Government to government:The distasteful Burma-India embrace

The Indian position towards Burma is characterised by a paradox. Across the political spectrum, civil society and media, there is support for the Burmese democratic movement. People sympathise with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who lived and studied there when her mother was the first Burmese ambassador to New Delhi in the 1960s. But in the past decade or so, the position of the Indian government has not reflected this support. Successive governments after 1994 have engaged with the generals, who continue to ruthlessly suppress Burmese democratic aspirations.

India and Burma have had close ties through history, from traditional cultural connections to intimate political relations in the modern era, going back to the struggle for independence from British colonial rule. India was the first nation to extend active support to Burma's pro-democracy movement. New Delhi also condemned the regime in Rangoon for refusing to hand over power to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) following the party's victory in the 1990 general elections. In 1995, the Indian government honoured Suu Kyi with the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. Burmese refugees and activists have been allowed to stay in India, though the Indian government does not extend them any material or financial support.

Things changed dramatically in the second half of the 1990s, as the Indian government began to avoid making critical and controversial remarks on developments in Burma. Although individual parlia-mentarians and political parties continue to reiterate their commitment to the pro-democracy movement, state policy has taken an altogether different direction.

Since 1998, India has extended more than USD 100 million in credit to the Burmese regime, including for upgrading the Rangoon-Mandalay railway line. In addition, it has contributed USD 27 million to the building of the 160-kilometre Tamu-Kalewa highway in Burma's Sagaing Division. India has also emerged as Burma's second largest market after Thailand, absorbing 25 percent of the country's total exports, and hopes to double bilateral trade to a billion US dollars per annum in the next few years. India is also providing training to Burmese armed forces personnel and helping build border infrastructure. As a part of its energy strategy, it also plans to buy natural gas from Burma's reserves. This would benefit the military regime millions of dollars annually.

The Indian government rolled out a red-carpet welcome to Senior General Than Shwe when he visited India in October 2004. Top Indian dignitaries, including the president, vice president and military generals, have made state visits to Rangoon in recent years.

This engagement with the military junta stems from a multiplicity of factors. Modern-day Burma happens to pose a strategic challenge on India's eastern flank and at its maritime frontiers. Beijing's increasing influence in Burma and what can be called the Indo-Burmese region has India worried. By building ties with the junta, New Delhi can limit China's presence in the Indian Ocean and prevent Rangoon from becoming a Chinese toehold in that area. More importantly, China's past support to various insurgency groups in India's Northeast, and the fact that Burma serves as a base for many of these insurgents, has also forced the Indian government to befriend the military government.

Burma's inclusion in ASEAN in 1997 made it convenient for New Delhi to include the country in its official 'Look East Policy'. Burma was increasingly seen as the launching pad by which to enter Southeast Asia and access the markets there. Moreover, Burma, as a part of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), is a vital partner for regional projects in which India is involved. There is also a strong perception that interaction with Burma can hasten economic development in those state of the Indian Northeast that share a border with the country.

It is no one's case that India should reverse its current policy, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should, at the very least, make it clear to Burma's generals that he stands firmly with the democratic aspirations of the Burmese people. The present Indian strategy can be said to have its advantages, as it provides some space for people-to-people relationships across the border. However, let us keep in mind that tourism, trade and business links tend to be restricted to the elite sections in Burma, which are invariably connected to the present ruling military establishment.

For its part, the Burmese regime is mainly interested in playing the diplomacy card between China and India, and between the Western countries and Burma's neighbours. It has thus been adroit in ensuring that the international community suffers its brutal and repressive rule. On the one hand, the military junta uses its relationships with India and China to tell its Western critics that it has the support of the world's two most populous countries. On the other hand, it dangles the China card in front of India to gain support for its rule. A close relationship with India helps enhance the generals' image, both inside and outside the country. Moreover, it is important for trade purposes, for the balance of trade between India and Burma is hugely in Burma's favour. It also dilutes the regime's dependence on China.

…or myopia
It is debatable, however, whether India's so-called strategic interests have been served after more than a decade of being cosy with the Burmese generals. Even as India maintains friendly ties with the junta, the relationship faces practical problems. Border trade between India and Burma is largely dominated by smuggling, including of drugs and arms. The border regions of the Indian Northeast adjoining Burma are plagued with political instability, drug trafficking, HIV/AIDS, arms smuggling and insurgency.

