Why India shifts its policy on Burma

Published on November 3, 2008

By Nehginpao Kipgen


Special to The China Post – November 3, 2008


The international community keeps eyeing the political turmoil in military-ruled Burma. Understandably, neighbors better understand. Let us analyze why India seemingly has a lukewarm interest in the Burmese democratic movement?


It was the 1988 uprising which brought India significantly into the Burmese politics. This was the time when Burmese people contemplated bringing down the military regime.


The failed uprising forced hundreds of refugees across the international border into India. From 1988 to 1992, India’s policy vacillated between support for democracy movement and diplomatic isolation.


The P.V. Narasimha Rao’s (1991-1996) “Look East” policy basically changed India’s foreign policy toward Burma. The dramatic policy shift, however, happened during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s (1998-2004) administration.


There were two major factors responsible for India’s policy shift: (i) to counterweight the strategic influence of the People’s Republic of China; and (ii) to deal with insurgency problems in the Northeast India. Economic interest also contributed to it.


Of the two, countering China’s regional influence remains to be the number one concern for India. Having experienced a bitter war with China in 1962, India feels insecure and threatened when China’s influence is broadened.


China-Burma bilateral trade hit US$2.057 billion in 2007, up 40.9 percent compared with 2006. China’s exports to Burma took US$1.686 billion, up 39.6 percent, while its import from Burma stood US$371 million, up 46.9 percent. China enjoyed a trade surplus of US$1.315 billion.


Similarly, India’s exports to Burma in 2007-2008 amounted to about US$185 million, while its imports from Burma were valued at around US$810 million. In addition to the Tamu-Kalay-Kalewa highway upgrade, India has made investments in projects such as energy and gas exploration. Most recent India’s assistance was the US$200 million project in IT program.


All these moves and counter-moves are the direct result of scrambling for power by the two Asian powers. India, at least for now, sees engaging with the military regime an effective means to narrowing the influence of China.


Another important factor for India’s foreign policy shift was due to the rise of insurgency problems in the restive Northeast India. About 20,000 insurgents from different groups of Northeast India have bases in Burma, mostly in the Northwestern part Sagaing Division.


Talks for coordination between India and Burma security forces in counter-insurgency operations have taken momentum in recent years. During his visit to New Delhi in 2004, Senior General Than Shwe assured the Indian government that he would not allow his country to be used by anti-India elements.


Sometimes, bilateral talks and agreements have not really been put into practice.


Although the Burmese military, in a number of occasions, has asked the Indian government to silence its Burmese dissidents, New Delhi so far seems to pay a wishy-washy response. Similarly, Nay Pyi Taw appears to be not fully engaged in dismantling the bases of Indian insurgents operating from Burma.


India apparently is not totally ignoring her support for the Burmese democratic movement. One evidence is the presence of more than fifty thousand Burmese refugees (no official figure available) taking refuge in India, including some leading dissidents.


India rather acts in tandem with her national interest and security in the face of China’s influence in the region. By engaging with the military regime, India feels better served. To many, this looks as if India has adopted a double-standard policy toward Burma.


In the event of Burma becoming a democratic country, India is expected to be one of the first to throw her support. Till then, India will continue to compete with China, while the Western world is likely to continue with traditional sanctions.


Nehginpao Kipgen is the General Secretary of US-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004).