Thursday, October 28, 2004

India: Analysis - The new Myanmar Policy


That was a quarter of century too long for analysts and leaders in India who have quietly steered a revamping of India’s policy towards its neighbors from a somewhat preachy and moralistic one advocating democratic values to one that takes in hard realities—both domestic and external. For example, when Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf took over in a military coup five years ago New Delhi refused to deal with a “military dictator” but within the space of two years got around to inviting him over for a summit, as realization dawned that the army was a fairly permanent feature of India’s biggest neighbor.
India’s Burma Policy Tempered by Pragmatism
Ranjit Devraj


Burma’s military junta may be anathema to supporters of democracy but India believes that the generals hold the key to development of its troubled northeast and for vigorous bilateral trade.

“India, in fact no country in the region, can afford to wait for democracy to happen to Burma,” said Gangantah Jha, security expert and professor of international studies at the Jawahahralal Nehru University.

On Monday, the neighbors signed a slew of cooperation agreements with nary a mention that visiting Sr-Gen Than Shwe had only a week ago purged his government of prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt which drew yet another round of international opprobrium.

The removal of Khin Nyunt, who was also military intelligence chief, appeared to end a long struggle between his so-called moderates and an army faction uninterested in negotiating political reconciliation between the junta and the pro-democracy opposition.

Than Shwe, with eight of his cabinet ministers in tow, landed in the Indian capital on Sunday to a red carpet welcome befitting the first visit by a Burmese head of state in 24 years and one that would last eight days.

That was a quarter of century too long for analysts and leaders in India who have quietly steered a revamping of India’s policy towards its neighbors from a somewhat preachy and moralistic one advocating democratic values to one that takes in hard realities—both domestic and external.

For example, when Pakistan President Gen Pervez Musharraf took over in a military coup five years ago New Delhi refused to deal with a “military dictator” but within the space of two years got around to inviting him over for a summit, as realization dawned that the army was a fairly permanent feature of India’s biggest neighbor.

According to Jha the situation is not much different with Burma—India’s other large neighbor and one with a 1,700-km long common border stretching through the insurgency-hit northeastern states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura and Arunchal Pradesh.

“Anybody can see that democracy is not going to return to Burma in a hurry because the army has systematically undermined its pillars and whenever democracy returns the army is sure to retain an overbearing influence,” Jha said.

Meanwhile, India is grateful that Rangoon has done its bit by encouraging Naga insurgents, especially the well-armed National Socialist Council of Nagaland led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, or the NSCN-IM, to get to the negotiating table.

Part of that cooperation, ironically running through the years when India vocally supported a quick return to democracy in Burma, may have been due to the fact that the Naga tribes are a threat to both countries.

As recently as in 1998 the NSCN described the Nagas to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva as a nation of three million people occupying 100,000 square kilometers of land that is “under occupation by Indian and Burmese forces.”

Such declarations at international fora have resulted in New Delhi seeking better cooperation with Rangoon while intensifying negotiations for a peaceful settlement painstakingly pursued over decades with exiled Naga leaders—Muivah and Isak—in foreign capitals.

The latest round of talks held in the Thai capital of Bangkok earlier this month resulted in Muivah announcing on October 22 that the NSCN top leadership was now ready to return to India with a view to putting an end to three decades of armed insurgency aimed at the formation of a independent “Nagalim” that would include parts of Burma and of Indian states like Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam—all with Naga populations.

While New Delhi’s success is leveraging peace with Naga insurgents, Burma, on the other hand, is trying to convince neighboring governments that denying sanctuary to the armed militant groups could be mutually beneficial to all countries in the region.

Apart from insurgency, New Delhi has in recent years started to worry about another cross-border menace in its porous northeast—the trafficking of drugs particularly amphetamine and other “synthetic” drugs across the border for onward movement to the port city of Kolkatt and beyond.

Soon after Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced his “war against drugs” in February last year, reports started emerging that mobile heroin laboratories were being shifted to the Indian side of Burma from the Thai-Burma border.

Thus a Memorandum of Understanding on “cooperation in non-traditional security issues” signed on Monday between India and Burma, along with other agreements, has strong clauses to counter drug trafficking and provides for training and exchange of personnel to fight the cross-border problem.

“There is now clear assurance that the territory of Myanmar [Burma] will not be allowed to be used by groups inimical to India,” said a government spokesman.

On democracy, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, said the spokesman, extended support for any such moves in Burma including plans for a new constitution, but agreed that such a transition was a complex process.

Open support in India for a return to democracy in Burma and its incarcerated opposition leader, the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is now confined to Burmese exile groups supported by George Fernandes, India’s outspoken former defense minister.

Fernandes helped organize a three-day “International Convention for the Restoration of Democracy in Myanmar” a week before Than Shwe’s arrival defying suggestions that the meeting be postponed till after the departure of the general.

But Fernandes admitted at a press conference that he failed to do anything to further the cause of democracy in Burma during his six years as defense minister that ended when the coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party was voted out of power in May.

The new government led by the Congress party, which demanded the release of Suu Kyi while in the opposition, denied a visa to Sein Win, the Washington-based prime minister of Burma’s government-in-exile, so that he could not attend Fernandes’ pro-democracy convention.

In a message read out to the conference, Sein Win said while he did not expect India to be “unilaterally championing” the cause of democracy in Burma he wanted to see the country “join other democracies in brining about a United Nations facilitated peaceful change.”

But evidently India seems to have deviated from that line of thought and analysts like Jha think that short of military intervention, which would almost certainly be vetoed by China in the UN Security Council, such a democratic change imposed from outside still remains elusive.

“Even economic sanctions are not going to work against Burma because the military rulers in Yangon [Rangoon] have close ties with China,” said Jha.

Indeed India’s change of heart after a bout of vocal support for Suu Kyi between 1988 and 1990 was partly a reaction to China rapidly moving in to fill the spaces it had vacated.

“India is serious about pursuing closer economic ties with its eastern neighbors through BIMSTEC [the Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation] which had its first summit in July and is only too aware that Myanmar is the bridge to the new grouping,” Jha said.

Irrawaddy Online 28/10/2004