India’s unrolling of the red carpet for Burma’s General Than Shwe, who was on a ‘religious-cum-official’ visit to the country from 25 to 29 July, understandably raised eyebrows. As chairman of an organisation euphemistically called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the general has been presiding over an obnoxious military dictatorship. The junta has a well-documented record of human-rights abuse, and is credibly accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law, including the use of child soldiers, the destruction of villages, the displacement of ethnic minorities, the use of rape as a weapon of war, extrajudicial killings, forced relocation and forced labour. Its persecution of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under detention for 14 of the last 20 years, does not require elaboration. In 2007, the SPDC ordered a crackdown on peaceful protests that resulted in the murder, beating, torture and imprisonment of Buddhist monks. In an act of breathtaking irony, the general started his tour of India with a visit to Bodh Gaya and other centres of Buddhist pilgrimage.
There has been little indication that the junta would turn over a new leaf. National elections, now scheduled for 7 November, are being carefully orchestrated to be a sham. The Constitution of 2008, on the basis of which these are to be held, and which was approved by a farcical referendum, strengthens the supremacy of the military. Among other things, it grants the commander-in-chief of the armed forces the right to appoint 25 percent of the members of both houses of Parliament. Besides, the SPDC has enacted five draconian election laws that give the junta absolute control over the election process and bar political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, from contesting. Even campaigning will be restricted, with the Election Commission issuing a directive, on 21 June, prohibiting political parties from campaigning in a manner that ‘harms security, the rule of law and
It is a reflection on the credibility of the forthcoming polls that the foreign ministers of ASEAN countries, who ended their annual meeting at Hanoi on 20 July, gave ‘an earful’ – the Thai foreign minister’s words – to Burma, while demanding that it hold free and fair elections. This is a significant development, given the caution that has generally marked ASEAN’s proceedings and pronouncements, and the oft-levelled allegation that it overlooks rights abuses in member countries. Not surprisingly, Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has announced that it will not contest the elections under the existing laws. Meanwhile, the junta is preparing its own forces for the election. In April, Prime Minister Thein Sein quit the military and announced the formation of a new grouping, the Union for Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which now looks set to be the army’s party.
Marriage of convenience
Why is India, a vibrant democracy, courting a man such as Gen Than Shwe and the junta over which he presides? The answer has to be sought in the context of New Delhi’s steadfast efforts to woo the generals since mid-1990. At that time, the V P Singh-led National Front government reversed policies of Rajiv Gandhi that had strongly supported the Suu Kyi-led movement for democracy. A contrary note was sounded a few years later, in 1993, when India awarded its highest civilian award, the Jawaharlal Nehru award for Peace and International Understanding, to Suu Kyi. But that proved to be a one-time exception, and the process of cosying up to the junta continued.
This was most glaringly underlined in October 2004, the last time Gen Than Shwe visited India. At that point he came along with his ministers for industry, energy, communications and railways, and discussed trade and economic development with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Political realism was the reason cited for this volte face. First, the rhetoric suggested, it was essential to checkmate China’s penetration of Burma, which posed a grave security threat to India. Second, cooperation from Rangoon (and now the new capital, Naypyidaw) was needed against the rebels in the Indian Northeast, who retreated to their bases in Burma whenever the security forces made things difficult for them in India. Third, economic cooperation with Burma promised rich rewards, particularly in the energy sector. Finally, India’s new ‘Look East’ policy demanded good relations with Burma, through which land routes to countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam would run.
The trouble is that the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. ‘Realpolitik’ can be a trap – as the Soviet Union, which signed the disastrous non-aggression treaty of 1939 with Nazi Germany, found to its cost when Adolf Hitler invaded it in June 1941. In the case of Burma, the danger is not of an invasion but of India being taken for a ride. Gen Than Shwe is known not only as a savage military dictator but also as a master manipulator. The name of his game is playing India against China and vice-versa. He first visited India in 2004 after sacking his prime minister, Khin Nyunt, who was reportedly a favourite of China. The underlying message – that he did not want to put all his eggs in one basket – was reinforced later that year, when Burma agreed to sell to India 80 percent of the electricity generated from a dam in Sagaing Division in return for assistance in its construction.
