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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 16

India’s Relations with Myanmar, Bangladesh

What Price Democracy?

Monday 7 April 2008, by Amitava Mukherjee


Although democracy has been restored in Pakistan, it is yet to be seen whether India has taken any lesson out of it. New Delhi’s handling of military dictatorships in the subcontinent during the last thirty years does not really arouse much hope and it will not be an overstatement to say that India’s meek and unimaginative response to the Army dictatorship of Myanmar has served neither our own interests nor has it been able to do justice to the bigger cause of democracy.

To what extent Burma is really important so far as Indian foreign policy is concerned? The first point in this connection is Burma’s tacit support to the various militant secessionist insurgent groups in the North-Eastern part of our country. The second aspect is the vexed question of natural gas supply to India. Burma has an immense reserve of gas and for a long time it has been tantalising India with the prospect of gas supplies, a thing which has never materialised.

India, though outwitted and outsmarted by the Burmese military junta on several occasions, is still pinning hopes on the ‘pious wishes’ of General Than Shwe, the unquestioned supremo of the junta there. For a long time it has jettisoned the ideal and cause propagated and championed by Aung San Suu Kyi, although this Noble Laureate enjoys credentials which should make her more acceptable to the Indian political leadership than the junta of Myanmar.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of General Aung San, the Commander of the Burma Independence Army which was reared and trained by Japan during the Second World War to fight the British Army. But Aung San was farsighted enough to see through the fascist character of the Japanese and helped the British in ousting the latter. In 1947 he negotiated Burma’s independence but was assassinated in the same year. Suu Kyi was only two years old when her father died. She was brought up by her mother, Daw Khin Kyi, a diplomat, who later became Burma’s ambassador to India in 1960. Naturally Suu Kyi has also spent several years in India and has many friends in vital positions here.

It is undeniable that Aung San Suu Kyi happens to be one of the most prominent political prisoners in South Asia. Till 1993 India had extended support to her National League for Democracy (NLD). But a succession of weak Prime Ministers like Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh and an unimaginative one like Atal Behari Vajpayee deflected New Delhi’s foreign policy from the right course.

Burma, or Myanmar as it has been christened recently, remained under the dictatorship of General Ne Win for a long time. Towards the end of the 1980s popular discontent against totalitarian rule reached its crescendo. Another coup took place and General Than Shwe usurped power as the head of a military junta. This military government later came to be known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). At that time Aung San Suu Kyi was in Burma to attend to her ailing mother. Popular movements against Army rule continued and Suu Kyi was asked to lead the nation in this hour of crisis. The lady agreed and as a result the National League for Democracy (NLD) came into being. The military misjudged the Opposition as fractured and went for elections. The NLD under Suu Kyi’s leadership swept the polls. But the junta refused to hand over power. By this time Suu Kyi was already under house arrest. Out of the last 18 years, she has spent 12 years in virtual detention.

WHAT is the record of the Burmese military junta with which India is cooperating? What roles have other South Asian nations played in this sordid tale of brutal repression of human rights? The recent inhuman tortures on the demonstrating Buddhist monks by the SPDC are still fresh in public memory. Their only “crime” was that the military government suspected them to be sympathetic to Suu Kyi. A large number of people are still languishing inside various jails of Myanmar for their love for democracy. In 2002 Suu Kyi was released from jail under intense United Nations pressure. She resumed political activities but was attacked by a junta inspired mob at a place called Depayin. But the Army laid the blame for the mob violence, which resulted in deaths and severe injuries to many NLD activists, at her door and imprisoned Suu Kyi once again.

She was married to Michael Aris, a British national and an expert on Tibetology who died in 1999 due to prostate cancer. Before his death his last wish was to come to Burma and meet his wife for the last time. But the junta refused him visa. Instead it wanted Suu Kyi to go to London and meet her husband there. The junta’s intention was clear. It would not have allowed the courageous lady to re-enter Burma again. Suu Kyi saw through the game and refused. Her husband died separated from his wife. Their two sons still live in London. They have not seen their mother for a long time.

Of late the affairs in Burma have become important in the international, particularly South Asian, diplomatic chessboard. Ibrahim Gambhari, the United Nations envoy on Burma, has talked to Suu Kyi recently although General Than Shwe refused to meet the envoy. However, the task for the United Nations is quite complex here as the junta has the backing of India, China and other ASEAN nations.

It can be said with a fair amount of certainty that New Delhi has considerably drifted from its time-tested, cardinal principles of foreign policy. India’s Burma policy also points to a myopic ineptitude that the country has been exhibiting for a long time so far as relations with military dictatorships are concerned. This rudderlessness first came to the fore after the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh. It is now an open secret that Indira Gandhi was all for a decisive intervention as the news of Mujib’s death reached Delhi. But quite a few of her Cabinet colleagues, led by Jagjivan Ram, opposed any kind of activism on India’s part. As a result India lost the advantage in the days of successive coups and counter-coups that gripped Bangladesh immediately after Mujib’s killing although at least two of such coups leaders were openly pro-Indian and they had sought India’s help. The result was that Ziaur Rahman consolidated his position. And this was the point wherefrom a back-slide in foreign policy started.

In Bangladesh Ziaur Rahman turned the clock back. The idea of secularism, enshrined in the Constitution, was banished. Even during the days of the Bangladesh liberation war when he used to come to Calcutta off and on, Zia was looked upon by the Indian intelligence agencies as a man who was basically anti-Indian. Various Indian insurgent groups first set up their bases in Bangladesh during Zia’s tenure. This policy was later continued by H.M. Ershad and Khaleda Zia. Ershad made Islam the state religion. Bangladesh gradually became a centre of Islamic fundamentalism due to the policy its political and military leaders followed. But India continued to sit idle and turned its back on the developments in Bangladesh even if its own interests were undermined.

The similarity of approach in New Delhi’s dealings with Yangon and Dhaka is striking. For decades India is following a policy of appeasement to both Bangladesh and Myanmar in the hope that these two countries would extend their helping hands in combating the North-Eastern Indian ultras and fundamentalist Islamic lobbies and also agree to supply natural gas. On both counts India has been befooled. There is a lobby in South Block as well as in the Indian Army which, due to its poor understanding of the ground realities, still advocates such a meaningless approach.

LET us look at the record of the Burmese junta in this context. In 1995 a joint operation by the Indo-Burmese Army intercepted quite a large number of armed Indian ultras. A good number of them were killed. Still a large number, including Sasha Chaudhury, the ULFA’s Foreign Secretary, were arrested. Strangely the Indian Army let its Myanmar counterpart to take all the prisoners although, logically, they should have been handed over to the Indian forces. Nearly two weeks later Myanmar allowed all those prisoners to walk away with all their sophisticated arms.

Secondly, in 2000 another large group of Manipuri insurgents, including R.K. Megh------en and Jiban Singh, undisputed leaders of the United National Liberation Front and People’s Liberation Army respectively, fell into the hands of the Burmese Army. The news reached New Delhi immediately but the government here sat idle and made practically no worthwhile attempt to gain custody of those dreaded guerrillas. It is alleged that the two aforementioned Meitei ultras were released by the Western Command of the Burmese Army on paying a huge bribe.

Thirdly, throughout 2005 India spent valuable time and energy to confabulate with the General Than Shwe-led junta for striking a deal for supply of natural gas. It was really a pathetic sight of a wholly unprofessional and puerile Indian establishment trying to keep Than Shwe in good humour for the elusive natural gas. For a substantial length of time Than Shwe played tricks with India and ultimately signed the deal with China thereby promising the communist country to supply 6.5 trillion cubic feet of gas.

