India’s Burma Dilemma
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India’s Burma Dilemma


By BIDHAYAK DAS MAY, 2010 - VOLUME 18 NO.5


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Nearly two decades after New Delhi decided to put pragmatism ahead of principles in dealing with the Burmese junta, many still question the wisdom of the policy.

Amnesty International (AI) is just one of many international organizations that has called for New Delhi, the capital of the world’s largest democracy, to play a more constructive role in helping to pave the way for free and fair elections in Burma.

In a report published in February, AI suggested India “press the government of Myanmar [Burma] to remove obstacles to full participation of Myanmar’s electorate, including members of ethnic minorities, in elections,” adding that all transfers of military arms should be suspended immediately.

Yet New Delhi has remained silent on its policy toward Burma. As one senior Indian official put it, India is likely to be driven by national interests even if this means compromising its ideals. New Delhi prefers intergovernmental arrangements to overcome problems rather than relying on civil initiatives, he said.

Sinderpal Singh, an analyst at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore, suggested there was a shift in Indian attitudes because of a perceived failure in its Burma policy prior to 1993, when extending support to the pro-democratic movement was thought to be damaging India’s interests. At the same time, China was seen as entrenching its position with the ruling regime in Burma by defending the country in forums such as the United Nations, despite fierce international criticism of the Burmese regime’s human rights record.

India’s energy needs and security issues in its northeastern region have also encouraged pursuit of a no-conflict policy with Burma’s rulers. India is keen to maximize exploitation of oil and natural gas resources inside Burma, and it also needs Burmese military cooperation to counter insurgent groups that currently cross with relative ease the hilly terrain of the countries’ 1,643-kilometer (1,000-mile) border to their training camps in Burma.

Veteran Indian journalist Abhijit Deb has suggested India is conducting a barter policy for Burmese assistance in cracking down on militant hideouts in Burma. This policy, he said, became much clearer after Burma allowed the Indian army to carry out operations on Burmese soil against the United Liberation Front of Asom, one of several separatist groups from India operating within Burmese territory. Such cooperation between Indian forces and the Burmese military has brought peace to parts of the restive northeastern region, especially Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Nagaland and Assam, and has helped fend off potential intrusion from China.

China’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh, which borders Tibet, has caused much tension in India. Speaking at a national seminar in 2008, Col. R. Hariharan, a retired military intelligence specialist, said, “China’s capability to support insurgents from Manipur and Assam and use them as a pressure point in any political or military confrontation with India should not be ignored.”

India’s position is “all about gaining vital ground if we are to protect our borders from an aggressive neighbor,” suggested a high-level Indian diplomat when asked why India should not change its position on Burma and the pro-democracy movement.

But not all analysts are convinced a pragmatic policy based purely on national interests should continue. In a 2007 paper titled “India Should Not Prove Gandhi Wrong & Irrelevant in Myanmar,” B. Raman, the director of the Institute for Tropical Studies in Chennai, said ethical parameters should have a much greater influence on Indian policy-making on Burma.

Hariharan said soft-pedaling will leave India “with the baggage of poor credibility while engaging with the Myanmar polity. Ushering in democracy in Myanmar is likely to increase India’s competitive role with China.”

Whether anyone in the Government Secretariat in New Delhi is ready to take suggestions or reminders from international groups like AI to play a more constructive role is doubtful.

Bidhayak Das is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

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