Global Economics

India's Role in Burma's Crisis


New Delhi has sympathy for the troubled nation, but energy needs and relations with China are complicating the equation

For the last two months, Burma has been in a crisis. The long-ruling military regime has been crushing a people's movement that arose over the removal of fuel subsidies and a 500% hike in fuel costs for an already impoverished populace. Global supporters of democracy have been vocal about the repression. The West wants to impose more sanctions and is urging China—Burma's largest trading partner—to pressure the Burmese junta.

But what of India, the democracy closest to Burma? The world wants India, which also has an economic interest in Burma, to lend its democratic voice to the cause and put pressure on the generals to stop the killing. In early October the European Union issued a démarche to India, urging it to use its good offices with the junta and reconcile with the democrats. The world has been disappointed.

For those who have been following India's foreign policy, India's bumbling is not surprising. The nation has long clamored for a place on the international high table, citing its democratic traditions, size, and strategic geopolitical importance. In reality, however, its foreign policy is still immature. The problem of Burma (renamed Myanmar by the junta) has suddenly thrust an unprepared India into the field along with the professionals.

Staunch Support

India's interests in Burma are indeed vital. The country is encircled by hostile neighbors under military or autocratic rule. For years, India supported Aung San Suu Kyi's democracy movement. Officially, India hosts about 70,000 Burmese refugees; unofficially, the number is twice that. Nearly 60% of top Burmese dissidents are based in India, and they receive active and staunch support from several Indian politicians such as George Fernandes, a fiery labor leader who was Defense Minister from 1998 to 2004. Burmese students often gather at his Samata Party office in New Delhi, and he often takes up Burma's cause in Parliament.

The country's ties with Suu Kyi run deep and long. She spent her early years in New Delhi, when her mother was a diplomat posted to India, and she went to college in India's capital city. In 1995, while under house arrest, Suu Kyi was the recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding—the highest honor of its kind in India.

But by supporting democracy all those years, say the hawks in New Delhi, India left the door wide open for China to enter and establish itself in Burma with the junta. "From 1988 to 1998, India burned its interests in Burma by isolating the junta and supporting democracy," says Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research. "By then, China had already come in. India does not want to repeat that mistake."

"In 10 Years, Burma Will Be China's"

Indeed, China is at center stage in Burma. In Rangoon and Mandalay, Chinese merchants, traders, and contractors live lavish lives, and some pursue drug dealing, human trafficking, and bribery of junta officials, says Mungpi, assistant editor of Mizzima News, a Burmese news agency operating out of India. Burma-China bilateral trade is $1.5 billion, making China the largest partner for Burma, and China is Burma's largest arms provider. "In 10 years, Burma will be China's just like Tibet is," predicts M.D. Nalapat, professor of geopolitics at Manipal University, Karnataka.

However India has grown from a nation of poverty to an emerging economic giant. The country's economy has expanded, and so have its energy needs. For the last four years, India has been engaged in fierce competition with China over securing its energy requirements from Africa, Russia, and Burma. Human values and democratic tradition have given way to realpolitik, and Burma has become a battleground for India and China for energy and regional dominance. The field is uneven: China dominates with the lion's share of commercial and political influence. China also gets most of the country's energy resources.

India has other interests in Burma. New Delhi would like to use the country as a trade link to the fast-growing ASEAN region, so the Indians are building ports and roads, including a 165km "India-Myanmar friendship highway" linking Manipur in India's northeast to central Burma and continuing to Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore. India is also spending $100 million to fund a deal linking Burma's Sittwe port with an Indian one, perhaps Calcutta. In return, India gets a little gas from Burma and a production-sharing agreement for three deep-water exploration blocks, according to Nimmi Kurien from the Center for Policy Research. And Burma's army empties the camps that India's insurgents from the northeast routinely set up in Burma.

Doing Business with the Generals

Foreign Ministry officials in New Delhi stridently say their relationship with Burma is one of "pragmatic engagement." According to them, India's strategic interests lie on the side of the generals. Yes, Indians sympathize with ordinary Burmese, and Indian officials say they are using diplomatic channels to urge the generals to release Suu Kyi.

Yet India, they say, is in desperate need of natural resources, so doing business with the generals to get part of Burma's vast natural gas reserves is vital. Intelligence officials also credit the Burmese junta for helping destroy camps of anti-Indian insurgents fighting in the northeastern Indian states of Manipur and Assam. "The Burmese generals are very nice to us," says an intelligence officer in New Delhi.

Human rights groups, however, point out that the Burmese military has received $200 million in military aid from India. "India's security concerns are misplaced," says Suhas Chakma of the Asian Center for Human Rights. "In fact, the Burmese army and Indian insurgents cooperate." They also point out that India's economic interests in Burma are limited. India's lack of influence was shown up when China won the rights to explore for natural gas in western Burma earlier this year. Experts say that Beijing's ability to use its Security Council veto to keep Burma's human rights record off of the U.N. agenda is more important to the junta than any economic incentives India could offer.

Asian Diplomatic Initiative Needed

But the current Burmese crisis presents New Delhi with a chance to stake its claim in global affairs by offering an alternate solution to Burma's problems. For starters, says Uday Bhaskar, a securities analyst in New Delhi, India can use its Buddhist card. "We have a repository of Buddhist leaders with credibility in Southeast Asia," he says. "We should have been taking a Buddhist initiative, like a non-government-run convention of Buddhist leaders in the region."

But, he says, the Foreign Ministry dominates the issue of Burma and does not encourage civil society groups like the People's Union for Civil Liberties to interact with the Burmese in India. India's Communist Party, surprisingly, supports India's strategic shift on Burma in favor of the junta. But Nilotpal Basu, the Communist representative in the upper house of India's Parliament, says the government should be working more closely with neighbors. "We would like to see India and China cooperate," he says. "We would like to see an Asian diplomatic initiative on Burma—there is none so far."

India's time—and credibility—may be running out. Meenakshi Ganguly, top South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, worries that if India does not take the initiative with Burma now, it could lose its sheen as a champion of freedom and democracy in Asia. India already has a disappointed and resentful Tibetan community, she points out, that is now a second generation of refugees feeling hurt and let down by India's new realpolitik towards China. The Burmese are first-generation refugees, and many are still crossing the borders into India.

Long Term Approach For now, their resentment is not evident. But Mizzima News' Mungpi notes that the Indian government "says it supports democracy" but "has a double standard with the Burmese junta." He adds: "This is the beginning of the end of the military junta. The people are willing to carry on." More important, explains Roberto Herrera-Lim of consulting firm Eurasia Group, the junta is running out of money despite the support from India and China: "They're running up against their own reserves and are virtually bankrupt." Tourism is down sharply, and the regime cannot get access to Burmese Army-related bank accounts in the U.S. Governments are pressuring other countries to cut off access too.

India must think more long-term about Burma instead of viewing it through a China-tinted lens. New Delhi would do well to trade in its friendship with the regime's generals in return for global goodwill and support for a much-coveted seat on the U.N. Security Council. If the generals are broke, there's no point throwing good money after bad. Better for the Indian government to support a new Burmese regime and secure India's interest early on this time around.


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