As Myanmar military junta’s leader Senior General Than Shwe prepares for his four-day visit to India starting July 25, it is not surprising to hear human rights organizations and the western bloc to throw the moral book at India. India has not been in the forefront to defend the human rights record and the vice like grip of the Myanmar junta. In fact, after the 1962 military coup in Myanmar (then Burma), Indians in that country suffered terribly, uprooted and driven out. New Delhi overwhelmingly supported the 1988 democratic uprising, and bestowed the highest civilian honour, the Jawaharlal Nehru award, on Ms.Aung San Suu Kyi.
Did the measures taken by India change anything in Myanmar? Absolutely not – certain Asian countries, who know better how to deal with such a regime, threw the oxygen lifetime to the regime. Japan assists with some development aid, Thailand remains Myanmar’s major civilian goods trading partner, and the Association of the South East Asian Nations. (ASEAN) admitted Myanmar to this important regional forums at China’s instance.
The greatest beneficiary of Myanmar’s isolation by the West is China, itself an iron clad one-party dictatorship with scant respect for human rights, whose persecution of peaceful political dissidence, religious minorities and ethnic minorities pales the Myanmar junta’s record. In fact, the junta has learnt more from China on how to suppress dissidence than its original script.
China remains Myanmar’s most ardent protector at the United Nations with its veto power. The Yangon (Rangoon), now Naypidaw government has almost become a captive of China simply because the West cannot think out of the box to try another approach, and the people of the West see the junta as an ogre and nothing else because of the propaganda.
Beijing is sitting pretty in Myanmar. It is Naypidaw’s main defence supplier on “friendship” prices, it has captured about all major infrastructure projects including ports and airports, most of Myanmar’s oil, gas and minerals are being captured by China, and Beijing has got the gas and oil pipeline from Myanmar’s Indian Ocean port to China’s Kunming.
The West is actually aware of these developments and their strategic implications especially in the Indian Ocean region, but appears confused and confounded to deal with it. The West, especially the US, has a problem with understanding the various cultures of Asia. This lacuna has created a lot of problems especially for the US foreign policy. It is no great secret that Washington has slept with many dictators and dictatorial regimes. But it has never learnt how to work from the insides of dictatorial regimes.
Than Shwe is coming to India when some major political restructuring is in the offing in his country, and a shadow of alleged nuclear weapons ambition based on documents provided to Western experts and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Norway, by a military defector.
The process of converting the junta’s civilian front organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) to a political party the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is on. The USDP will be headed by the Prime Minister Thien Sein and 26 Ministers and senior officials all with military background. The junta is erecting a new structure where the military sponsored and controlled political party will rule.
The junta is ensuring its political party’s victory, and any party seen as a serious threat will be disenfranchised. The democratic opposition led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) have made their own case more difficult by factional infighting.
Than Shwe is very likely to ask India to endorse the upcoming elections, with no date fixed as yet, and a very controversial electoral law. If India endorses the elections as China has done and the ASEAN are yet to reject, will help the junta still go ahead, but New Delhi will have lost some vital points concerning its security and strategic interests.
For too long India has suffered from its North East insurgents and separatists like the ULFA of Assam and the NSCN of Nagaland using Myanmar’s territory to bring arms and communication equipments from China. After Than Shwe’s India visit of 2004, and the ouster of the pro-China Intelligence Chief Gen. Khin Nyunt by the junta, such transits have been reduced. But there is more for Naypidaw to do in this context. India suffered for decades from the time the Naga insurgents led by T. Muivah went to China in 1958 for support, arms and training. India’s North-East is a little peaceful after the Awami League government in Bangladesh, which came to power in end 2008 elections, decided to cooperate with India. This is the kind of co-operation that India needs from Myanmar, and Than Shwe should be appraised emphatically.
Geopolitically and strategically, India and Myanmar have common interests. Both can benefit with greater trade and economic co-operation. The two countries share a common land border and meet at the seas. India can suggest, and not advise, how the junta can make itself more popular and acceptable at home, and gain at least a grudging understanding from abroad for making democratic changes. But it must ask Than Shwe to come clear on the recent allegations that it is on the verge of a nuclear weapons path.
India cannot have a Myanmar dominated by China spreading its tentacles in its Kitchen garden through Myanmar.
The junta has given sufficient signals that it wants to get out of China’s claustrophobic clutches. This is the first step where it desperately needs assistance. US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell’s two visits to Myanmar appeared to be letting in some light through the door. But it was firmly shut again will allegations of Naypidaw’s secret nuclear ambitions.
The West must be more mature and should not prosecute policies in fits and starts. They must understand that the military in Myanmar is also a nervous lot. True, like many other dictatorial regimes they are exploiting the country’s wealth and people. But just as other dictators they are as much apprehensive of their fate if they suddenly hand over power to the people.
There is some evidence to suggest that more and more young people are joining the army for a better future. If this trend continues long enough the political colour of Myanmar could be that of a historical military state.
What the junta is seeking apparently is assurance, and that their regime is not over turned suddenly. Similarly, confrontation will lead only to the junta putting up its back more firmly.
The realistic solution to the issue is to work with the system without threatening it and create gradually an understanding with them to melt the abrasive situation. This will have to be a very gradual process to start with. The process will accelerate when trust is established.
It would be wise for the West to study the Indian path without raising pointed fingers. Allow the process to slowly mature.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi.Email:email@example.com)