh too has a set of bilateral problems with Myanmar, the other nations of SAARC have chosen to support Myanmar’s bid, although it really does not matter to them as they have nothing substantial to gain in the immediate future. Therefore, the only country within SAARC, which will gain substantially from Myanmar’s inclusion, is evidently India. India should push for the inclusion and rally support for it; further it should also demonstrate enough gains from Myanmar’s inclusion, in such a manner as offers lessons to other SAARC members.

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