Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

India’s Shameful Burma Ploy

The red carpet welcome India offered Burma’s leader is aimed at countering China’s influence. He’s holding the two to ransom.

For better or worse, countries will often sacrifice their principles at the altar of geopolitics. It’s a fact no more evident lately than with India, which appears to be disregarding the muzzling of democracy in eastern neighbour Burma (Myanmar) to cosy up to the ruling military junta there.

Just a few years ago, India would’ve made an issue out of the illegal detention of popularly elected National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for long stretches over the past 20 years. In early 2008, for example, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed that Burma had been advised that there was now a greater urgency for political reform and that this process ‘had to be broad-based to include all sections of society including Aung San Suu Kyi.’

But just two years later, such pressure appears to have been abandoned as the world’s largest democracy forgets its place and deepens its relationship with the junta.

The dynamics of this new relationship were on full display during the visit of Burmese leader Gen. Than Shwe, who was in India late last month and met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. During Than Shwe’s visit, the two leaders issued a joint statement and announced a number of deals, including five accords on counter-terrorism co-operation and soft loans from India that included $60 million for a road construction project and about $10 million for machinery purchases.

Such agreements are ostensibly aimed at winning over the regime in a nation that Freedom House found this year to be among the nine least free countries in the world. Indeed, last year the organisation specifically called on India to exert pressure over Suu Kyi’s trial—in which she was accused of breaking the terms of her house arrest—with Executive Director Jennifer Windsor arguing that:

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‘As the world's largest democracy and a regional leader, India has an obligation to defend Suu Kyi and at least attempt to influence the actions of Burma’s ruling junta.’

But India’s red carpet welcome is about more than coaxing Burma into better behavior. It’s also about countering Chinese influence in the country. And with this in mind, Than Shwe’s visit made one thing clear—the junta is exploiting both nations’ fear of each other to hold them to ransom.

The junta should be blushing with the attention it’s getting from its two giant neighbours, which is allowing it to thumb its nose at Western nations calling for it to rethink its behavior.

While India has been busy spending millions trying to improve transport links, Chinese firms have been pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure projects, including a deal signed by China National Petroleum Corporation in December 2008 to buy natural gas from the Shwe fields. CNPC has also, according to Human Rights Watch, reportedly begun constructing what will ‘ultimately be two major energy pipelines across Burma to China…(that will) represent some of the biggest infrastructure projects ever undertaken in Burma.’

China is also believed to be a major supplier of arms to the repressive state.

With Chinese leaders apparently showing little inclination to pressure the regime through, for example, its membership of the UN’s ‘Group of Friends of Myanmar,’ India has decided to follow suit by putting its democratic ideals on the backburner. Never mind that freedom of expression is stifled or that GDP per capita is a shameful $469—India has pressed ahead with major development projects including the Sittwe port and a project on the Kaladan River.

Troublingly, while the Indian government lavished praise on Than Shwe during his five-day visit, there was little (if any) attention given in Indian newspapers to the once nobly pursued cause of calling for the release of Suu Kyi. In this, the media appears to reflect the broader thinking in India that suppressed democracy in a neighbour is less important than trying to get a leg up on a growing rival.

But the question is—what price will India pay in terms of future credibility for its political and strategic expediency now? With few apparently willing to ask the government this question, we’ve no choice but to wait and see.