By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - In 2011, few countries took the world by surprise as much as Myanmar did. Not only did its new government take a series of steps to usher in democratic reform in the country but it also suspended a giant dam project with China, signaling to the world that it is not quite the Chinese client state it was made out to be.
Few expected President Thein Sein, a former general who was prime minister in the military junta, to be a catalyst for change in Myanmar. Yet within months of assuming the reins of a semi-civilian government in March this year, he released hundreds of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and initiated dialogue with her.
His government enacted legislation allowing people to form trade unions and protest non-violently. Restrictions on the media are being lifted slowly and the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been legalized.
Besides, Thein Sein began taking steps towards resolving the decades-old ethnic conflicts. He initiated dialogue with the armed ethnic groups and has dropped key preconditions, including a plan to convert their armies into border guards. He has offered an unprecedented national conference that will involve the opposition too to find a political solution to the country’s many ethnic conflicts.
Even as the world was coming to grips with the string of surprises, Thein Sein sprung on them on the domestic front came an announcement that has begun altering Myanmar’s equations with the world. He announced the suspension of one of its largest foreign investment projects - the Chinese-backed US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam project.
Myanmar's suspension of the project, risking the ire of its giant neighbor, revealed that it was not the Chinese puppet it was believed to be and signaled to the world that it was open to initiating relationships with new partners, including the West.
Thein Sein's bold moves yielded quick results.
Responding to the domestic reform, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) voted unanimously in favor of Myanmar chairing the regional grouping in 2014. The decision means that along with assuming ASEAN chairmanship, Myanmar will host the East Asia Summit in 2014. Myanmar's stature in the region has grown manifold in a matter of months.
In November, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar, paving the way for a revival of ties. The US took a step towards normalization of relations with Myanmar by announcing that it would not block Myanmar's access to funding from international financial institutions. The coming year could see deeper interaction, even revival of full diplomatic ties if Thein Sein follows up on his 2011 initiatives. But lifting of sanctions will be some time in coming.
Other Western countries will take the cue from the US and follow in its footsteps into Myanmar in 2012. Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague has already announced a visit in January.
But besides these new suitors ie Western countries that shunned Myanmar for over two decades, Myanmar is likely to see its old friends stream in too. China, India, Singapore and Thailand can be expected to step up their engagement as they will be anxious to protect their influence and interests ahead of the arrival of American and European business.
India, for instance, is reportedly planning "a high-level visit" to Myanmar in 2012. Media reports have hinted on a visit by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Naypyidaw in the coming weeks.
The entry of more global players will provide Myanmar with a larger pool of options, facilitating its attempts at loosening itself from the Chinese grip.
The magnitude of China's presence in Myanmar's economy could diminish in the coming years. But China's primacy among Myanmar's partners will not change. Naypyidaw will be careful not to provoke its powerful neighbor given its capacity to stir trouble in Myanmar.
It will be careful to stay clear of an American embrace.
Myanmar's history is marked by invasions. The country was the site of many great power battles over the centuries. These have left a deep mark on its perception of foreign powers, contributing to a determination post-independence to stay clear of big-power rivalries, whether those between the superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, or the Asian giants, India and China.
Strategic neutrality thus defined its foreign policy between 1949 and 1988.
That changed in 1988 when it entered into a strategic partnership with China. This tilt towards China was an aberration, a marriage of convenience in response to a difficult situation it found itself at that time.
What we are likely to see in the coming years is an attempt by Myanmar to move towards the strategic neutrality that defined its foreign policy in the pre-1988 decades.
The move to correct the tilt has been prompted by deep distrust of the Chinese. Longstanding suspicion of Chinese intentions has assumed serious proportions in recent years whether among the public protesting Chinese businesses or projects or the generals, who have long resented China's role in fueling communist and ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar.
However, wariness of the Americans is no less intense. Although there isn't much public opposition to the Americans, any attempt by Thein Sein to embrace the Americans too closely will come up against formidable resistance from within the military. Memories of the US's crippling sanctions, threats of regime change and invasion are unlikely to fade easily.
This international attention and courting, while likely to open up for Myanmar new opportunities and more options, is not going to make life easier for Thein Sein. He will have a challenging task fending off hardliners in the military who are opposed to Myanmar becoming more democratic as well as those who are wary with improving ties with the West.
China, which has invested huge amounts of capital and other resources in Myanmar, is unlikely to watch passively as its presence in Myanmar is whittled away, particularly by the US. It can stir up ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar. Thankfully for Myanmar, this is not an option China would exercise at the moment.
After all, fueling Myanmar's ethnic conflicts would trigger refugee flows into China, destabilizing its border regions. Reigniting Myanmar's ethnic insurgencies will not leave China's underbelly unscalded.