Hindu Vivek Kendra
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India plays it both ways with Myanmar

India plays it both ways with Myanmar

Author: Sudha Ramachandran
Publication: Asia Times
Date: May 15, 2002

A longtime supporter of Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, India has welcomed her release from detention as a concrete step by the Myanmar government toward achieving lasting peace and tranquility in the country. India has consistently advocated reconciliation and moves toward restoration of democracy, a spokesperson from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said last week.

Indeed, India has extended moral support and more to the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. Especially in the 1988-92 period, New Delhi was vocal in its backing of Suu Kyi, calling on the junta to recognize the people's unambiguous mandate in the 1990 election in favor of her National League for Democracy (NLD). Signaling its support for Suu Kyi, the Indian government even awarded her the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International U! nderstanding in 1995.

Several pro-democracy Myanmar activists have taken refuge in India and the exiles are known to be in close touch with its defense minister, George Fernandes. For several years, the government-controlled All India Radio's Myanmar service relayed pro-democracy propaganda.

India has traditionally supported pro-democracy movements in its neighborhood - its backing of the Nepalese Congress in its struggle against the monarchy is an example. Besides, the close relationship between the leaders of the two newly independent countries - India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Myanmar's independence hero Aung San (father of Suu Kyi) and Suu Kyi's ties with India (she received her university education in New Delhi) - are still recalled here with fondness.

However, India, which has supported Suu Kyi largely on a matter of principle and for sentimental reasons, has found that the policy is not pragmatic and did not serve India's secu! rity interests. Around 1992-93, New Delhi realized that its policy of backing Suu Kyi against the generals was proving counter-productive as it had left the door open for the blossoming of ties between Myanmar's junta and the Chinese government.

Incidentally, relations between Myanmar and China had been steadily improving from the late 1970s. Bilateral visits at the highest level, China's distancing itself from the Burmese Communist Party and Yangon's (then Rangoon) endorsement of China's policy toward Kampuchea (support to the Khmer Rouge), among other things, brought the two countries closer.

China's ties were on a firm footing by the mid-1980s. When the rest of the world ostracized the junta for the brutal crackdown in 1988, Beijing extended a supportive hand to the generals. When the rest of the world criticized the generals for human-rights violations and were reluctant to trade with Myanmar, China was ready to engage in diverse forms of cooperation, inc! luding sale and supply of military equipment, trade in consumer goods, building Myanmar's infrastructure and so on.

This prompted India to re-evaluate its strategy of vocal and open support for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar. Several factors have contributed to a change in strategy from one of criticizing the generals for their refusal to heed the democratic mandate to that of doing business with them.

The most important has been the significant and growing military cooperation between Myanmar and China, with grave implications for India's security. The most worrying for India has been growing Chinese naval presence in the Bay of Bengal. According to Indian intelligence reports, the Chinese-built radar facility on Myanmar's Coco Islands (near India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands) provides Beijing with input on India's missile-testing facilities in its east-coast state of Orissa.

Then, several insurgent groups active in India's strife-torn northe! astern states operate from sanctuaries in Myanmar. India has realized it needs Myanmar's cooperation to crack down on the insurgents and break their supply lines. There is also the booming drug trade that India cannot tackle without support from Myanmar's military.

India is also keen to reap the considerable potential that exists in cooperation in the economic and energy fields. Besides, Myanmar is India's stepping stone to Southeast Asia. India's "Look East" policy "could not have acquired momentum if we continued to ignore the junta in Myanmar", a Ministry of External Affairs official pointed out to Asia Times Online. India's heart might beat for the pro-democracy movement, but its head has directed it to improve ties with the generals.

In the guise of non-interference in the internal affairs of Myanmar, India changed tack in the early 1990s. Vocal support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Myanmar was toned down.

Strategic calculations! prompted India to initiate a policy of "strategic Engagement" with the generals in 1991. At the Jakarta summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1992, India did not block Myanmar's re-admission into the grouping. High-level visits between diplomats of the two countries followed.

In 1994, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed to increase cooperation between the civilian border authorities of the two countries to prevent "illegal and insurgent activities". Another bilateral agreement was signed to regularize and promote border trade.

It was only post-1998 that India's ties with the generals received a significant boost. India under a government that was pursuing a "muscular foreign policy" aimed at beefing up its defense and security interests went all out to woo Yangon.

In November 2000, the vice chairman of Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council, General Maung Aye, visited India. Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh has vis! ited Yangon twice since then. India now supplies military equipment to Myanmar and is said to have leased helicopters to its army.

However, it is a road project that is the most visible and positive evidence of India-Myanmar cooperation. The road linking Moreh in India's northeastern state of Manipur with Kalewa on the Chindwin River in Myanmar is expected to transform trade between the two countries radically. Last month, India, Myanmar and Thailand reached agreement on a road connecting the three countries. The stepping-stone provided by improving ties with Myanmar is helping India reach out to Southeast Asia.

How successful has India been in deepening engagement with Myanmar? In the early 1990s, India's castigation of the generals did adversely affect relations. Today, however, while New Delhi has not completely succeeded in wiping out the perception that it empathizes with Suu Kyi's struggle, it avoids commenting on the situation in Myanmar beyond mouthin! g such terms as reconciliation and peace. That is something the generals are willing to live with. Doing business with each other is in the mutual interest of India and the generals. Their interaction might not be close but it is correct. "Unlike the general to our west [President General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan], the generals to our east [the junta in Myanmar] do not undermine our security interests and are willing to cooperate on an array of issues," says the External Affairs Ministry official.

The time-tested ties that the junta has with China stand in the way of India's closer cooperation with Myanmar. But there are issues with regard to China that trouble Yangon - the growing influx of Chinese into Myanmar that has in the past triggered violent clashes between the immigrants and locals, is one - and should these differences deepen, New Delhi can expect an improved relationship with Myanmar.

The junta is said to be uncomfortable with its overwhelming! dependence on China and there is a possibility that India could gain should it decide to reduce that reliance.

Last week's statement on Suu Kyi's release is yet another example of India's tightrope walk in Myanmar. It made clear its position of support to restoration of democracy in Myanmar - a tilt in favor of Suu Kyi. It corrected that tilt by giving the generals a pat on the back for their "concrete steps" toward lasting peace.

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