Opinion and Editorial

Oh how they continue to let down the Burmese people

Praful Bidwai
Filed on October 14, 2007

THE support lent by numerous governments, especially China’ and India’s, to the Burmese dictatorship during last month’s state-directed violence will go down as a black mark in their diplomatic-political record.

Burmese soldiers rained bullets and teargas upon peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators, killing an estimated 200 and detaining 6,000. China continues to shield the junta. India is reluctantly revising its stand — unconvincingly. India recently supported a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution condemning the “violent repression”, and demanding the release of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and a “national dialogue” for “reconciliation, democratisation and the... rule of law’’. India voted for this, but only after saying it isn’t “in conformity’’ with a “forward-looking, non-condemnatory” approach, and won’t contribute to “engaging constructively” with the authorities. India’s kid-glove approach to the junta sits ill with its grave human rights violations, against which the world must protect the Burmese people. India wants the junta to “investigate” the violence—although it was clearly state-ordered. It’s regrettable that most South Asians have been indifferent towards Burma’s greatest pro-democracy upsurge since 1988. Until just 70 years ago, Burma was part of India, and bound to it through close cultural, economic and political relations.

Rangoon, now Yangon, was as Indian/subcontinental in composition and character as Bombay, Karachi or Madras. Today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all had major “Burma connections”. Without “Burma Teak”, many of South Asia’s historical buildings wouldn’t have been built. India opposes economic sanctions or other tough measures against the Burmese regime. Sanctions can be ineffectual. But “engagement” has also proved futile. Nothing revealed this better than the Burma visit of Petroleum Minister Murli Deora to sign a $150 million gas deal — just when the repression peaked. “This sent a terrible message,” said Soe Myint, a Burmese pro-democracy activist exiled in India. “Democratic India won’t lift its little finger to restrain the Burmese regime. We were greatly disappointed.” Yet, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee gave the junta a clean chit this week. He reaffirmed India’s commitment to Burma-specific projects “in diverse fields”, including roads, railways, telecommunications, information technology and power—as part of India’s “Look East” policy. Ironically, he was only reading out from an earlier speech made in June! So much for “Look East’” importance. Now, India is about to finalise a $100 million transport project (Kaladan) in Burma to gain overland access to Sittve port.

India bears a special responsibility for Burma because of its particularly close ties with it. The two share a modern legacy — the Freedom Movement. Its leader in Burma, Aung Sang (Suu Kyi’s father), was inspired by Gandhi and Nehru. Suu Kyi studied in Delhi and regards India as her second home, to which she’s deeply committed. India’s ultra-conservative Burma position derives from four considerations: enlisting Burma’s help in fighting the Northeastern insurgencies; interest in Burma's natural gas; anxiety to counter China; and concern for neighbourhood “stability”. It’s sordid that India’s Burma policy is determined by such narrow factors, which entail abandoning universal principles, democracy and human rights. “Look East” also means turning a blind eye to dictatorship. Burma’s predatory, super-corrupt regime has brutalised its people with an army one-tenth the size of its population. It consumes a third of Burma’s budget. Regime-sponsored drug smuggling and gun-running are Burma’s major businesses.

The military is selling Burma’s magnificent resources cheap while perpetuating the poverty of three-fourths of the population. It routinely practises arbitrary detention, forced conscription, slave labour and torture. Anyone with an “unauthorised” fax machine or computer is jailed for seven to 15 years.

The junta conducts extra-judicial executions, “disappears” dissidents, and recruits child soldiers. It stands accused of arbitrary detention and violating freedoms of belief, association and assembly.

India’s Burma approach was spelt out crudely by new army chief Deepak Kapoor: the violence is Burma’s “internal affair”, and “we should maintain” our “good relations” with its government.

This statement is an intrusion into the executive’s prerogative. Yet, it captures the essence of the government’s “realism”-driven stand, which hypocritically professes “non-intervention” when convenient, while practising the opposite when it can. Serious rights violations anywhere are everybody’s concern. India’s policy has yielded no desirable results. Burma is ineffectual in controlling Northeastern insurgents, barring perhaps one Naga faction (Khaplang), with which it has a ceasefire agreement. It has taken only token or desultory action against others. Burma has played China off against India, while milking both for assistance. India has walked into this trap. India’s famed “interests” in Burmese gas have produced embarrassment. Four Indian companies figure among the “Dirty 20” implicated in rights violations and environmental destruction.

However, India has received no Burmese gas or gas contracts. Burma typically favours China. Burma’s gas delivery will crucially depend on transit through Bangladesh. Bangladesh isn’t cooperating.

Those who demand that India should befriend Burma’s regime as part of a China containment strategy advocate a new Asian Cold War — with disastrous economic and security consequences for all. Finally, “stability”, defined independently of legitimacy, can only freeze existing iniquities. India's interests don’t lie in a neighbourhood with “stable” but tyrannical regimes. All of India’s major parties, even the BJP, want a change in Burma policy. So do civil society groups, especially Northeastern organisations whose ethnic identities cut across the border. They would like a policy close to that of the early 1990s, when India advocated a dialogue with Suu Kyi and awarded her the 1993 Nehru Prize for International Understanding. India made a strong political point—without severing its relations with the Burmese government. But it soon reversed its stand. There’s a lesson here: India can stand its ground if it wants to. In the mid-1960s, it did so in opposing the Vietnam War despite its “ship-to-mouth” food dependence on Washington. In the 1980s, India supported the African National Congress against western pressure. The ANC eventually triumphed. India can and should follow a broad-horizon policy based on a universalist international vision. Ironically, India’s vision is shrinking just when its global profile has risen. This isn’t a sign of a confident rising power with an independent policy.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at praful@bol.net.in

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