Indian Decade

Will India Pressure Burma?

Than Shwe’s visit put relations with Burma in the spotlight. Will India pressure the junta?

For almost a decade, India’s relations with Burma have been improving gradually. But now it seems ties between the two are strong enough that Western powers have been nudging New Delhi to use its ‘influence’ with Burma’s military junta to try to bring proper democracy to the oppressive nation.

After China, India is viewed as the power that has the best relations with Burma (although Sino-Burma ties really are considerably closer, with Beijing wielding significant influence over Naypyidaw).  

Still, India-Burma bilateral relations got another big boost when Burma’s Head of State and Senior Gen. Than Shwe visited India from July 25 to 29—his second visit to India since October 2004.

The geographical expanse of Shwe’s religious-cum-official visit was impressive. During the five days he was in this country he visited five Indian cities—Bodh Gaya, Varanasi, Hyderabad and Jamshedpur and New Delhi—where he held delegation-level talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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Shwe’s visit was a low-key affair as neither side held any press conferences (although the Indian Ministry of External Affairs did come up with an elaborate joint statement after Shwe’s talks with Singh).

New Delhi agreed to help Burma in developmental activities in three ‘I’s’: information technology, industry and infrastructure. However, the international community was watching the visit from a political perspective. Burma is set to hold a general election later this year, though the exact date has yet to be announced. Of course, these elections will inevitably be a sham as Burma’s champion of democracy,  , won’t be taking part.

The developed world—the US, the EU and Japan—have all tried but failed to pressure the junta to restore democracy in the country. So the international community expects India to exert pressure on the junta whenever there’s any top-level interaction between Delhi and Naypyidaw.

But India has its own motivations for engaging with the country, which it shares a 1640-kilometre border with, including major strategic, security and economic stakes.

New Delhi has indeed been emphasizing to the junta the urgent need to begin a process of national reconciliation, and it did so again during Shwe’s latest visit. But at the same time, India hasn’t gone hammer and tongs at Burma over the issue of democracy because, whether the international community likes it or not, India’s Burma policy is driven more by realpolitik than notions of democracy or human rights.