It is an open secret that some Northeastern rebel groups have their bases and training camps in Burma. While it is not certain whether shelter has been provided with the consent of top military leaders in Rangoon (and now the new capital Nay Pyi Daw), there is little doubt that the local Burmese military commanders and intelligence officers are hand in glove with the insurgents. Indeed, the presence of insurgents has served as a fine bargaining chip for the generals. It helps them to build a better relationship with New Delhi as well as to demand the suppression of Burmese pro-democracy and ethnic activists residing in India, whom the regime rejects as 'outlaws' or 'insurgents'. In recent years, the government of India has cracked down on the Chin National Front (CNF), which is a part of Burma's movement for democracy, human rights and self-determination.

New Delhi has been seeking help from Rangoon to flush out Northeast insurgent groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF). Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee's recent visit to Burma on 19-21 January is the latest attempt to seek such assistance. Though India continues to request cooperation from the Burmese side in counter-insurgency operations, the generals have at best been lethargic. Upon pressure from New Delhi, they attack the NSCN-K camps in Burma, but show little interest in cracking down on the other insurgent groups.

In trying to work with Rangoon, Indian policy makers forget that many of the problems they face are linked to the nature of governance in Burma, which precludes a sustained and co-operative bilateral relationship. There is no space for dialogue, freedom of speech and political expression in a country where the foremost pro-democracy leader and Nobel Laureate remains under strict house arrest. It is estimated that around 1000 political prisoners, including members elected to Parliament in 1990, are detained in jails across Burma.

The India-Burma relationship is also complicated by the sizeable presence of the refugee community across the border. The constant flow of refugees from Burma into the Northeastern states of India has been a growing concern for inhabitants of the region. Fear of torture, rape, summary execution, imprisonment, forced labour and forced relocation by the Burmese army has led to a large exodus over the years. The refugee population in India is comprised of mostly the ethnic minority nationalities of Burma and is concentrated in the four Northeastern states of Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

At present, around 1800 Burmese refugees and asylum-seekers live in New Delhi. Most of them are recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as refugees. But the rehabilitation of Burmese refugees in India has been a major UNHCR failure. The UNHCR has implemented a phase-out programme, cutting the already meagre subsistence allowance on the logic that refugees should earn their own keep in India. However, the majority of Burmese in New Delhi have no access to remunerated work (see Himal November 2006: "Refugees and Agency").

Here, the case of 36 Burmese prisoners incarcerated without trial for more than half a decade in the Andaman Islands deserves attention. The episode exposes the reality behind the India-Myanmar government-to-government embrace. The Indian government arrested and illegally detained Burmese activists for six and a half years, and it is only now that they are being put on trial in a Calcutta court (see "The victims of Operation Leech"). The case will reveal whether the Indian democratic system stands in solidarity with the aspirations of the Burmese people.

Even while being critical of India's Burma policy, the Burmese democracy movement must introspect about its inability to capitalise on India's initial support and the continuing empathy of its intelligentsia and political classes. Many political leaders in India are convinced that Burma's movement for democracy and human rights is West-centric. The movement has neither organised a strong public campaign within India nor has it been able to convince sympathetic Indians that it is independent and value-based, and needful of the support of the Indian political classes and civil society.

In the long term, India's national and security interests would that demand Burma be a democratic, economically strong and modernised nation state. India-Burma relations must be based on the common aspirations of the peoples of both countries. They must benefit the masses, not merely a few military generals and their associates in Burma. Burma will sooner or later become a democratic nation, and once it does, it would be extremely unfortunate if the Burmese people perceived India as supportive of the ruthless dictatorship. The recent People's Movement in Nepal is an encouraging sign for the people of Burma. India, especially its political parties, played an effective role in extending solidarity to the Nepali people. It is to be seen if India's political class will extend this principled support to Burma in its quest for democracy.

~ Soe Mint is editor-in-chief of Mizzima News Agency, which specialises on Burma and related issues. He lives in India as a refugee recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

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