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Date: Fri, 22 Dec 1995 22:00:29 +0000
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Organization: Forum for Democracy and Human Rights
OUTLOOK Magazine 22 Dec, 1995(India)
Indo-Myanmar Ties : A QUESTION OF PRIORITY
Should India advocate restoration of democracy or protect its own interests in Myanmar?
(By Sunil Narula)
India finds itself in a bind. The Myanmar Government is unhappy about India conferring the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for international understanding on Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who in turn is unhappy that NewDelhi is dealing with her government and that Indian investors are moving into her country.
Suu Kyi, with her own strong ties with this country, is not too impressed with the improved relations with Myanmar, which however received a serious satback when India announced The Nehru Award this May. She told visiting Indian journalists that NewDelhi should do more for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. Having lived and studied in India, she has powerful friends and followers here. Therefore, when statement came, people sat up and took notice. Suddenly, as P. Stobdan of the institute of Defense Studies and Analysis puts it wryly: "Two Nobel Laureates- the Dalai Lama and Suu Kyi are asking for India's help."
India has been slow to take stock of developments in Myanmar. In 1988 the military came to power in Yangon. Suu Kyi immediately became a rallying point for the pro-democracy movement. A crackdown followed and she was put under house arrest, from which she was released after six years last July.
But Suu Kyi had powerful friends in the Rajiv Gandhi and V.P. Singh governments like K.R.Narayanan and his Burmese wife, and George Fernandes. India adopted an aggressive posture and supported her, repeatedly urging the Myanmar junta to restore democracy and human rights. All India Radio would broadcast anti-Myanmar propaganda in its Burmese language service.
But in 1992, with increasing Chinese influence in Myanmar, the Indian foreign policy establishment was forced to re-evaluate relations with Yangon. Sitting on a "moral high horse", as a senior retired government official referred to it, was clearly proving detrimental to India's security, strategic and commercial interests.
Stobdan, who visited Myanmar last year, concurs:" As a principle, democracy is fine. But we have to see whether it serves India's interest to export democracy. In political terms, we do not have the clout to influence political changes in any of our neighboring countries. We should follow the policy of constructive engagement as the ASEAN countries are doing."
Home ministry officials admit that in the 30-year campaign against insurgent in the North-east, India has never got the kind of help as it did from Myanmar. 'Myanmar simply made it clear to the insurgents that its territory could not be used against India,' says official. 'Myanmar has helped us when other neighbours, especially Bangladesh, have been unhelpful. We have vital national interests to protect. The security and prosperity of the North-east is involved.'
Adds Stobdan: 'Today the Myanmar junta has effectively controlled insurgency in large parts of its country. Nearly 70 per cent of the territory of Myanmar was affected by insurgency at one time. The military has brought a measure of stability there. We should deal with whoever is in power. We have problems with all our neighbours, why open another front.'
Officials say that if insurgency is controlled, it will cut down the entire network of drug trafficking, illegal trade in goods and money for these operations. It will help open a land route in which the border trade regime can thrive, and have a cascading economic effect on the region.
Therefore, officials are not apologetic about Indian investors moving into Myanmar: In this age of liberalization, the investors decide where they will put their money. They won't put their money in a country they consider unstable.
But Samata Party MP George Fernandes disagrees and describes India's policy towards Myanmar as "disgraceful". He argues:" Myanmar is crucial to India's security. India's real enemy is China, which has the grand strategy of encircling India from all sides". Hence, the need for a democratic government with close ties with China. He is emphatic that power must be restored to Suu Kyi, who won the 1990 elections with 92 per cent of votes and nearly 85 percent of the seats in Parliament. Accusing the Indian Government of deporting Burmese dissidents and treating those who came over as " worse than the smugglers", he says, "if we cannot openly support them, we should at least let them stay in India."
Fernandes dismisses talks of checking drug smuggling, countering insurgency and improving economic conduits with Myanmarnese cooperation. "We are not guarding our own borders. The Indian security forces are involving in smuggling and providing escort vehicles. Economic development is zero. The money is all going to the politicians."
As for constructive engagement, he is contemptuous of that, too: "It is perverse to think we can make deals with the military junta and civilize them." He disagrees with the thesis that global relations are
conducted on the basis of cynical self-interest and points out: " Moral and political questions have also to be addressed."
India had one more reason to change its policy towards Myanmar: the large Indian community based there. These people have unequivocally conveyed to the Indian Government the their lot has improved since India's overt interference in the affairs of Myanmar declined three years ago.
But this process of normalizing ties was rocked when India announced the Nehru Award this May. The response was immediately. The Myanmar forces withdrew from a joint operation against insurgents in the North-East. Another fallout: according to sources, visits by the foreign and agriculture ministers of Myanmar to India, which were to be scheduled after May, have been put off indefinitely. Admits an official: " We had told Myanmar that we have an ideological commitment to democracy, but that dose not mean we are antagonistic to Myanmar. They understood our position but told us not to put pressure on them.
This award was seen as unnecessary pressure." Things became even more messy when India council for Culture Relations Chairman Vasant Sathe suddenly announced that the award would be presented in November. Clearly, the Ministry on External Affairs and the Prime Minister's office had not been consulted.
As a matter of fact, Suu Kyi name had been figuring for two years for the award. The foreign policy establishment and the joint intelligence committee had been advising caution. But this year her powerful friends prevailed. Privately, names of highly placed in the government are mentioned, but sources say they can never be pinned down for pushing Suu Kyi's name for the award. But now that the Honour is hers, Indian officials are clearly baffled by Suu Kyi's recent comments. " I can't understand it", say one. "She was so happy when we gave her the award. The speech she gave ( which was read out on her behalf) was so moving at the award distribution function. We cannot ignore what she says. She has repeatedly said she has been inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. She has a symbolic role above and beyond party politics."
India obviously will have to walk a tight rope. While Suu Kyi cannot be dumped, official-level meetings have taken place between civilian and military authorities on both sides since May ( though none has taken place since Nov. ). Indian officials feel they will get over the hurdles soon. But they may have another problem on their hands. An International Conference being organised in early Jan. by Fernandes for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar will seek to draw up an action plan to reach this objective. So the last is yet to be heard on Indo-Myanmar ties.
PMO ( New Delhi )
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