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The great Indian NON-SPEAK

India does not have a strategy on how to handle the Myanmarese people’s struggle for democracy while maintaining functional relations with the military regime

INDIA’S signing of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with ASEAN, the country’s fourth largest trading partner, on August 13 should be considered a major success of the “Look East Policy”. The FTA, coming into force from 2010, will dismantle trade barriers over the next six years and boost two way trade with the region considered by China as its backyard. It could also strengthen our strategic ties with Singapore, Japan and Vietnam.

At the same time, another seemingly unconnected event in ASEAN – in Myanmar – exposed the soft underbelly of India’s foreign policy. On August 11, a Yangon court sentenced Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of Myanmar’s struggle for restoration of democracy, to three years hard labour for allowing a mentally deranged American intruder to stay in her home. The court ignored her plea that she had no control over the security of the house where she had been under house arrest for nearly 14 years. However, Senior General Than Shwe, head of the ruling military junta, in an act lauded by the state media as a humanitarian gesture, reduced the sentence to 18 months of house arrest!

The conviction of Suu Kyi was clearly another perverse act of the military junta to keep her from participating in the general election proposed to be held in 2010 under the country’s new Constitution. The Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) swept the last election in 1990, nearly ending the military rule. The junta did not allow the civilian government to take over. The latest sentencing of Suu Kyi only confirms that it had no intention of allowing a government under her leadership even after the 2010 election.

The conviction of Suu Kyi was universally condemned except for China, which has been the chief patron of the military regime. Even ASEAN, led by Thailand, sought her release and participation in the elections. India’s reaction was muted, apologetic and inane.

The Ministry of External Affairs spokesman did not even voice India’s disappointment, let alone condemnation of the conviction. He only said, “We have seen reports of the sentencing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar for a period of 18 months….India has emphasized to the Government of Myanmar the need to expedite their political reform and national reconciliation process and has noted the various steps taken so far by the Government of Myanmar in this direction.”

The Ministry of External Affairs spokesman did not even voice India’s disappointment, let alone condemnation of the conviction. He only said, ‘….India has emphasized to the Government of Myanmar the need to expedite their political reform and national reconciliation process and has noted the various steps taken so far…’

What does this kind of “non-speak” (I suppose the coinage will do, like “non-paper”) mean? India does not have a proactive strategy on how to handle the Myanmarese people’s struggle for restoration of democracy while maintaining functional relations with the military regime.

The xenophobic founder of military rule, General Ne Win, turned the nation into an international recluse during his regime from 1962 to 1988. However, his successors had to come to terms with the changes in global environment at the end of the Cold War and ushering in of economic liberalization. After the 1990 elections, the junta cracked down on the people to prevent restoration of civilian rule. An international outcry resulted. To ward off this and to retain its hold on power, the junta had to find support, particularly from its neighbours and in Southeast Asia. This prompted Myanmar’s joining ASEAN and developing strong relations with its neighbours.

The military regime has successfully weathered international sanctions, internal and international protests, insurgencies and international media hostility for over two decades. Its survival strategy is based on tackling threats coming from three quarters: restoration of democracy, ethnic insurgency and the international community helping the opposition. Its three neighbours – China, India and Thailand – have been mustered to play a key role in the junta’s survival.

GEO-STRATEGIC realities have compelled the three neighbours to evolve their own strategies in handling the military regime. While China is wholly supportive of the military rulers, Thailand and India have adopted “constructive cooperation” with the regime in the hope that persuasive methods rather than sanctions will help restoration of democracy.

The regime has also been facing economic sanctions and embargos imposed by the US and the EU. To reduce their impact, it has leveraged Myanmar’s oil, gas and mineral resources to advantage by creating a network of supportive nations like Japan, Korea, India and ASEAN, apart from China. This has also helped the regime to divide and weaken the anti-junta lobby in the UN.

Strategically, there are three imperatives to be considered. The army, well entrenched in power, with a strength of over 430,000 troops, is the second biggest in Southeast Asia. It is unlikely to give up power in the near term; even the 2008 Constitution provides for a permanent over lordship of the army in the multiparty democracy. There is also a distinct possibility of Myanmar emerging as a potential nuclear power like North Korea, if the military rule continues for another decade.

Second, China has established a stranglehold. Its influence permeates the strategic, economic, and social facets of the country. China considers Myanmar an important part of its strategic domain. China has better and easier land access to Myanmar than India. The country’s abundant natural resources, including oil and gas, are important to China. It also provides China direct access to the Indian Ocean bypassing the bottleneck at the Malacca Strait. Most important, Myanmar provides a direct approach to India’s vulnerable Northeast directly from mainland China. China has assiduously cultivated the military regime and, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, saved the military junta by blocking international action against it. Given this setting, with two decades of a head start, China’s influence is likely to continue over Myanmar even after a civilian government comes to power.

LASTLY, the nation’s experience in multiparty democracy in the initial 14 years after independence was disastrous. Corruption, groupism, warlordism and inept political leadership gave rise to political instability and encouraged the spread of powerful ethnic insurgencies, particularly of Karnes, Shans and Kachins as well as Communists. It paved the way for military takeover. Nearly 40 years of military rule has prevented emergence of competent political leadership. Suu Kyi is probably the only charismatic leader to unite and lead the splintered political parties. These destabilizing elements will be very much there even when democracy is restored.

India’s Myanmar policy is an outcrop of its Look East Policy. So it tends to see Myanmar in the context of ASEAN with emphasis on economic and developmental issues. Strategic objectives in Myanmar appear to be limited to reducing Chinese influence and eliminating sanctuaries of insurgents from India’s Northeast. Thus Myanmar appears to have been reduced to a marginal role in India’s national security matrix. Given these shortcomings, its policy has floundered in satisfying neither India nor Myanmar.

If India aspires to be even a regional power it has to build sustainable valuable- based relations with Myanmar with a strategic content. It has to go beyond perpetuating the military regime, and invest in the people. It has to project itself as a worthy partner who can help Myanmar in its well-being and long-term growth. So far, India’s well meaning efforts in Myanmar have been limited to developing infrastructure as part of improving access to the ASEAN region. Even these efforts have been tardy and slow.

The basic problem of our policymakers appears to lie in articulation of power with all our neighbours. It is good to remember Prof Morgenthau’s prescription on handling power: “Power may comprise anything that establishes and maintains the control of man over man. Thus power covers all social relationships which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls the other…For if we look at all nations, our own included, as political entities pursuing their respective interests defined in terms of power, we are able to do justice to all of them…we are then capable of pursuing policies that respect the interests of other nations, while protecting and promoting our own.” [Politics Among Nations, pp 9-11]. Are we articulating this kind of power?

In this context, what the maverick Marxist historian, Professor DD Kosambi, wrote about making the buffalo rather than the tiger our national animal comes to mind. In his book on the history of India, he said the buffalo is thick-skinned, revels in muck and anybody can milk it (or words to this effect).

(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence officer,, is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group, and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Blog: www.colhariharan.org E-mail:colhari@yahoo.com)

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