For decades, Myanmar's repressive military regime, despised and shunned as a pariah by the majority of the civilised world, yearned for acceptance as a "normal member" of the international community. Though it has been a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Myanmar was mostly an embarrassment to the rest of the group.
The regime's image has slightly improved after it recently relaxed some of its draconian laws and released about 200 political prisoners. The leader of the opposition National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's best visible face, was already released from house arrest sometime ago. Indeed, changes have been taking place at a staggering pace, as many experts agree. The US acknowledgement of changes taking place in Myanmar was expressed through the recent visit of Hillary Clinton, the first by a US Secretary of State in over five decades to that country. The visit also underscored US commitment to security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that the Myanmar regime will faithfully continue to institute further reforms. It is alien to the psyche of dictators to bring about changes without coercion. Thus, the West, along with Japan, the Asean group and India — the last two are major trading partners of Myanmar — need to keep up the pressure on the Myanmar regime to bring about the necessary changes. A strong message needs to be sent to the regime that any reversal of such efforts could be disastrous for that country; on the other hand, the path to reforms could be rewarding. A carrot-and-stick approach would be the most appropriate one.
The Myanmar regime had already given some positive responses: it allowed the UN special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, to visit the country in August 2011 after, initially, refusing to issue him a visa. It also invited the International Monetary Fund for consultations on currency reforms, expressed its willingness to hold peace talks with armed ethnic groups and, even more remarkably, stopped the construction of the China-backed Myitsone Dam project which set off alarm bells in China where conspiracy theorists saw an American or even an Indian hand behind it.
Besides tapping Myanmar's minerals and raw materials, China was also quietly building a strong base to create what is called a "strategic noose" around India from Myanmar to Pakistan, much to New Delhi's discomfiture. China is keen to expand its sphere of influence in the Mekong region to gain access to the waterways in the Bay of Bengal and, in effect, the Indian Ocean, securing trade and oil routes to the Middle East and Africa. China is building up a presence at Pakistan's Gwadar port in Balochistan close to the Arabian Sea to gain further strategic access to the oil and trade routes, thus extending the "noose" from Myanmar to Pakistan. However, it remains to be seen if and how long the "all-weather friend" China, as Pakistani politicians call it, would serve Pakistan as an ersatz to the US whose ties with Islamabad have worsened.
It is a matter of conjecture why Myanmar's military junta should have suddenly decided to bring about such significant changes in the past one year. Apparently, Myanmar's military is aware that its days are numbered and that Myanmar's dependence on China is a strategic miscalculation. With reforms, Myanmar would end its isolation and no longer have to rely on China, thus creating a more balanced and independent foreign policy. Alarmed by the prospect of a thaw in US-Myanmar ties, China recently rolled out the red carpet for Myanmar's visiting military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. Vice-President Xi Jinping, who takes over China's leadership in 2012, personally welcomed the Myanmar guest.
However, public resentment against mainland Chinese runs high in Myanmar. After all, Myanmar's population still remembers how China tried to foment a Cultural Revolution type of turmoil in the 1960s in Burma, as it was then called. Myanmar, which has leaned heavily towards China in the last two decades, will have to reduce this dependency if it wants to win new international friends.
Manik Mehta is a commentator on Asian affairs.