Saturday, October 06, 2007

Burmese Days

The events in Burma(Myanmar) have led to the usual round of self flagellation in India. Liberals have denounced the attitude of the government and demanded that India take a tough stance against the military junta, others have hit out against Sonia Gandhi for speaking at the United Nations on World Non-Violence Day on Gandhiji's birthday and not referring to events in Myanmar. The events in the country have brought home to us the difficulties that a wannabe superpower confronts. New Delhi has to not just address its own needs, but live up to the expectations of our well-wishers and friends and the fears of our adversaries.

Most Indians, speaking from their hearts, support the Burmese people’s aspirations for democracy, and want an end to the brutal military regime that has blighted their nation. But successive governments in India have had to deal with our secluded neighbor, ruled by a paranoid military regime, using their heads. In other words, New Delhi has had to calculate and calibrate its policies keeping in mind India’s national interests: First, to ensure that Indian actions do not result in an expansion of Chinese influence in the country; second, to ensure that Burma will not be used as a sanctuary by a slew of insurgent groups operating in Manipur and Nagaland.; and third, to access Burma’s considerable oil and gas resources.

While the frustration of those advocating action in Burma is understandable, its not clear as to what they would have had the government do. India’s leverage is strictly limited. Indian exports to Burma are of the order of $450-400 million, and imports around $80-100 million. (In contrast, Thailand is Burma's main trade partner accounting for some 49 per cent of its exports and providing for 22 per cent of its imports). Indeed, in relation to India, the levers are held by Burma because we are the ones that want Burmese resources and and security cooperation. So it is not surprising that the Indian reaction to the uprising last month was low key. New Delhi sought to steer clear from condemning the military junta, and instead pushed the generals to release Aung San Su Kyi.

Burma is already under a US and European embargo, so additional restrictions will hardly matter. In any case Burma’s economically most significant border—that with Thailand is virtually open. The Chinese who have far more leverage than India choose to term the events there as an internal matter and leave it at that. The ASEAN who gave membership to Yangon as an incentive to promote “national reconciliation” between the military and the people, have little to say about the current developments. The UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari toured the country and met Aung San Su Kyi twice, and obtained a commitment that the junta chief General Than Shwe will meet the jailed leader. During a briefing of the UN Security Council, he warned that there would be "serious international repercussions" if Burma did not move towards democracy.

If India is to be accused of cravenness, the attitude of Beijing is downright mendacious. At the UN Western countries circulated a draft to condemn the "violent repression" of democracy activists and called for a dialogue between the military and the opposition. The Chinese begged to differ. They said that the whole issue was an internal matter of the country and that pressure and sanctions would only encourage confrontation.

Earlier this year in January, China and Russia had vetoed a US-drafted Security Council resolution that demanded an end to political repression and human rights violations on grounds that the Burmese crisis was not a threat to international peace and security, the council's mandate.

Burma has been ruled by a military junta since 1962. The 1990 elections were swept by the National League for Democracy under Su Kyi, but they were annulled by the military led by the present leader General Than Shwe. After an initial effort to embargo the regime, the world began to come to terms with it. The Chinese were the quickest off the block. In 1989, they used their time-tested tactic for establishing themselves—providing arms transfers to a military regime. A deal in 1989 worth anywhere up to $1.5 billion not only signaled its strong support for a discredited military junta, but brought rewards in the form of access to the Hangyi Island on the Bay of Bengal which it developed as a deep-water port. Beijing also got access to the Grand Coco island, north of the Andamans, from where it could monitor Indian missile tests at Balasore in Orissa.

The Chinese actions were in keeping with its record of an amoral foreign policy that has made it the savior of unpleasant regimes around the world. China today is the major importer of Sudanese oil, it is, of course, North Korea’s main trade partner, and it has been Pakistan’s staunchest friend ever, supplying it with conventional and weapons of mass destruction. There is no regime that is outside the pale for China, and the standard pretext to oppose international action is to say that whatever is happening is an “internal matter” of the country. To an extent Chinese behavior is a function of self-interest. China is also an autocratic, ruthless regime which does not believe in democracy and has crushed the democratic aspirations of its people with force. So its stand should be no surprise.

