Things are stirring in Burma.
I've been following news reports of the protest marches that have been ongoing for several days now in Myanmar, as the crowds have gotten bigger and bigger, the protesting voices louder. Myanmar's people are, yet again, raising their voices against the tyranny of a junta that has stayed in power intermittently since 1962. Similar protests have been brutally suppressed, in 1988 & 1996, and pro-democracy activists arrested, beaten, tortured and killed in what has to remain, along with North Korea, one of the most isolated countries in the world.
The world has been watching with worry as the most recent protests have gotten louder. Everyday people expect news of the imminent crackdown, expect to see scenes of violence and brutality unfold through the few camera crews in the country. This week saw first signs of such a crackdown - monasteries raided at night & isolated, monks beaten up and arrested, live rounds fired into crowds attempting to reach Shwedagon Pagoda.
The UN Security Council has already expressed concern. But the organisation remains toothless, because even though the US, UK & EU continue condemning the oppressive Burmese junta, Russia, China & India have developed close economic & defence links with the regime over the years. All three have been attracted by the lure of Myanmar's oil & natural gas deposits, with Indian petroleum minister Murli Deora most recently making a trip to the troubled country earlier this week.
Calls have been increasing for both India & China to respond to the crisis, leveraging their historic & current econoimc & political ties to the country and impose either change or restraint. India, home to many Burmese refugees, is almost expected to take a stance in what is unfolding in its immediate neighbourhood. India, traditionally a supporter of pro-democracy movements around the world, has taken a different stance in its own neighbourhood. It has chosen, instead, to forge military & economic ties with the miltary junta in Myanmar.
India's decision to engage with the junta is predicated on three key factors; and for a change, none of the three factors relate to India's desire to be the moral compass of the world, in which realpolitik was replaced with idealism. The first, and perhaps most directly relevant reason for establishing relations with the junta has to do with insurgencey movements in the Northeast of India. Naga & Mizo rebels have long used the western jungles of Myanmar to regroup and establish logistical centres. Falling outside the area that could be accessible to Indian security forces, the insurgencies have managed to remain active. India's decision to support & engage with the junta has been a direct result of its desire to eliminate these outposts. The strategy, so far, has seemed to work.
The second factor is similarly related to regional stability, but in a more tangential way. With most of the Western world having shunned economic & political ties with Myanmar, the country's greatest supporter has been China, a country with which India itself has a complex relationship. In the dance of the elephant and the dragon, where countries are reduced to areas where the two jockey to extend their spheres of influence, to stand back and let Myanmar get totally overwhelmed by China became a position India could little afford to take. Myanmar has an extended border with India along the Northeast, and securing this border remains, as always a key concern for the Indian security establishment.
And finally, in the most prosaic of terms, India is severely energy deficient.To have massive oil & natural gas reserves in your own neighbourhood, as is the case with both Iran & Myanmar, and not be able to tackle them for reasons of diplomatic morality is a difficult & economically unviable position.
So while understanding why India has chosen to do business with what is quite arguably one of the worst regimes in the world helps contextualise India's current silence on the situation, it does not answer the question of whether or not taking a stand against a brutal and tyrannical regime in its neighbourhood is the appropriate strategy. Because whether we like it or not, India has moved away from its historical blunder of being the world's moral police, adopting the idealistic high ground and wagging a finger at other powers in the world. India has increasingly moved away from this limiting position, towards one where pragmatism has taken root.
The idealist would argue that India should step in, take a stand against the junta, and use its political & economic leverage with the regime to force change, or if not change, at least prevent the sort of bloodshed and brutal suppression that the entire world fears is already underway. I would argue that this is probably incredibly counterproductive; not for Myanmar's people, but for India's longer term ambitions in the country & wider region.
India lives in a pretty bad neighbourhood. With the exception of Bhutan & China, all of our neighbouring states are in the grips of the sort of political turmoil and armed conflict that at worst could flare up into civil war, if they haven't done so already. General (President?) Musharraf is battling to retain control over Pakistan, which is steadily getting out of his hands; Nepal is in the throes of a Maoist uprising, Sri Lanka has yet to resolve the Tamil civil war, Bangladesh looks like a coup is underway, and don't even get me started on Afghanistan. To step into Myanmar, which itself has a long history of ethnic turmoil and political instability, and jeopardise the regime that has allowed India access to valuable energy reserves & cooperation in tackling military training would be pretty self-defeating.
The pro-interventionists argue that if India were to support the move for democracy, it would gain credibility with the local populace, who on forming a democratically elected government would continue to support India the way the junta has done. I'd point out a few facts here first. India has economic clout with Myanmar because it was able to access the market without competing with Western companies. ONGC & CNOCC have access to Myanmar's oil & natural gas reserves because the BP's, Chevron & Texaco's of the world do not. Were Myanmar to gain democracy, the chances of these countries remaining out of the race would decline significantly, taking away the cost advantage that the current arrangement provides.
We also have historical precedents of our intervention not quite going to plan. When India entered Bangladesh in 1971, with the full understanding that it was breaking up Pakistan, its soldiers were greeted with cheers by the local population. Within weeks, those cheers had turned to hostile sloganeering, with India being accused of "separating brother from brother". To expect our grandstanding in Myanmar to be received better in the long term is a delusion we would do well to consider carefully. India has an unusual position in South Asia. It is the largest country, and its sheer size, scale & power act as both an advantage, and an immense disadvantage, in its relations with significantly smaller neighbours, who operate out of a mentality of inferiority and resentment.
Finally, Myanmar is today a stable country (not counting the past few weeks). The price of that stability is the brutal suppression we see in the country today. I do not condone that suppression, and neither do I suggest that it should remain in place. However, for India to act unilaterally against it is not in our best interests. Because let's not forget that political allies are fickle friends in the world, and to expect eternal gratitude or friendship from any country is nothing short of delusional.
So what's the way forward? Whether we like it or not, the UN must remain the key tool of international dispute resolution. Myanmar's regime should go, but it is NOT for India to force it to do so.
The title of this post is inspired by Amitav Ghosh's novel, The Glass Palace, which takes place extensively in colonial Burma, and deals with the historic ties between India & Myanmar. No other direct link is implied.