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Myanmar: Ethical and Strategic Dimensions

(Based on observations made by the writer while chairing an Interaction on ‘Emerging India-China-Myanmar Relations’, jointly organised by the Chennai Centre For China Studies ( and the Department of International Studies of Stella Maris College, Chennai, at the college on July 19,2007)

There are two dimensions to Indian policy-making relating to Myanmar—-ethical and strategic

2. The ethical dimension arises from the historical links of Indian political leaders and people with their counterparts in Myanmar and the cultural bonds born out of Buddhism, which unite the two countries and their people. Political leaders of Myanmar have always looked up to India for their ideological inspiration. When U Nu, former Prime Minister, was overthrown by Gen.Ne Win in the early 1960s, it was to India he came. Mrs.Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, received him warmly and provided him and his family shelter in India without worrying about any risk of misunderstanding with the ruling military junta in Myanmar. India, as the source of Buddhism, and India, as the source of genuine democracy in the region, constituted a pole of attraction for the political leaders and people of Myanmar.

3. In the past, there was always an ethical dimension to India’s foreign policy. We saw it in action during the legendary anti-apartheid struggle waged by the African National Congress (ANC) under the leadership of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.India and many other countries of the non-aligned world stood shoulder to shoulder with the ANC without worrying about the political and economic consequences of their support to the ANC.

4. Today, the moral dimension has been blunted. We have been observing a disquieting silence—–whether it be in Afghanistan or Iraq or Somalia or Myanmar. We do not utter a word on the brutal suppression of pro-democracy elements in Myanmar by the military junta or the indefinite detention of Aung San Suu Kyi by the Junta. The country, which was in the forefront of the forces of the world, which demanded the release of Mandela, today has no qualms of conscience over its silence on the detention of Suu Kyi, who grew up in India.

5.We have equally no qualms of conscience over supplying military equipment to the Junta. European non-governmental organisations, including the Amnesty International, have expressed grave concern over reports of possible Indian supply of Advanced Light Helicopters to the Junta, but these reports have been strongly denied by the Government. There were recent reports about an alleged attempt by the Government of India to shut down a web site run by pro-democracy Myanmar elements living in India. Fortunately, better sense has prevailed. This has not happened.

6. The strategic dimension arises from the fact that Northern Myanmar forms an important buffer between India’s North-East and the Yunnan Province of China. In the past, much of the assistance for the insurgents of our North-East came from the Chittaging Hill Tracts (CHT) of the then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh and from Yunnan. After the Sino-Indian war of 1962, we had reasons to suspect that some of the Chinese troops, which attacked us in Arunachal Pradesh, had clandestinely moved from Yunnan through the Kachin State of Myanmar, by taking advantage of the absence of Myanmar’s administrative and military presence in large parts of the Kachin State. The insurgents of our North-East have often operated from sanctuaries in the territory of Myanmar across the international border.

7. A vacuum in Myanmar Government’s presence in the Kachin State would be to China’s advantage and to India’s detriment. It is in India’s interest to help the Government of Myanmar to strengthen its presence in this area. It is equally in India’s interest to persuade the Myanmar Army to counter more vigorously the sanctuaries enjoyed by the insurgents of our North-East in their territory.

8. The Chinese have stepped up their activities not only in the Kachin State, but also in the Arakan area bordering the CHT, from where the insurgent groups of Assam operate, and in the vicinity of our Mizoram. Previously, we had to worry about the implications to our internal and external security in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland from the Chinese activities in the Kachin State. Today, we have to worry about the implications in Assam and Mizoram from the increasing Chinese activities in the Arakan area.

9.The Chinese strategic interest in Myanmar arises from three factors. Firstly, to be able to mount, should it become necessary, a military operation in Arunachal Pradesh, which they look upon as their territory and which they project as Southern Tibet. Secondly, to counter Western and Christian influence. For them, the two are synonymous. Christians—-mainly Baptists— constitute only about four per cent of Myanmar’s population, but they (Kachins and Lishus) live in the areas adjoining the borders of China with the Kachin State. Before the Communists took over in China, there was a strong Baptist presence and influence among the tribals of Yunnan. Chinese strategic thinkers have long memories. When they think of Tibet, they think of what they believe was the attempt of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) to instigate the Khampa revolt in the 1950s from the Tawang Tract in Arunachal Pradesh. When they think of Yunnan, they think of what they believe was the joint attempt of the CIA, American Baptist missionaries and the KMT intelligence to create trouble for them from the Northern Shan and Kachin States of Myanmar. They are, therefore, keen to prevent the return of Western and Christian influence to Myanmar

10. Thirdly, their need for ports for their naval ships, oil and gas from the Arakan area and alternate pipeline routes to reduce their present dependence on the Malacca Strait for the movement of their energy supplies.

11. The leadership of Myanmar—-political or military— has always had to do a tight rope walk between Chinese and Indian interests. Where there was no clash between the two, it has never hesitated to accommodate Indian interests and be attentive to Indian concerns. Where there was a clash, it has given greater importance to the Chinese interests and concerns than to those of India. No leadership in Myanmar has had to fear Indian unhappiness. It does fear Chinese unhappiness.

12.In the late 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, his Government gave primacy to the ethical dimension of our policy towards Myanmar. Since Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister in 1991, the strategic dimension has gradually assumed primacy and the ethical dimension has been pushed under the carpet.

13. Myanmar is not the only country which has a military junta ruling it. In the case of other countries such as Pakistan, our policy has always been to do business with the Government of the day, but at the same time not to allow this to come in the way of our interactions with the civil society and the political leaders. In Pakistan, we did business with Zia ul-Haq and continue to do so with Gen.Pervez Musharraf, but at the same time we interacted and continue to interact actively and openly with its civil society and political leaders. So too when President Suharto was in power in Indonesia.

14.In Myanmar, it is not just normal business with the military junta. We have been pampering it and showing undue sensitivity to it by avoiding active interactions with the civil society and pro-democracy elements and by avoiding any articulation of our views on Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement. Have such pampering and over-sensitivity to the military junta brought us substantive gains? Unfortunately, there has been no open debate on this issue, no drawing of a balance-sheet.

15. The time has come for drawing such a balance-sheet and for finding ways of harmonising the ethical and strategic dimensions of our policy-making. It should not be the one or the other. It should be a harmonious mix of the two. (20-7-07)

(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India,New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies .)

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