Befriending the junta

Befriending the junta

Burma is the starkest example of a closed society in Southasia. An oppressive regime continues to hold sway over the country. Respect for human rights is, for all purposes, an alien concept. Rule of law, based on universal and just principles, finds no place in the firmament of the generals. What is as striking as the primitive brutality of the rulers is the manner in which they seem to have gotten away with it all. In the wake of ruthless suppression, the democratic opposition has been brave, but till now fairly ineffectual in shaking the system. And the international community, to a large extent, has accepted the fait accompli of a dictatorship in the country.

In the mid-1990s, during the time of the Bharatiya Janata Party government, India joined the league of countries that wanted to be friends with the junta. New Delhi sought to build strong ties – spanning political, economic and even military spheres – with Burma, much to the chagrin of many Indian politicians and liberals, who have long sympathised with the democratic movement. Indeed, this reflected a change in the Indian government's own stance, for it had through the early 1990s put its weight behind the Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition. The New Delhi government even gave Suu Kyi a prestigious national award, at the cost of embittering ties with the Rangoon government. Leading politicians, including the erstwhile socialist George Fernandes, had open-door policies at their homes for Burmese exiles battling the regime.

Close clasp: Indian Air Force chief Shashindra Pal Tyagi meets with Than Shwe, November 2006.
Image: AFP

So it came as a shock to many, and sparked valid outrage, when the BJP government pushed towards intensive engagement with the Burmese generals. The fact that Fernandes himself was defence minister when the change was effected tells us volumes about the dilemma at the heart of New Delhi's Burma policy. The New Delhi establishment would like Burma to be democratic, but is unwilling to invest political capital into transforming internal politics along the Irrawaddy.
India's policy change on Burma was finally driven by security and strategic concerns, primarily the rising influence of China, the presence of militant groups active in the Indian Northeast using Burmese territory as safe haven, and the need to exploit natural-gas reserves in the Arakan province when Bangladeshi gas was proving to be a mirage. Realpolitik thus clearly emerged as the victor over India's stated commitment to democracy. What helps Delhi policymakers rationalise this realistic yet immoral engagement with the Rangoon generals is the claim that actively boycotting the junta has failed in inducing democratic change; instead, goes the argument, it is time to see if working with General Than Shwe and his cohorts may provide a breakthrough.

Remembering the despots
It is open to question whether India will be able to derive long-term gains from this policy – New Delhi cannot hope to match Beijing's proximity to the military rulers, and the pipeline from the Shwe gas fields is in limbo due to opposition by both Burmese dissidents and Indian insurgent groups. But would it be correct, on ethical grounds, to hold New Delhi guilty for engaging with the Burmese government? To be intellectually honest, it would be naive, and even unfair, to expect India to have higher standards than other states when it comes to Burma. After all, India is a proximate state of the region, and cannot hope merely to make democratic noises from the distance of the trans-Atlantic or northern Europe.

And yet it is critical that we do not forget the brutality of the illegitimate military junta in Burma. The people of Burma aspire for popular self-rule as does the rest of the population of Southasia (see Himal January 2007 cover story, "Democracy: Object of Desire"), and that wish has to be respected. In this issue of Himal, we bring you that dark but overwhelming facet of the junta: the manner in which dissidents are killed and locked up, the corruption and ruthlessness of the rulers, and the consequences and costs of joint economic projects in the realm of environment and human rights. Even if countries are queuing to shake hands with Gen Than Shwe, we must always remember that he and his ilk are the most despotic set of rulers modern Southasia has seen. The general should not have been allowed access to the samadhi sthal of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

We have tried to understand India's stated position on Burma, but do not believe that the newfound engagement will deliver what South Block says it will. By abandoning the moral high ground, India will still not manage to compete with Chinese influence on Burma. With no gain on this front, it has disenchanted the democrats who will be defining the Burmese future whether the generals like it or not. It may be that the change in Indian policy will in the long-term push Burma further away from Southasia – not towards China but further towards Southeast Asia. That is a long way to go for a country that is more Southasian than not. 

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian