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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 49, November 21, 2009

Has India a Policy on Myanmar?

Tuesday 24 November 2009, by Ninan Koshy


With the visible shift of Washington’s policy on Myanmar, New Delhi seems to be rethinking its own relations with Myanmar.

It may be more correct to speak of an Indian approach to Myanmar or India’s relations with that country rather than of a policy. While certain assumptions or considerations behind the approach are evident, Myanmar rarely finds a place in India’s foreign policy formulations or perspectives, in spite of the stakes being very high.

The time has come to evaluate the results of the approach and test the validity of its assumptions in the light of new developments with a view to formulating a coherent policy. This is all the more necessary in view of repositioning of major powers in Asia and India’s self-understanding of its role as an emerging world power.

Myanmar’s geographical position is of immense strategic significance to India. India has extensive interests in Myanmar. It is the gateway to the ASEAN countries and the vitality of Myanmar as a link is of crucial importance especially with the gathering momentum of India’s Look-East policy.

In August 2007, Myanmar suddenly burst into international attention by the “saffron revolution” which was followed by the brutal crackdown by the military regime. The large-scale protests were triggered by a sudden and huge hike in fuel prices but there were other causes including anger against economic mismanagement, protest against political repression, loss of confidence in the junta’s ‘roadmap’ for democracy and finally overall discontent with the military misrule of nearly two decades. The violent suppression of the protests, led by the monks, prompted even allies of the military government to recognise that change was desperately needed.

While these developments present important new opportunities for change, they must be viewed against the continuance of profound structural obstacles. The balance of power is still heavily weighted in favour of the Army, whose top leaders continue to insist that only a strongly controlled military-led state can hold the country together. Pushing forward the new Constitution which ensures military domination and the fraudulent referendum are clear indicators that there is no willingness on the part of the regime to include any form of national reconciliation with the political forces in Myanmar.

Factors that have necessitated the accommoda-tive Indian approach to Myanmar are the importance of containing insurgency in India’s North-East, countering or balancing the growing Chinese influence, and energy requirements. The people of Myanmar do not figure among these considerations; nor are their aspirations for a democratic future a factor. New Delhi’s diplomacy has traversed the entire spectrum from support to the pro-democracy Opposition groups to support for the military regime.

New Delhi claims to be working through quiet diplomacy but there is no evidence of any tangible results. Its public positions on Myanmar have been much less critical than those of China. During a visit to Myanmar on January 19, 2007, External Affairs Minister (then) Pranab Mukherjee said that India had to deal with governments “as they exist”. “We are not interested in exporting our own ideology. We are a democracy and we would like democracy to flourish every where. But this is for every country to decide for itself”. Our respected statesman had conveniently forgotten that the people of Myanmar had long ago decided for democracy and that the implementation of the decision was illegally and violently destroyed by the junta. He also overlooked the fact that the right to decide was precisely what is being denied to the people of Myanmar today. When there was widespread condemnation of the 2007 crackdown, all what Mukherjee could manage to say was to express the hope that “the process of national reconciliation and political reforms initiated by the government of Myanmar would taken forward expeditiously”, bestowing legitimacy and credibility to the junta’s plans which they did not deserve.

India’s claim that it is following a policy of non-interference in internal affairs with regard to Myanmar does not hold water with its record of interference in Sri Lanka, Nepal etc. It should be remembered that leaders of the pro-democracy movement look up to India for inspiration and support. Sui Kyi frequently cites Mahatma Gandhi as a model for her own non-violent resistance and views India’s democratic system as a model for their own ethnically diverse country.


There are tensions between India’s declared interests and its policy of engagement with Myanmar which legitimises the junta. India also appears to be increasingly out of step with Asian neighbours that are quietly pressing the military regime to pursue internal political reform in the interests of regional stability. There are also evident contradictions between Indian officials developing interest in employing the ‘soft power’ of Indian democracy as a tool of foreign policy and their support for a military regime that violently suppresses political dissent.

In 2003 India secured a commitment from the Myanmar regime that Indian insurgents including the ULFA and the Khaplang factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland would not be allowed to use Burmese territory as a refuge or to launch attacks into India. The two countries subsequently have shared intelligence and performed coordinated military operations against insurgents operating in the region. Indian military officials express satisfaction with the Myanmar military’s demonstrated cooperation on this issue and frequently cite this as a valued deliverable of New Delhi’s engagement with the regime.

So wary have been Indian officers of upsetting military cooperation with Myanmar that they have been outspoken, for instance, during the September-October 2007 crackdown in the junta’s defence. Calling the repression “their internal matter”, Indian Army commander General Deepak Kapoor spoke at the height of the violence about “maintaining the close relationship” citing India’s “good relations with Myanmar”. The military-to-military relationship has political implications, again exposing lack of a policy which emboldens Indian military officers to make such statements. In return Myanmar has leveraged its cooperation against Indian insurgents to secure significant military assistance from New Delhi including the provision of lethal weaponry with sophisticated components manufactured in Europe, alleged by human rights groups to have been employed against Burmese civilians.