In spite of his sordid record of human rights violations, it must be admitted that Than Shwe is a seasoned man and he knows how to achieve his goals, a quality Indian politicians as well as bureaucrats do not have. He has been able to get Myanmar into the ASEAN taking advantage of the latter’s soft underbelly—furthering only trade relations and paying very little attention to the domestic and external policies of the member nations. Consequently Thailand, the Philipines, Malaysia and even countries from the European Union have made heavy investments in Myanmar, enabling Than Shwe to come out of the isolation that his country had experienced from the days of Ne Win, and earning international respectability to be followed by peace agreements with the majority of tribal insurgent groups of his country.

India has an unfavourable balance of trade with Burma but that has not deterred the magnanimous governments of our country to take up highly capital intensive rail, road and telecommunication projects. Given the cooperation that the Burmese junta is getting from the ASEAN, China, India and some EU countries, it is only too natural that the economic sanctions imposed by the United States will not be effective and Burma has been able to tide over the sanctions. Blockade of exports to the United States has been compensated by increasing volumes of the same to friendly countries in Asia and Europe. The Burmese authority has reciprocated by chopping off the famed teak plantations and supplying the wood for furniture making purposes of the burgeoning middle and upper middle classes of various ASEAN countries. In place of teak, the government is presently carrying out large scale rubber plantations. Latex from the rubber trees will be duly exported for the fast growing automobile industry of China.

Indian policy-makers would have to do serious soul-searching now. It is understandable that one of their principal concerns is to see to it that China is checkmated in the race for one-upmanship. But the ground reality gives Beijing an advantage. It is axiomatic that the military junta will find itself more comfortable in the company of the totalitarian Communist Government of China rather than India’s live-wire democracy. Therefore it will be myopic to enter into a race with China in matters of supply of military hardwares to Burma, a thing South Block authorities are believed to be contemplating as can be gleaned from the establishment of an Army-to-Army relationship between India and Burma.

Some international cross-currents also warrant a thorough overhaul of India’s Burma policy. Observers talk of a China-Pakistan-Burma axis. Whether it is true or not, some uncomfortable questions remain. The aforementioned secret release of top North-East Indian ultras followed a diplomatic rumour that two top Pakistani nuclear scientists, allegedly having Al-Qaeda backing, were in Burma. China’s connections with the Taliban are too well known. Some other indications that Burma is fast becoming a hot spot for India should not be overlokked.

THE release of Aung San Suu Kyi and the participation of the NLD under her leadership in any future election hold the keys to the solution of many problems India faces now. Apart from openly leaning towards China, both politically and economically, Than Shwe has done precious little to thwart the operations of the North-East Indian militants from Burmese soil. He has taken some steps against the Khaplang faction of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) but has not disturbed the more powerful Issac-Muivah group. But India had on many occasions gone overboard in placating and keeping in good humour the Burmese junta chief. Sometime back permissions were refused to conventions, sought to be organised for declaring support to the NLD and to demand the release of Suu Kyi, only because Than Shwe was slated to visit India shortly. Ultimately the Burmese strong man was given a red-carpet reception.

Not that nothing positive is happening in the Myanmar front. Under intense United Nations pressure, the Burmese junta has considered it prudent to warm up slightly towards Suu Kyi. On her part the Nobel Laureate has made it clear that she does not consider all sections of the Army unpatriotic. The appointment of a moderate as the government’s interlocutor in future talks with Suu Kyi is an indication that the junta’s vast elbow room has somewhat shortened. The proposed constitutional convention in May has assumed importance. Some Western powers would like to see it under the watchful eyes of international observers which the junta is refusing on the ground of the sovereign rights of the Burmese people to decide their own future. India is remaining taciturn at this crucial juncture.

Ironically, the Left is also not raising its voice so far as New Delhi’s Burma gaffe is concerned. Or is it not sufficiently informed about the matter? Whatever may be the fact, India is holding a good number of Burmese prisoners, who have fought the junta there, in different jails of court country. Why are our honourable and knowledgable MPs not raising questions about them inside Parliament? Our lawmakers can be assured about one thing: thereby hangs another tale. That is related to the role of India’s government machinery.

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