Burma’s Probability: Wooing China and India

Published on April 26, 2006

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asian Tribune – April 28, 2006


As Burma strategists and political planners are pooling in the ballroom, varying thoughts and approaches are excogitated. Noting that multifarious engagements can help evolve a durable solution, there is an urgency of the critical importance of the two Asian giants – China and India – intrinsically demanding and inseparable to the impetus of a realistic democratization process in Burma.

However, this emphasis does not convey that the pivotal roles of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), European Union (EU), United States (US), and the United Nations (UN) are underrated. Analyzing the precarious politics of Burma, the writer is reflecting strategies that are probable to engendering amicable solutions.

In line with their esteem for democratic values, the ideals and principles of democracy are seen embedded inherently in the politics of the United States of America and the United Kingdom governments among others. Conversely, People’s Republic of China (PRC) is emphatically projecting its communism to be efficacious governance than other administrative systems. This is a question that often raises the eyebrows of some observers and politicians: “if communism does better than democracy.” Let us inject a comparative study to suffice the dilemmatic spectrum of the two.

China’s communism is neither a replica of Burma’s military junta nor the democracy of its traditional rival India. Nonetheless, the shadow of a single party dominated communism is not ulterior to the standing image of Burma’s military dictatorial regime. Administration is convenient and decision-making is easier in a communist government. Though marred by human rights abuses and religious persecutions similar to Burma, China proves to be thriving economically and militarily than India.

On the other hand, India, which is the world’s largest democracy, is basically a country of public opinions. Checks and balances at the three branches of government – legislative, executive and judiciary squarely matter in all administrative units. Although legislative changes and constitutional amendments may be seldom, if happens, they are representatives’ mandate, which is an essential practice in a democratic institution.

China toward Burma

The steady emergence of PRC economically and militarily has immensely effected changes both regionally and globally. While the western world is propagating for the spread and burgeoning of democracy around the world, China is exuding its result-oriented communist ethos. There is no doubt about the implications of China on other countries with its myriad imports and exports.

Burma’s markets and households are overwhelmed with cheap but impressive Chinese products ranging from essential commodities to bulky merchandized goods. China has succeeded in ingraining its cultural and financial influences on Burma. Many of the wealth-to-do families and businesses have rested on the shoulders of the Chinese community. In other words, China has proven itself to be one of the biggest Burma’s trading beneficiaries and partners thereby entailing to be one of its strategic ally.

Sanctions from western countries, particularly the EU and US on Burma, are yet another incremental mileage for China. While Burma is largely seen cornered and isolated by the international community, China extends its soft hands to the hierarchy of the regime by offering variant incentives. This cemented diplomatic cordiality serves as one hardest substance to penetrate the periphery of the ruling regime. The hardening of this rigidity is augmented by the renewed Burma-Russia relationship. Both China and Russia status as permanent members at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is even a greater challenge when it comes to dealing with Burma.

India toward Burma

Had China not been aggressively advancing in the region, India might have taken a different road map toward the perplexed Burma. While seeing China as a traditional rival and potential threat to its territorial integrity, India cold-shoulders to the hue and cry for a democratic change in Burma. Economic interest is another important factor. The world’s biggest institutions of communism and democracy are on hot pursuit for regional influence and international presence.

This is one of the reasons why Indian politicians and decision makers seemingly have contradicting statements when they are in the opposition camp and once ascended to power. The bottom line here is that national interests and security matters most for individual countries.

Moreover, the racial diversity of India also has a tremendous weight in shaping its foreign policies. Majority of the people in the eight sister states of the northeast India are racially of mongoloid stock of people, different from majority of the Indian population. A sense of being foreign to Indian mainland and an alleged step-motherly treatment from the Indian government to people of these states have resonated with insurgency campaigns ranging from statehood demand to secession.

Curbing the activities of these insurgents, many have bases in the soil of Burma, necessitates their cooperation. In reciprocation, India needs to extend a good will gesture to appease the Burmese military leaders. This may also pertains to the launching of India’s “Look East” policy.

Despite the low ebb enthusiasm, India appears to be more considerate and concerned over the Burmese democratic struggle than China. Thousands of both registered and unregistered refugees from Burma are allowed to settle in the country through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ New Delhi office and some local Non-Governmental Organizations.