Despite the military help, Myanmar’s support for Indian objectives has not been clear cut. Following bilateral agreements in 2003-04 on anti-insurgent cooperation the regime freed a group of Manipur dissidents captured in 2001. Perhaps more importantly the continuing military campaign against the ethnic minorities leading to destruction and displacement of people has given Indian insurgents not only space to operate but support from some of the minority groups. So it has to be carefully weighed whether a military regime waging war against ethnic groups or a democratic government that represents also the minorities is better for India to deal with the insurgents.

Indian leaders also view Myanmar with vast reserves of natural gas, as a leading potential long-term source of energy supply free from the geopolitical risks of West Asia oil and natural gas. However, here also the attempts by India have not been very successful. Myanmar has become a theatre of intense energy diplomacy and competition with clear advantage to China because of the support China renders to the junta in its capacity as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

One of the main factors limiting India’s influence is that India itself sees its relations with Myanmar essentially in terms of competition with China rather than formulating a policy to further its own strategic and economic imperatives. Indian officials and strategists are gravely concerned about Chinese activities in Myanmar, including competition for energy resources, the construction of deepwater ports capable of docking Chinese vessels along Myanmar’s coastline and the operation of military listening posts on the Coco islands only miles from India’s territorial waters in the Bay of Bengal. China is constructing deep water port facilities potentially capable of berthing war ships at Yangon, Kyankpyu and other harbours in Myanmar.

Indian officials believe that India can only counter such Chinese influence along India’s eastern land and maritime flanks through a policy of comprehensive engagement with Myanmar’s military junta.

There may be need for a policy debate over whether the best way to offset China’s influence is to emulate it by embracing the Myanmar regime even more closely or to pursue an approach that distinguishes India from China. through an engagement also with the pro-democracy movement, clearly factoring the people of Myanmar as a major consideration. Indian leaders who believe that unconditional support for the military rulers in Myanmar is necessary to sustain bilateral cooperation seem to have overlooked that China’s own tolerance for the junta’s repression is limited. Concerned by the possibility that the junta’s brutality towards its own people could lead to revolutionary unrest that would threaten regional stability, senior Chinese officials in both Beijing and Yunnan province reportedly pressed Myanmar’s leaders to improve governance and reduce violence against civilians.

Although it blocked the Security Council from imposing sanctions against Myanmar, China condemned the junta’s September 2007 crackdown in stronger terms than did democratic India. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao publicly expressed concern about the junta’s repression and urged it to “promote domestic reconciliation and achieve democracy and development”. China supported the UN Security Council statement deploring the crackdown in Myanmar and urging political reconciliation—a change of position by Beijing which had previously used its veto to shield the Myanmar regime from such criticism.

In contrast, India’s public response made no mention of democracy in Myanmar, with Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee expressing only “concern’ about the situation and declaring India’s friendly interest in a “peaceful, stable and prosperous” Myanmar. If Beijing had indeed identified “a real self-interest in stopping the leadership from taking further steps that lead to instability internally and in the region” it was surprising that New Delhi felt constrained from using its hard-won influence for similar ends. New Delhi’s voice was conspicuous by absence during the show trial of Suu Kyi held in May this year.

On the diplomatic front Myanmar’s junta has signalled where its strength lies. The strength of Myanmar lies in the strong demand for its natural resources by all its neighbours. The reality is that China, India and Thailand are all interested in the reserves of energy that Myanmar has. Myanmar’s resources have allowed it to bypass international sanctions in the past and will now be used to negotiate with its Asian neighbours to win necessary international support and recognition.

The shift in the policy of the USA on Myanmar has raised new questions with regard to India’s approach. For the first time in more than two decades the US has expressed its readiness for engagement with Myanmar. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement during her first foreign trip on a new approach to Myanmar has been followed up by discussions between the two countries and now the visit of the high-level delegation.

The talks presumably centred on improving Myanmar’s human rights situation and its claimed intention to move towards democracy, but the subtext is improving diplomatic relations and fostering influence in a country widely viewed as a key regional ally of China. While the US wants to make it clear that the new policy does not mean the end of US sanctions, it concedes a “momentum for policy shift”.

Policy analysts say a major reason for this new gambit is a realisation that Chinese political and economic influence in the region has blossomed in the past decade while US attention was largely diverted especially by a foreign policy to suit the ‘war on terror’. Washington, which has substantially expanded its military ties in Asia, seems to have become increasingly concerned about China’s growing influence and power in the region through non-military means. While much of the focus of the USA has been on China’s rapidly modernising military and its growing capacity to project power beyond its immediate borders, a quiet but strong competition is now emerging between Washington and Beijing for influence in South-East Asia which will have reverberations across the whole of Asia.

The implications for India by the US, its strategic partner, entering into Myanmar need serious consideration. That this is happening at a time of apparent change in the US’ perception of India with the change in the Administration in Washington makes such consideration particularly relevant.

[Revised text of the keynote address at a seminar on “Recent Developments in Myanmar: Implications for India” organised by the Centre for Asia Studies, Chennai and the Department of Politics University of Madras]

Dr Ninan Koshy is a commentator based in Thiruvananthapuram and formerly a Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, USA.

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