Trade between the two countries has been growing in volume at the rate of USD 1 billion per year. The Indian private sector is also active. Tata Motors is setting up a vehicles plant, which is expected to be functioning from 2011. However, there is no getting around the fact that the economic cooperation between India and Burma is heavily tilted in the latter’s favour. While India is providing trade concessions, funds and expertise for infrastructural development, Burma is giving comparatively little in return. India is assisting Burma in a host of projects, including in railways, road and waterway development, power and industrial training centres, telecommunication, industrial development, power generation and energy. A number of Indian public-sector units are active in Burma, including the National Hydel Power Corporation, the Border Roads Organisation, the Inland Waterways Authority of India, the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) and the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL).
One could argue that both current equations and future returns must be considered, and that cooperation with Burma promises much. Burma’s mining sector offers considerable opportunities to Indian companies, as does the oil and natural-gas sector. The ONGC and GAIL are active in Burma’s A-1 and A-3 offshore natural-gas blocks, and are constructing a gas pipeline connecting the Burmese island of Ramree with Yunnan in southern China. India’s need is particularly acute in the energy sector, given the demands of its rapidly growing economy and its large, increasingly prosperous and consumption-oriented middle class. There is, however, a need to guard against being carried away by future expectations and ignore current realities on the ground – one of which is the indication that Burma has been short-changing India on the energy front. Burma has delivered little of substance, and has also given China far better deals; the returns have consequently not been commensurate with New Delhi’s contributions.
There remains the issue of security. India has 1640 kilometres of border with Burma, abutting four of its northeastern states, and Naypyidaw’s cooperation is essential for tackling the ongoing insurgent activity along it. Burma is claimed to have been helpful, and the last Home Secretary-level talks at Naypyidaw led to important decisions. This might well have been so, but going by results, Burma’s assistance in this area has been of the kind whose impact is mainly felt in the realm of the imagination. The rebels (including Naga, Manipuri, Assamese and Bodo groups) have been little impacted in the aftermath. Burma has achieved nothing on par with Bhutan, which launched a military offensive in 2002, expelling United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) fighters from its soil; or Bangladesh, where the government’s crackdown has landed leaders such as the ULFA’s Arabinda Rajkhowa and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland’s Ranjan Daimari in custody, and transferred them to India.
Few people are suggesting that India should have nothing to do with the junta. But there is a world of difference between that extreme and falling all over oneself to please, which is what New Delhi has been doing. Gen Than Shwe, who visited Bodh Gaya in Bihar and the Sarnath temple in Uttar Pradesh after arriving in India on 25 July, reached Delhi the following day to be received by Foreign Minister S M Krishna. He was accorded a ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhawan, the presidential mansion, on 27 July, and a banquet was hosted by the president in his honour. On the same day, he met Prime Minister Singh and delegation-level talks were held. On 28 July, the general travelled to Hyderabad, where he visited information-technology and biotechnology units, as well as the renowned Salar Jung Museum. On 29 July, his final day in India, he visited the Tata Motors plant in Jamshedpur.
A joint communique issued at the conclusion of the visit mentioned agreements on a number of projects. These included Indian assistance in the construction and revamping of the Rhi-Tiddim road, connecting Burma with Mizoram, at a cost of more than USD 60 million; a line of credit of USD 64 million for the construction of electricity-transmission lines; a grant of USD 10 million for the procurement of agricultural machinery from India; and another line of credit, of USD 6 million, for upgrading microwave links between Moreh in India and Mandalay in Burma. The joint statement also noted the signing of a Treaty on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters and memoranda of understanding on India’s assistance for small development projects in Burma, along with information cooperation and the conservation and reconstruction of the Ananda temple at Bagan.
It can be argued that all this is realpolitik. But the question that, like Banquo’s ghost, refuses to go away is whether its pursuit at all costs makes sense. As noted, realpolitik recoiled on the Soviet Union in 1941, as it did on Great Britain, which in the 1930s watched Hitler’s rise with benign indifference, with a section even welcoming it as a counterpoise to the Soviet Union. Realpolitik has landed the United States, which had lavishly backed Afghan jihadi formations against the Soviet Union during the 1980s, with Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
What price India will have to pay for supporting the junta is not clear at this point. At the very least, it will be the moral condemnation of history, and eventually something more concrete – such as the hostility of the democratic government that is bound to be established in Burma one day. Meanwhile, New Delhi finds itself with rather strange bedfellows on the Burma issue. In November 2009, it opposed a resolution on Burma’s human-rights violations at the United Nations General Assembly. The other countries to do so were Belarus, China, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Zimbabwe.
~ Hiranmay Karlekar is consultant editor with The Pioneer, and the author of Bangladesh: The next Afghanistan? and Savage Humans and Stray Dogs: A study in human aggression.