Indian policy founders on Burma

08 October 2007
It is the duty of the international community to protect the Burmese people against a lawless government accountable to nobody and with no concern for human rights. To its shame, India has failed to show such concern, writes Praful Bidwai.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen recently raised an important issue in an essay called “India in the World”. He asked: “What have we done over the last few decades to give shape to our global understanding of the world? I fear the answer has to be: not much. A country that never liked being confined to just minding its ‘own business’, seems now dedicated exclusively to that minding, pointedly excluding larger ideas and objectives. In fact, Indians seem to have become comprehensively sceptical of the ‘vision thing’.” Ironically, this shrinking of vision is happening just when India's global profile has greatly risen, opening up new opportunities to engage with the world with the “larger ideas and objectives” at the core of India’s traditional foreign policy agenda. This is nowhere more obvious than in our neighbourhood. Indian policy vacillated wildly over Nepal until it recognised the inevitability of the absolute monarchy’s end. Only slightly less serious has been India’s failure to anticipate or influence developments in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and recently, express solidarity with Pakistan’s pro-democratisation movement. However, these failures pale into insignificance when compared to India’s callous posture towards Burma’s pro-democracy movement—the greatest since 1990, with the potential to overthrow one of the most barbaric military regimes anywhere. The movement is being ruthlessly repressed. An estimate by a well-connected dissident group says that 138 people were killed and 6,000 detained, including 2,400 Buddhist monks, when the regime rained bullets and tear-gas upon protestors last week. Underlying the movement is popular disgust with an extraordinarily predatory, authoritarian and corrupt regime, which has for decades brutalised its 47 million people with a huge 490,000-strong army. (This would be like having an Indian army with more than 10 times its present strength!) The military government has bankrupted a country with magnificent natural resources. It routinely practises arbitrary detention, slave labour and torture. Its communications censorship is so drastic that anyone with an “unauthorised” fax machine or computer is jailed for 7 to 15 years. The regime has no compunctions in “disappearing” dissidents. The Burmese people have now risen in revolt. It’s the duty of the international community to protect them against a lawless government accountable to nobody and with no regard for the concerns of the larger world. If human rights are inherent to flesh-and-blood people, then concern for them must be universal. To its shame, India has failed to show such concern. It has only issued mealy-mouthed, vague statements. Worse, while Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi were extolling Gandhian non-violence, the new chief of army staff, Deepak Kapoor, spelt out India’s approach towards Burma in his maiden press conference. He said: the happenings are Burma’s “internal affair”, but “we have good relations” with its government, and “we should maintain these.” Kapoor stressed that the Burmese military’s support is vital for India's counterinsurgency operations in the Northeast. So, out go “romantic” notions like democracy, human rights, and injunctions against targeting non-combatant civilians, which are strictly mandated by international law. In Machiavellian realpolitik, nothing is forbidden, so long as it promotes “the national interest” (narrowly called counterinsurgency). The army chief’s policy pronouncement intruded into the executive’s prerogative. Yet, it reproduces the core of the Foreign Office stand, minus platitudes like India wants “a peaceful, stable and prosperous Burma” and “a broad-based …reconciliation.” India’s stand on the Burma question is deeply unethical, and not even driven by internal policy deliberation. It’s impelled by international pressure, spearheaded by the U.S. This isn’t worthy of an emerging power with an independent policy. India's position is determined by four parochial considerations: enlisting Burma’s help in fighting insurgencies in India’s Northeast, interest in Burma's natural gas reserves, containing China's influence, and regional “stability”. All four considerations are dubious. Burma has only selectively prevented Northeastern insurgents like National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) from establishing camps on its soil. (It has anyway a ceasefire agreement with the NSCN-K). Otherwise, the Burmese military has at best taken token and desultory action against other (mainly Assamese/Manipuri) groups. In reality, Burma has shrewdly played Chinese interests off against Indian interests, while milking both for military and economic assistance through the lure of gas, teak and other resources. India has walked into this trap. India’s famed “interests” in Burmese gas warrant introspection. It’s embarrassing that four Indian companies figure among the “Dirty 20” implicated in exploiting Burmese gas—with bad human rights violations and environmental destruction, detailed by EarthRights International, Shwe Gas Movement and Arakan State Human Rights Commission. India has many alternative gas sources. Besides, Burma’s gas delivery depends on Bangladesh’s cooperation, which doesn’t exist. The argument that India should develop close relations with Burma’s regime to counter China is unconvincing. A large country like India can and must live with military relationships between some neighbours and other powers. India has done so successfully when Pakistan has had military relations with the US/China. This shouldn’t generate panic. More important, those who demand that India must become a countervailing force to China essentially advocate a new Asian Cold War—with disastrous consequences for India’s long-term security. An arms race with China—that too with a strong nuclear component—will sharply raise India’s already bloated military expenditure. Once you are in an arms race, you no longer make your own strategic decisions. They are made for you by your adversary. Finally, “stability”, defined independently of regime legitimacy, is a recipe for freezing existing iniquities. India's long-term interests don’t lie in a neighbourhood with “stable” but tyrannical regimes. In the mid-1960s, India stood its ground in opposing the Vietnam War despite its dependence on Washington for food and financial aid. Similarly, India supported the African National Congress in the face of arguments about losing its influence with the West. The ANC triumphed. India was proved right. Again, India earned the world’s respect by awarding the 1993 Nehru Prize for International Understanding to Aung San Suu Kyi. But it shamefully reversed its own stand by tailing the Burmese junta. New Delhi has to show more courage and commitment to principle. Any broad-horizon foreign policy calculus must recognise that India has numerous and expanding options in most situations. To imagine that they have shrunk—for example, in Burma—is to artificially narrow our own horizons.—end—