India’s Policy On Burma Is Discouraging

Published on June 5, 2009

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The Brunei Times – June 6, 2009

India is an immediate neighbor of Burma, a country which has been plagued by political crisis for over four decades. Not only the two countries have shared border, but India and Burma are homes to millions of people from the same ethnic community, separated during the creation of India and Burma in 1947 and 1948. Examples are the Kukis, the Nagas and the Shans, who live side by side along the Indo-Burma region.

In the late eighties and the early part of nineties, the Indian government was noticeably sympathetic and supportive to the Burmese democracy movement; the Burmese activists were openly welcomed and sheltered in the Indian soil. India was more vocal on human rights and democracy.

One notable staunch supporter of the Burmese democracy movement was George Fernandes, the then Indian defense minister of the National Democratic Alliance coalition government. His official residence housed Burmese democracy activists, where a large picture of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel peace laureate, was placed.

The support for Burma’s democracy movement faded with the introduction of India’s “Look East” policy. Its foreign policy has undergone a dramatic shift from pro-democracy to pro-military. The policy shift began during the Congress government of prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991, and augmented by the Bhartiya Janata Party under prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004).

The salient factor for India’s policy shift was its national interest and security. Opening doors to Southeast Asia was a gateway to expanding its much needed international market. To tackle the rising insurgency problems in its Northeast part of the country and countering China’s influence in the region were the primary security concerns.

As long as its rival China is economically and strategically engaged in Burma, India is likely to stick with the defunct non-aligned movement doctrine of ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of others, which serves its national interest. There is no foreseeable sign, at least in the near future, that New Delhi will retreat from a sweetheart relationship with Naypyidaw.

While the international community, from West to East, is outraged at the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi over charges of violating her house arrest for allowing William John Yettaw, an American visitor, to stay in her lakeside home in Rangoon, India has not lived up to the expectation of the international community. Its economic interest and fear of antagonizing the Burmese military has prevented India from advocating human rights and democracy.

The safety of Aung San Suu Kyi is one rare common concern shared by the pro-sanction and the pro-engagement nations. Suu Kyi’s trial has sparked an unusual comments from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which traditionally been silent on Burma. As a member of ASEAN, Burma “has the responsibility to protect and promote human rights,” said a statement released by Thailand, which currently chairs the bloc, on May 19.

“With the eyes of the international community on Myanmar at present, the honour and the credibility of the government are at stake,” added the statement. Similar statement was expected from India, the largest democratic nation on earth, but never to be heard.

Engaging Burma is not a wrong policy. However, engaging the military generals for the sole purpose of economic partnership and counterbalancing China’s influence in the region is discouraging. New Delhi’s overture to root out the Northeast Indian militants from Burma also remains an unanswered question; the militants still enjoy a free passage.

Burma will not be under a military dictatorship forever. It is important that a democratic nation like India does not compromise its cardinal democratic values just to dance in the tune of the Burmese military generals.

The new Congress-led coalition government, under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi and prime minister Manmohan Singh, needs to look beyond the Northeast militancy problem and the communist China.

While the United States of America is reviewing its policy toward Burma, India should offer every possible support to formulate a coordinated international strategy. A democratic Burma will better serve the interest of a diverse and democratic India.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia for many leading international newspapers.