Dealing with Burma

15 October 2007
India's, support for the Burmese dictatorship during last month's state-directed violence will go down as a black mark.
The extent of indifference on the part of us South Asians about Burma was revealed by our governments' callous lack of concern towards the greatest pro-democracy upsurge there since 1988. This is shocking considering that Burma until just 70 years ago was part of United India, and bound to it through close cultural, economic and political relations. Rangoon, now Yangon, was as Indian/subcontinental in ethnic composition and character as Bombay, Karachi or Madras. Today India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all have major "Burma connections". Without "Burma Teak", the best-known hardwood in our parts, many historical buildings wouldn't have been built. Burmese rice was as important in our kitchens as is Afghanistan's heeng. Our governments', and especially India's, support for the Burmese dictatorship during last month's state-directed violence will go down as a black mark. India became complicit in the repression of the democracy movement, which killed up to 200 people and led to 6,000 detentions. India is reluctantly, unconvincingly, trying to revise its stand -- under pressure. India recently supported a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution condemning the "violent repression of peaceful demonstrations", and calling for the release of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and for a "reinvigorated national dialogue … [to achieve] … genuine national reconciliation, democratisation and the … rule of law''. India voted for the motion, but only after regretting that it isn't "fully in conformity'' with a "forward-looking, non-condemnatory" approach, and hence won't contribute to "engaging constructively" with the authorities. India's kid-glove approach to the junta sits ill with the latter's grave human rights violations, against which the world must protect the Burmese people. India wants the junta to investigate the violence which saw soldiers raining bullets upon demonstrators. What this investigation will achieve is unclear. The violence was clearly state-ordered and -- executed. Yet, India opposes economic sanctions or other tough measures against the Burmese regime. Instead, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee wants to "engage [it] in negotiations…." Blanket sanctions can be ineffectual. But "engagement" has also proved futile. Nothing revealed this better than the Burma visit of Petroleum Minister Murli Deora to sign a $150 million natural gas deal -- just when the repression peaked. "This sent a terrible message," said Soe Myint, a Burmese pro-democracy activist exiled in India, and editor of the Mizzima news agency ( "Democratic India won't lift its little finger to restrain the Burmese regime. Instead, India would tail the generals. We were greatly disappointed." Yet, Mukherjee has again given the junta a clean chit. Last week, he pledged India's commitment to projects "in diverse fields", including roads, railways, telecommunications, information technology and power -- as part of India's new "Look East" policy. Ironically, he was only reading out excerpts from an earlier speech made in June. Yet, India is about to finalise the $100 million Kaladan transport project for Burma, which will give India overland access to Sittve port. Other South Asian states have been equally cynical towards the Burmese people. But India bears a special responsibility because it has had particularly close ties with Burma. Besides their multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious character, the two countries share a modern legacy -- the freedom movement. Aung Sang, Suu Kyi's father, who led Burma's anti-colonial struggle, was inspired by Gandhi and Nehru. Suu Kyi studied in Delhi and regards India as her second home, with which she has a deep relationship. India's ultra-conservative Burma position derives from four considerations: enlisting Burma's help in fighting the Northeastern insurgencies; interest in Burma's natural gas; anxiety to counter China's influence; and concern for neighbourhood "stability". It's sordid that India lets its Burma policy be determined by such narrow factors, abandoning universal principles, democracy and human rights. This speaks of double standards. "Look East" also means turning a blind eye to dictatorship. Burma's predatory, super-corrupt regime has brutalised its people with a huge army, one-tenth the size of its population. It consumes a third of Burma's budget -- 10 times the allocation to education. The military is selling Burma's magnificent resources cheap while perpetuating the poverty of three-fourths of the population. It routinely practises arbitrary detention, forced conscription, slave labour and torture. Censorship is so drastic that anyone with an "unauthorised" fax machine or computer can be jailed for up to fifteen years. The junta conducts extra-judicial executions, "disappears" dissidents, and recruits child soldiers. It stands accused of arbitrary detention and violating freedoms of belief, religion, association and assembly. Drug smuggling and gun-running are Burma's major businesses. India's Burma approach was spelt out crudely forthright manner by the new army chief, Gen. Deepak Kapoor. He said: the violence is Burma's "internal affair", and "we should maintain" our "good relations" with its government This policy statement is an intrusion into the executive's prerogative. Yet, it captures the essence of the government's "realism"-- driven stand, which hypocritically professes "non-intervention" when that suits it, while practising the opposite when it can. In fact, serious rights violations anywhere are everybody's concern. Ironically, India's policy has yielded none of the desired results. Burma has been ineffectual in controlling insurgents in India's northeast, barring perhaps one faction (Khaplang) of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, with which it has a ceasefire agreement. It has taken only token or desultory action against others. Burma has played China off against India, while milking both for assistance. India has walked into this trap. India's famed "interests" in Burmese gas have produced international embarrassment. Four Indian companies figure among the "Dirty 20" implicated in rights violations and environmental destruction. However, India has received no gas or gas supply contracts from Burma. Just recently, Burma awarded two gas blocks off the Arakan coast to China. India does have other gas sources. Besides, Burma's gas delivery will crucially depend on transit through Bangladesh. Bangladesh isn't cooperating. Those who demand that India should befriend Burma's regime as part of a general strategy to contain and counter China advocate a new Asian Cold War -- with disastrous economic and security consequences for all concerned. Finally, "stability", defined independently of legitimacy, is a recipe for freezing existing iniquities. Surely, India's long-term interests don't lie in a neighbourhood with "stable" but tyrannical regimes. India's major parties, including the Congress, the Communists, and even the Bharatiya Janata Party, want a change in the government's stand. So do civil society groups, especially Northeastern organisations whose ethnic identities cut across the Burma border. Their pressure would bring Indian policy closer to the position of the early 1990s, when India advocated a dialogue with Suu Kyi and awarded the 1993 Nehru Prize for International Understanding to her. India thus made a strong political point--without severing its relations with the Burmese government. But it soon shamelessly reversed its stand. There's a lesson here: India can stand its ground if it wants to. In the mid-1960s, it did so in opposing the Vietnam War despite its "ship-to-mouth" dependence on Washington for food. In the 1980s, India supported the African National Congress against Western pressure. The ANC eventually triumphed. India can and should follow a broad-horizon policy based on a global vision. Ironically, India's vision is shrinking just when its international profile has greatly risen. This isn't a sign of a confident rising power with an independent policy.