A Burma Policy for India
A Burma Policy for India
Prime Minister Singh can support democracy and engage the regime, too.
Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh had a largely successful summit with President Barack Obama last week. There is, however, one issue which remains cause for concern: India’s Burma policy.
India has a particular historical responsibility for Burma, in part because in colonial times the two countries were ruled by the British as one. Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained leader of Burma’s opposition party, went to school in New Delhi, for instance, where she became childhood friends with Jawaharlal Nehru’s grandchildren. Past Indian governments have honored this link: During the 1998 prodemocracy protests, Rajiv Gandhi’s government expressed support for Ms. Suu Kyi.
India’s policy has shifted in recent years, thanks to concerns about the need to counterbalance China’s influence and a wish to increase trade. In 2004, Burma agreed to sell India some 80% of the power generated from a dam in Sagaing Division in return for Indian construction assistance. India also sought a military alliance with the regime, including an agreement to provide arms and military training to the Burmese army, in the hopes of getting help in crushing insurgents in northeastern India.
On balance the expected benefits have not materialized. In 2006, the Burmese regime awarded China a huge natural gas contract, even though India had offered a higher bid and Burma’s generals had earlier promised the deal to India. Meanwhile, Burma’s assistance in fighting Indian insurgents has been minimal, and the arms India sold have instead been used to suppress Burma’s own people. The energy projects resulted in land confiscation, the displacement of thousands of people, and accompanying human-rights violations including rape, torture and forced labor.
India is mistaken if it believes it can really compete with China’s influence in Burma. China’s annual bilateral trade with Burma is already one-and-a-half times India’s, and Beijing has become one of the regime’s closest friends. It is very likely that as Burma’s regime starts to engage with the U.S. and continues to depend on China for protection, India will find itself squeezed out.
India has also remained silent on Burma’s human-rights violations in a bid to curry favor with the regime. India joined Belarus, China, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe last month in voting against a resolution on Burma’s human-rights abuses at the United Nations General Assembly.
It is not too late for India to revise its position and develop its own distinctive Burma policy supportive of democracy. Mr. Singh and his government could raise concerns more robustly with the regime; support Burma resolutions at the U.N.; seek regular meetings with Ms. Suu Kyi; and press the regime to review the new constitution and engage in meaningful dialogue with all political parties ahead of next year’s elections. On the military front, an immediate and complete end to the provision of arms and military training to Burma’s regime would be welcome. India might also be consider permitting international humanitarian aid cross-border to victims of famine and severe poverty in western Burma, and funding Burma’s civil-society groups.
A senior official in India’s Ministry of External Affairs told me recently that “our hearts are still with the democracy movement in Burma, but our heads are with the generals.” India needs to combine head and heart and realize that in the long-run it is in its own national interest to promote democracy in Burma.
Mr. Rogers, East Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide in London, is author of “Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant,” forthcoming from Silkworm Books.