Privileges and opportunities given to the Burmese community in India by the government is by and large less significant than those of the Tibetans, yet this is one evident example construed to be India’s discreet solidarity to the Burmese democratic struggle. In the calculations of many world political analysts, these actions are apparently too little to help resolve the decades’ old Burmese political problems.

Probable Solutions

Different political strategists may conceptualize on how to bring forth a genuine democracy in different perspectives. Here, “genuine democracy” connotes a type of democracy that can mutually be acceptable to all sections of the peoples of Burma. Probable solutions to the ongoing political imbroglio in Burma, according to the writer, may be achieved primarily in two different ways – Intervention and Popular Uprising.


In resolving any political conflict involving two opposite groups, the intervention of a third party is one of the most viable solutions. Noticing the different levels of interventions such as diplomatic intervention, economic sanction, and military intervention, let us study if these interventions are probable solutions for Burma. Diplomatic intervention and economic sanction have been unevenly used in the past 10 plus years by the international community, particularly by the EU, US and the UN.

These actions unequivocally brought immense impacts on both the populace and the ruling military regime. Had these engagements been concerted efforts involving Burma’s neighboring countries – particularly China and India, juggernaut changes could have happened. With the recalcitrant nature of Burma’s military leaders and appeasement diplomacies of some of the deciding countries on their side, no pragmatic transformation has been visualized till date.

While many tend to see the EU and US for tougher actions including military intervention, its reality is far from near. Imminent dangers posed by countries such as Iran, North Korea and the unabated Middle-East crisis overshadow problems in the Southeast Asian country like Burma.

The 2005 informal briefing on Burma at the UNSC, which was the culmination of Burmese democratic movement for the year, was words that ended without enforcement. China and Russia stance on the ground that “Burma is not a threat to international peace and security,” which is the basic objective for forming the United Nations, has stalled the Security Council’s unprecedented maneuver.

In yet another encouraging sign, ASEAN, while sidelining its traditional non-interference policy on member country, reached agreement to push for the speedy democratization process. However, this initiative turned out to be only a rhetoric remarks when the ASEAN special envoy, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar, visiting Burma in March 2006, had to cut short his three-day trip by one day and returned home empty-handed without even meeting Aung San Suu Kyi.

Albar’s visit followed a trip by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Rangoon only to signaled Jakarta’s growing interest in engaging with the junta-led administration. These failures further dashed a hope for the regional bloc’s anticipated engagement.

At this juncture, the feasibility of one intervention could be a formal discussion of Burma’s issues at the UNSC with binding resolutions. To achieve this objective, cooperation from lobbyists and advocates including the Burmese activists and members of the Security Council is necessary. If any binding agreement can be reached, non-compliance on the part of the Burmese military regime will be moved in accordance with the resolutions. Any intransigent reaction on Burma could even entail sending of UN peace keeping forces.

Popular Uprising

When talking about Burma politics, the 1988 democracy uprising, popularly known as the 8888 uprising, cannot remain untouched. This was the turning point of a democratic struggle permeating beyond international borders. The 1990 country-wide general election and the birth of umpteen political parties thereafter are the consequences of this historic popular uprising. Had not the 8888 uprising happened, the international awareness of Burma’s issues could have been in the shadow of the world’s politics.

A noble cause to rise up for another popular uprising is not an easy question to answer. The massive loss of lives and properties, the horrendous massacre and incarceration of several brave demonstrators by the military personnel have tremendously demoralized the nerves of many in the country where justice does not prevail. Despite all these cumbersome tasks and bemoaning scenario, Burma’s political turmoil and the continued rampant human rights abuses speak far exceedingly.

Some international observers express reservations on the probability of a mass uprising. However, glimpsing at transitional governments around the world, changes generally come from within. This does not simplify that movements in exile should abandon its trend of moving forward. When movements from both within and outside the country are at its melting point, people’s power will prevail.

Finally, support and cooperation from the international community is an ever demanding diplomacy. Coordination of pro-democracy campaigns from within and outside Burma is at its prominence to effect changes in the country. When the western world, particularly the United States government and like-minded countries, is exerting its pressure at the United Nations Security Council, advocates and lobbyists around the world should impress other international players to accentuate the move.

It now evidently appears that exploring amicable solutions to the Burmese myriad problems with the preclusion of its two neighbors – China and India is a hard nut to crack. Umpteen engagements from the western nations are found to be effective to a certain extent, yet a proactive cooperation of these two Asia heavy weights is a paramount importance.

The writer is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (KIF) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).