Does one have to read Economic & Political Weekly and the British weekly The Economist to know something about Myanmar, our next door neighbour? Here in India are over a dozen English language newspapers bursting with money and they haven’t found one correspondent to write in some profound detail about Myanmar, which is a crying shame. Justice Katju is right. Our newspapers – especially some of our leading ones – give page after page to pictures of socialites exhibiting their wealth and some displaying pictures of women shamelessly exposing their physical eye-catchers, but talk of serious journalism and conversation ceases.
Marwaan Macan-Marker’s article in Economic & Political Weekly (5 May) is an eye-opener and so are two articles in The Economist (21 and 28 April), and even more so. With so much accumulated wealth can’t some of our newspapers appoint a run of correspondents in the countries of the East, notably, Myanmar, Indonesia and China? Macan-Markar’s article tells us that Myanmar “has reached a moment in its history that has given rise to a rare burst of hope” and it goes on explain why it is so. Both The Economist issues provide us with insights of what is going on in Myanmar with commendable objectivity. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Myanmar has woken up our media to the existence of Myanmar and its vital importance to India’s own future and security. And it has evoked comment, considering that the visit – the first of its kind by any Indian Prime Minister in 25 years – with The Times of India (29 May) saying that “It’s vital we deepen ties with an amicable eastern neighbour who can help us make more friends further east too”. The paper supported the Indian Government’s decision “to develop vintage maritime routes by assisting with constructing Myanmar’s Sittwe Port” as “a step in the right direction”. Myanmar, it added, “can be a gateway to East Asia for India”.
Hindustan Times (26 May) was sharply critical. It said that “among all its neighbours, the charge of neglect by New Delhi is most accurate when it comes to Myanmar”. A Prime Minister’s visit to Myanmar after 25 years, it said, “is a testament to the parlous state of Indo-Myanmar relations”. Among other things it said that India’s policy towards Myanmar cannot be said that it covers the country in glory, that it is not consistent, and its backing of the Military is half-hearted. More, it said India had once dropped Suu Kyi and that “what little India did promise to the people of Myanmar, including infra-structure projects, never got off the ground”. The paper insisted that India must give special attention to Upper Burma, considering its similarities to our own North East, which latter, said the paper “will benefit enormously from the opening up of the Myanmar border”. Deccan Herald (30 May) pointed out how “many Indian projects in Myanmar did not do well because of poor management and executive delays” and how Myanmar “with its huge gas reserves can help India which has growing energy needs”. Obviously, it said, “cooperation in areas like infra-structure education, agriculture and information technology will benefit both countries”. Business Line (30 May) welcomed the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Myanmar as showing India’s “subtle shift” away from a focus on the west to “imbuing greater economic content” to its diplomacy” and said “India’s peace-loving and non-threatening image, nurtured by an anti-colonial tradition and strengthened during the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) days could actually be most useful”. The paper suggested that the Private Sector can also help the government by extending lines of credit to Myanmar in various fields of infra-structural developments. It is interesting to note that China seems to be “happy” with Dr Singh’s visit to Myanmar.
The Hindu (29 May) quoted China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman (incidentally, The Hindu is the only Indian paper to have a correspondent in Beijing) Liu Weimin as saying that “China is happy to see the development of friendly relations between India and Myanmar, hoping such development of friendly relations will be conducive to the stability and prosperity of the whole region”. In september Chinese officials were left stunned when the newly-inaugurated Myanmar government under President Thein Sein ordered the suspension of the $ 3.6 billion China-backed Myitsone Dam project on account of environmental concerns.
According to The Hindu’s correspondent, Anant Krishnan, “India is perceived by many Chinese analysts as being far less of a threat to China’s interests in the country than the United States whose moves to re-engage with Myanmar have stirred much debate in the State media.” The point was made by a South Asia scholar with the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that India’s engagement with Myanmar in terms of trade and investments still trailed that of China and other countries. As reported, the scholar Ye Hailin said that “India has actually been edged out of the main stage while both the US and China are doing whatever they can to gain the favour of economically struggling, strategically-placed Myanmar”. The point is that The Hindu has its man in China to report these facts. If The Hindu can do such an excellent job, why can’t other papers? The Times of India (7 March) boasted that its readership is more than two times that of the No. 2 paper (Hindustan Times) and almost three and a half times that of the number 3 paper (The Hindu) having become the world’s largest selling English newspaper. Sadly, its coverage of foreign news is nothing much to boast about. China has something to be pleased with India abroad. Hindustan Times (12 May) reported that “in a move that could calm frayed diplomatic nerves between India and China, New Delhi has decided to exit the oil block No. 128 in South China sea for allegedly “techo commercial reason”. Many believe that that is far from the truth and the reason for backing out is for diplomatic reasons, since it may not be worthwhile for India to get into a fight with China which has been threatening Philippines with talks of war if it doesn’t get out of the South China Sea region that China claims comes under its jurisdiction. Hasn’t the time come for the subject to be taken to the International Court of Justice?”