India’s ongoing attempt to establish a “working relationship” with the Burmese junta has suffered from some rather bad timing recently. The Indian home secretary was in Rangoon for the seventh round of talks on border management (a euphemism for cooperation against each other’s insurgents) exactly when the world’s attention was focussed on Aung San Suu Kyi’s enforced incarceration in her car just outside town. In early July, General V. P. Malik, the then Indian army chief, arrived with a large entourage on a “goodwill visit”, only to find General Khin Nyunt, one of two leaders of the junta, away in Pakistan with an even larger entourage.
Pakistan has for long been a secret, if modest, supplier of ammunition and spares to Burma, especially for commonly-held Chinese equipment. In fact, along with Singapore and Israel, it was one of the countries that was quick to come to the junta’s assistance in the wake of pro-democracy uprisings in 1988. India, on the other hand, became a whipping boy for receiving the refugees and making pro-democracy noises. All India Radio is today lumped together with the BBC and the VOA by the Burmese media for their ‘villainous’ propaganda. For once, many Indians felt they were on the right side.
Relations soured even further when Suu Kyi was awarded the Nehru peace award in 1995. However, at about the same time, India changed tack, increasingly concerned about growing Chinese military support for Rangoon, and allegedly, the setting up of a Chinese signals facility on the Cocos Islands near the Andamans, to keep an eye on Indian naval movements and missile tests along the Orissa coast.
Since then, there has been an intermittent but steady growth of contacts between Rangoon and New Delhi. The pace has picked up in the last few years as the Burmese themselves have drawn back from an exclusive dependence on China. They are concerned (or at least the faction in the junta led by General Maung Aye is—Khin Nyunt is said to be more pro-Chinese) about the influx of Chinese settlers in the Mandalay area. Overland trade with China appears to have fallen off, and many of the sheds in the huge industrial estate along the northern border today wear a derelict look.
In their public statements, the leaders of the junta now make it a point to include a reference to India as their other large neighbour. The most concrete result of the new approach is the upgrading of the 170-kilometre road from the Manipur border to Kalemyo, which is connected to Mandalay. Built by the Indian Border Roads Organisation, the road reduces travel time from about eight to three hours. The road is due to be handed over to the Burmese soon, and is expected to stimulate border trade that has been going on since 1995, as well as long distance trade between the two countries.
India has been Burma’s largest export destination in the 1990s, buying pulses, timber, rubber, leather and spices. Some of the other proposals that have been bandied about in press conferences after Indian visits, have a distinctly futuristic air to them. These include Indian farmers taking fertile but virgin land on lease in the Irrawaddy delta, a huge hydel project, improving the navigability of the river that runs down from the southern tip of Mizoram to the Burmese port of Sitwe (Akyab), and even a gas pipeline.
These economic possibilities, along with the desire to secure Burmese cooperation in denying Naga and Manipuri insurgents refuge across the border, and in curbing drug trafficking (and the HIV virus that comes with it), act as incentives for India to strengthen engagement with Burma. Which is a pity from the point of view of improving the prospects of a return to democracy in Burma. As long as the Burmese enjoy economic relations with China, Singapore and India, the economic sanctions that have been applied fitfully by others are unlikely to work.
Representatives from several Indian political parties met the other day along with a few prominent human rights activists, journalists and intellectuals, to call on the rulers in Rangoon to restore democracy and human rights. No one showed up from the Congress party, or from the parties that are a member of the ruling coalition, with the exception of George Fernandes’ Samta Party. But then the All Burma Students League, which cosponsored the occasion, gave as its address in the invitation 3, Krishna Menon Marg. That has been the Indian defence minister’s address, and he has been a long-term supporter of the Burmese dissident. This is a minor curiosity however, because it did not stop the minister from sending his army chief to Rangoon on a goodwill visit.