LONDON – Even as a senior Burmese diplomat in Washington has defected, Burmese prodemocracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has suggested that some people, both at home and abroad, have deceived themselves into thinking a new government has brought change to her country.
Political dynamic is undergoing a slow transformation in Burma (aka Myanmar) and the neighboring states are being forced to respond accordingly.
Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna was in Yangon last month to engage the new civilian government which came to office in March. His visit came a year after the visit of Myanmar’s reclusive military leader, Gen. Than Shwe, who heads the State Peace and Development Council, to India, which rolled out a red carpet for him and signed a raft of pacts including treaties on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, counter terrorism, development projects, science and technology and information cooperation.
This time, too, even as Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao reached out to Suu Kyi, two issues were front and central — energy cooperation and insurgents operating in India’s northeast who manage to use the 1,650-km-long India-Myanmar border for their hiding purposes.
India plans to invest more than $1 billion in Myanmar’s energy sector over the next few years.
Among the infrastructure and development projects that were discussed include an India-Myanmar-Thailand highway project, a hydro-electric project to be built by the NHPC, a truck assembly plant by Tata Motors and a border trade point on the Mizoram-Myanmar border.
In an attempt to restructure the India-Myanmar border areas, Myanmar has agreed to give citizenship cards to people of Indian origin even if they lack relevant documents.
After being a strong critic of the Myanmar junta, India muted its criticism and dropped its vocal support for Suu Kyi since mid-1990s to help pursue its “Look East” policy aimed at strengthening India’s economic links with the rapidly growing economies in East and Southeast Asia.
More important has been the realization that China’s profile in Myanmar has grown at an alarming pace.
India’s ideological obsession with democracy made sure that Myanmar drifted toward China.
India has been forced to take a more realistic appraisal of the developments in Myanmar and shape its foreign policy accordingly. India had few options other than to substantively engage the junta as Beijing’s trade, energy and defense ties with Myanmar surged.
As India realized that one of its closest neighbors and a major source of natural gas, Myanmar, is coming under China’s orbit, it reversed its decades-old policy of isolating the Burmese junta and has now begun to deal with it directly.
India therefore cannot afford to toe the Western line on Myanmar. India’s strategic interests demand that India gently nudge the Myanmar junta on the issue of democracy.
India’s relief efforts after tropical cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008 earned it a great deal of appreciation. India has gained a sense of trust at the highest echelons of the Myanmar’s ruling elite and it would be loath to lose it.
Not surprisingly, therefore, India remains opposed to Western sanctions on the country.
After six years of discussions, India agreed to the building of Sittwe port in 2008 at a cost of $120 million. This will provide an alternative route to connect with Southeast Asia without transiting Bangladesh.
India has also extended a $20 million credit for renovation of the Thanlyin refinery, and it supported Myanmar against the U.S. censure motion in an attempt to lure the junta to grant preferential treatment to India in the supply of natural gas.
Bilateral trade between India and Myanmar today stands at almost $1 billion.
The junta has cooperated with India in eliminating Naga insurgents who find sanctuaries in Myanmar’s border areas. India’s long border with Myanmar is an open one where the tribal population is free to move up to 20 km on either side.
Apart from India’s existing infrastructure projects in Myanmar, which include the 160-km India-Myanmar friendship road built by India’s Border Roads Organization in 2001, India is looking into the possibility of embarking on a second road project and investing in a deep-sea project (Sagar Samridhi) to explore oil and gas in the Bay of Bengal as well as the Shwe gas pipeline project in western Myanmar.
Even as the Burmese military junta was readying for a violent crackdown on monks and democracy activists, the Indian petroleum minister was in Yangon signing a production deal for three deep-water exploration blocks off the Rakhine coast.
While India did support the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution against Myanmar, it tried to tone it down to little effect as it tried to balance its democratic credentials with its desire to retain its influence with the Burmese military government.
India has found it difficult to counter Chinese influence in Myanmar, with China selling everything from weapons to food grains to Myanmar.
There is no escaping the clout that China wields in Myanmar. Chinese firms get preferential treatment in the award of exploration blocks and gas supplies, apparently in recognition of China’s steady opposition to the U.S. moves against Myanmar’s junta in the United Nations.
India will find it difficult to project power in the Indian Ocean if the Chinese naval presence increases in Myanmar. China’s growing naval presence in and around the Indian Ocean region is troubling for India as it restricts India’s freedom to maneuver in the region.
Of particular note is what has been termed as China’s “string of pearls” strategy, which has significantly expanded China’s strategic depth in India’s back yard. Chinese naval bases in Myanmar have been cited as part of this strategy.
Some of these claims are exaggerated as has been the case with the Chinese naval presence in Myanmar.
The Indian government, for example, had to concede in 2005 that reports of China turning the Coco Islands in Myanmar into a naval base were incorrect and that there were indeed no naval bases in Myanmar. Yet the Chinese thrust into the Indian Ocean is gradually becoming more pronounced than before.
The Chinese may not have a naval base in Myanmar, but they are involved in the upgrade of infrastructure in the Coco Islands and may be providing some limited technical assistance to Myanmar.
The United States is anxious that the junta in Myanmar will use it s growing engagements with India to gain greater global legitimacy.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has suggested that India’s growing role in global politics should be used to penetrate the tight military clique that runs Myanmar and that New Delhi should “encourage interlocutors inside [Myanmar] to embrace reforms.”
Although India is under tremendous pressure to demonstrate its credentials as a responsible global stakeholder, it is unlikely that India will take a strong anti-military posture vis-à-vis Myanmar. Indian strategic interests demand a robust partnership with Myanmar.
For New Delhi, the promotion of democracy is a luxury it cannot afford at the moment.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College in London.