India’s Engagement and Burma’s Junta

Published on July 22, 2010

India’s Engagement and Burma’s Junta

By Nehginpao Kipgen

Asia Times – July 22, 2010

India, in attempts to expand engagements with its neighbors, has hosted Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed and some Nepalese leaders.

 Nehginpao Kipgen

In the last week of July, New Delhi will extend a red carpet reception to the leader of the Burmese military junta. Senior General Than Shwe will be in India from July 25 to 29, his second visit in 6 years.

Than Shwe last visited India, on the same dates and precise number of days, from October 25 to 29 in 2004. It was the first visit by Burma’s head of state to India in 25 years. During the visit, three agreements were signed: cooperation in the field of non-traditional security issues, the Tamanthi Hydro electric project, and cultural exchange program for the years 2004-2006.

The Indian government also extended a line of credit of US $7 million for two telecom projects and a grant of US $3 million for implementation of information technology related projects. In return, the Burmese delegation assured New Delhi that the Indian insurgents will not be allowed to use its soil against India. However, groups of India’s Northeast insurgents are still freely operating inside Burma.

A host of issues are expected to be discussed during the visit – ranging from insurgent related problems, cooperation on economic development, pharmaceutical projects and trading. Bilateral agreements are also expected to be signed.

Tackling insurgency problems, checking the Chinese influence in the region, and expanding its markets remain India’s priorities. Both New Delhi and Nay Pyi Taw will like to ensure that India’s investments and business activities are strengthened.

Though it is unlikely to appear in the official agenda, Than Shwe will expect the Indian leadership to recognize, if not endorse, the upcoming general election result in Burma. Such recognition will be a boon to the military chief’s quest for legitimacy.

As India being the largest democracy on earth, it is politically significant for Than Shwe to be able to persuade the Indian leadership to restrain from speaking out for human rights and political reforms in Burma.

The visit is crucial for both nations. The Burmese State Peace and Development Council plans to hold a general election for the first time in two decades, while India is committed to dismantling or neutralizing the Northeast insurgent activities across the border.

Moreover, New Delhi sees its engagement crucial to check the growing influence of its traditional rival, China, in the region. This very motive prevents the largest democratic nation from publicly supporting Burma’s democratic movement.

With the undemocratic election laws and the non-participation of the 1990 election winning parties, including the National League for Democracy, it is likely that the Western nations will either limit its post-election engagement with Burma, and or do not recognize the election result at all.

Given the likely outcome of post-election scenario, it is important for Than Shwe to have the support of India, which has an increasing role in international politics.

Regardless of which political party came to power, India’s fundamental foreign policy has significantly changed in recent years. It was India which openly supported the 1988 democracy uprising, and provided refuge to the fleeing democracy activists. New Delhi also awarded its highest civilian honor, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award, to Aung San Suu Kyi in 1993.

India still shelters thousands of Burma’s refugees, but its leadership has shied away from being an advocate of human rights and freedom, the very same principle under which Mahatma Gandhi and other national pioneers stood for.

As history has proven, Burma is not going to be forever under military dictatorship. In fact, the military junta envisions establishing its own version of “disciplined democracy” under a parliamentary system, where the ultimate power will rest in military.

India intends to strengthen bilateral relationship with its neighbor, while not completely abandoning the democracy movement. New Delhi will occasionally speak out, though not to the extent of threatening bilateral ties, for a peaceful democratic transition in Burma.

The geographical proximity and its shared culture will continue to make the two nations work together in many ways in the years to come. It is Than Shwe’s hope to get the best out of this visit, despite international condemnations for incarcerating an estimate of over 2,100 political prisoners.

India is likely to focus more on business and insurgency problems, and less on political reforms and the upcoming election in Burma. Such lukewarm attitude on basic democratic principles is likely to receive criticisms and condemnations from democracy advocates around the world, especially from the Burmese democrats in exile.

Nehginpao Kipgen is a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Burma (1947-2004) and general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com). He has written numerous analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published in five continents (Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America).

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