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Editorial: Engaging Myanmar

Engaging Myanmar
Editorial: The Hindu (New Delhi), November 18, 1997

THERE ARE STRONG trade-cum-strategic arguments in favour of engaging the
military regime in neighbouring Myanmar, but these should not be allowed
to cloud or sideline India's principled policy of supporting the
democratic forces in that country.  Engagement is not endorsement,
apologists for the trade-led policy, may say, quoting the President of
the richest Democracy as he feted the Chinese head of state and defended
his policy from attacks by his own countrymen. Let India engage the
junta in Myanmar but let us also simultaneously pile pressure on the
regime to return the country to the democratic path.  Let us reiterate
at every possible forum that a ruthless dictatorship in Myanmar is a
major destabilising force in a region strategically important for this
country. Scope for the apprehension that there may be a dilution of the
long-held Indian policy is provided by the latest act of grant of $10
millions in credit to that country. In the absence of a clarification,
the two-day visit to Yangon, the Myanmar capital, by the second in
command at the External Affairs Ministry is bound to send the wrong
signals, particularly to the pro-democracy forces waging at grim battle
in that country.

Hardly 24 hours before the Minister, Mr. Saleem Shervani, was to land in
Yangon, the military authorities clamped further restrictions on the
movement of the democracy activist, Ms. Aung San Sun Kyi, besides
putting out misleading reports that there had been a change of heart on
her part and that she had opted to receive supporters at her home rather
than travel outside the capital to meet them. Contradicting earlier
suggestions of a possible rapprochement between the military government
and the Nobel laureate whom it had jailed for six years, the authorities
issued a strong denunciation of the leader. A more inauspicious, welcome
could riot have been accorded to an Indian leader.  The red carpet was
pulled from right under his feet.  It was the junta's well thought
offensive to Counter any Indian plan to signal support for the regime's
potentially most serious opponent. Mr. Shervani apparently evinced
little interest in meeting Ms. Sun Kyi or expressing India's concern for
her welfare.

The visit itself was the culmination of a three-year effort to engage
the country in trade and business. Border trade was regularised more
than two years ago and the first trade fair in February 1995 signaled
that while India continued to otter sympathy and support to the
democracy activists in Myanmar, it would pursue the trade track
separately.  The announcement of a large loan at the just-concluded
second trade fair proclaims the successful pursuit of that policy.
Funds to prop up the regime, which has now put on a new make-up. In a
trade-driven global scenario, the fact remains that at a time when
Western companies have come under pressure to blacklist the Myanmar
regime, the Chinese, Japanese and South East Asian countries have been
investing in a major way not wanting to be left behind. An argument that
is trotted out in India, too.  Besides Myanmar's possible utility as a
gateway to the economics of the Asian Tigers, its strategic location
gives it considerable importance. The country has for long remained a
haven for the insurgents in the northeastern parts of India who appear
to be slowly getting isolated and, for lack of support, ready to rejoin
the mainstream. If engagement of Myanmar results in an end to external
assistance to these misguided elements, it can be an argument in favour
of the policy. But pressure must continue on the regime in Yangon, which
has apparently regained control of most of the remote regions of the
country. The men in khaki must realise that returning the country to
democracy can bring lasting peace, with substantial dividends in terms
of stability and progress.