Yet, countries like India have to contend with it, or be left with the option of pursuing a morally sound, but practically bankrupt policy that lacks the wherewithal to provide any meaningful result. Between 1988 military coup and 1994, India openly supported the restoration of democracy in Burma. India shares a 1,400-km long border with Burma that runs along a mountainous region from Arunachal Pradesh to Mizoram. Though militarily significant, the border is porous. In any case the tribal people are free to move up to 20kms on either side because of their interconnections. Though most of the Nagas live in India, a large section lives in Burma, as do Kukis and Mizos who claim a close relationship with the Chin peoples of Burma. There is a close relationship between the militancy in the Indian north-eastern states of Nagaland, Manipur and Assam and Burma. Naga and Kuki groups are able to use Burma as a sanctuary and training area, while the United Liberation Front of Assam and some Meiti insurgent groups of Manipur, use it to obtain arms. As it is, drugs from the golden triangle have led to serious addiction and HIV problems in some of the North-eastern states, especially Manipur.

In the early 1990s, Indian officials quizzed the Burmese about the Chinese activity, and were blandly told that the Chinese were helping their development efforts and India had the choice of doing the same. In 1997, the ASEAN admitted Yangon into the grouping as an alleged means of moderating its behavior So India followed suit, rather than be outflanked. It made diplomatic overtures to Yangon, offered it membership in the BIMSTEC grouping and offered aid. In recent years, New Delhi has provided some military aid, notably in the form of some old BN-2 Islander communications aircraft.

New Delhi’s primary concerns were driven by security—of the North-east, as well in a larger sense of the Bay of Bengal and its eastern shore and island territories of the Andamans and the Nicobar. The oil and the gas prospects are a bonus, though there are many in India who see the economic linkages as the means of developing the North-east, even while ridding it of the conditions that have given rise to the insurgencies. It must contest and counter Chinese gains, which is itself a tall order considering the enormous effort being put by Bejing which is also driven by the strategic need of finding ways of bypassing the choke point of the Malacca straits. According to analysts, China plans to construct a series of gas and oil pipelines and roads from Yunan to the coast of the Bay of Bengal in Burma not only to exploit Burma’s natural resources, but as potential trans-shipment points logistical lines leading into China.

As repression in Burma grows and the world community becomes restive over the situation there, the military junta has begun to dig in for the long haul. It suddenly shifted its capital to Naypidaw, some kms from Yangon, on the edge of a denuded forest. The intention is to prevent “regime change” by a military action on the more accessible Yangon.

The regime has also started re-jigging its relations with China to the detriment of other players. Early last month, an India-South Korea consortium that had the “preferential buyer” status for two blocks in the Shwe natural gas project were summarily told that they would have to defer to China. The gas field off the Arakan coast was discovered in 2003 and are expected to have one of the largest gas yields in South-east Asia. Clearly the military junta has calculated that it would be better to rely on Beijing’s hard-headed policies and UN Security Council veto than India’s woolly-headed approach. In any case, India’s options remain limited, especially because it continues to require the Burmese Army’s cooperation to check the north-eastern militancy.

The Burmese developments, where India is locked in a direct contest with China, brings out the need for not just a sophisticated policy, but an effective policy mechanisms in India. Our biggest weakness is the lack of effective institutions to guide our policies. As of now, policies relating to Burma are handled by a slew of ministries—commerce, petroleum and natural gas, home affairs, external affairs, and defence. India does have a national security council, but the body is merely a deliberative body, which takes a long-term view of a particular subject. In any case, according to observers, the NSC system remains non-functional. Decision-making bodies like the Cabinet Committee on Security are hampered by the fact that the system is based on the sum of the parts rather than a single integrated institution.

One part of the real story is that India’s effort to overhaul its higher defence management system has stalled. Efforts to overhaul the system and create new instrumentalities like the Chief of Defence Staff, or the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) have not worked as they should have. The ruling United Progressive Alliance government seems unable or unwilling to press ahead. It is no secret that the UPA's Home and Defence Ministries are its worst-run.

In the meantime, India fumbles with issues where its short-term needs have to be calibrated with its longer term world view and national interest. In the short-term we have to deal with the dictators in Burma, Pakistan or the mullahs of Iran, but in the long term we would want the emergence of secular-minded and democratic polities in these countries. But short-term compromises have a way of becoming long term policies, as the US seems to be discovering in the case of military in Pakistan. India is not what it is because of politics or history, but its democratic and secular values. Lose them and you lose the essence of the country.

No comments: