Monday, October 25, 2004

Myanmar: Beyond India's interventionist TRAP


India must come out of its mindset of a “Bhutan type” operation against Ulfa and other insurgents in Myanmar or Bangladesh as such an operation cannot be replicated elsewhere. India put pressure on Bhutan since the armed groups shifted camps to the tiny Himalayan kingdom in the early 1990s. New Delhi provided weapons to the Royal Bhutan Army and trained its personnel in counter insurgency operations. Yet, Bhutan intervened only after it regarded the Ulfa and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland as posing serious security threats to its sovereignty and established dozens of camps in southern Bhutan. Being Bhutan’s advisor on defence and foreign policy issues under the 1949 Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, New Delhi has unparalleled leverage. Bhutan’s first and second Five Year Economic Development Plans were totally funded by India, which continues to substantially bankroll its economy. New Delhi cannot provide such assistance either to Burma or Bangladesh.


Recognise reality
Suhas Chakma

Open Forum is on a crisis developing in our neighbour to the east, Myanmar. The dismissal and detention of Gen. Khin Nyunt, the then Prime Minister, and the subsequent announcement about cancellation of talks with Karen insurgents by the hardliners, is a clear indication of the shape of things to come. These events will have both short-term and long-term impact on the North-east for not only are rebels based there (NSCN, Ulfa, the various Manipuri groups) but it is also a major corridor for economic cooperation with South-east Asia as well as international trade, not to speak of exploration for oil and gas in Myanmar itself and the building of infrastructure there. The North-east is strongly interested in a stable, prosperous and democratic Myanmar with which it has historic and ethnic ties. — SH


New Delhi is to roll out a red carpet welcome for the chief of Myanmar’s State Peace and Democratic Council, Gen. Than Shwe, who is sticking to his scheduled visit to India next week despite the ouster of Khin Nyunt, Prime Minister until a few days back and a senior army general, who favoured talks with the country’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and was relatively more open than his colleagues to engaging with the world.

This is a clear rebuff to the latest sanctions imposed by the European Union on the military junta for its failure to release Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner, recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding and her country’s most visible face. It is a reflection of how economic and geo-political considerations have stifled the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, and of the tough line pursued by men like Than Shwe in the internal power struggle.

Delhi wants Yangon’s cooperation in tackling insurgents from the North-east based in Myanmar’s western hill tracts, including members of the United Liberation Front of Asom, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (both major factions) and various Manipuri groups, including the United National Liberation Front. Given the attitude of Bangladesh, especially its belligerent foreign minister Morshed Khan, New Delhi is desperately seeking a partner. Irrespective of whether Yangon accedes or not to New Delhi’s request, Gen. Than Shwe has a few lessons for political leaders here as well as mandarins in both North and South Block.


Unable to resolve the ethnic problems militarily, the Burmese generals have followed a more pragmatic approach and signed cease-fires or standstill arrangements with 17 armed groups including the powerful Kachin Independence Army, New Mon State Party, Karenni Liberation Army. While pursuing talks with the Karen National Union, the SPDC split the KNU on religious lines and a new Democratic Karen Buddhist Association has been formed.

Indeed, these cease-fire agreements with the armed groups represent the most serious weaknesses in the pro-democracy movement. If generals do not seek military solutions, how should democratically elected leaders of India react?

Years of frozen relations followed India’s open support to Suu Kyi in the late 1980s but a thaw was visible when the then foreign secretary (and currently national security advisor) JN Dixit visited Yangon in 1993. India’s concerns of the early 1990s, specifically Yangon’s closeness with China, perhaps no longer hold the same importance. Yangon always skillfully engaged with New Delhi, at arm’s length but extracting far more than it has given away. Thus, when India alleged in December 2001 that two Pakistani nuclear scientists with alleged links with Al-Qaida were in Myanmar, Yangon reacted by freeing about 200 UNLF guerillas who were detained in November 2001.

India must come out of its mindset of a “Bhutan type” operation against Ulfa and other insurgents in Myanmar or Bangladesh as such an operation cannot be replicated elsewhere. India put pressure on Bhutan since the armed groups shifted camps to the tiny Himalayan kingdom in the early 1990s. New Delhi provided weapons to the Royal Bhutan Army and trained its personnel in counter insurgency operations. Yet, Bhutan intervened only after it regarded the Ulfa and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland as posing serious security threats to its sovereignty and established dozens of camps in southern Bhutan. Being Bhutan’s advisor on defence and foreign policy issues under the 1949 Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, New Delhi has unparalleled leverage. Bhutan’s first and second Five Year Economic Development Plans were totally funded by India, which continues to substantially bankroll its economy. New Delhi cannot provide such assistance either to Burma or Bangladesh.

India often cites “Operation Golden Bird” of 1996 when Indian forces and the Myanmar army had trapped scores of north-eastern militants in a pincer movement on the Mizoram border as a successful joint military operation. Yet, this initiative was lost when Yangon was infuriated by the Nehru award to Suu Kyi. Later, the Myanmarese military allegedly infiltrated Indian military intelligence and wiped out virtually the entire leadership of the National United Party of Arakan in the Andamans six years ago, where the Myanmar militant group had been kept by the Indians.

Diplomacy without necessary leverage is an exercise in vanity. Despite the repeated verbal pressure on Bangladesh regarding the militant camps in that country, Dhaka knows that India’s efforts to explore and export oil from Myanmar, to be cost-effective, must go through Bangladesh. And despite severe pressure from oil companies and the USA, Dhaka has refused to sell gas to India citing domestic compulsions.


India has often failed to use its leverage that arises from its democratic traditions. If the United Progressive Alliance government could change its policy towards Palestine, there is no reason why the same cannot be replicated with regard to Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. Since it does not raise concerns either about the restoration of democracy in Myanmar or Aung San Suu Kyi’s continued detention, it has little leverage over the SPDC.

The author is Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights, New Delhi.

Statesman 23/10/2004