NEW DELHI – As stage-managed elections ratify the consequences of three decades of military rule in Burma, the perspective from its neighbor India may help explain why there is continued international acceptance of the country’s long-ruling junta.
Burma was ruled as part of Britain’s Indian Empire until 1935, and the links between the two countries remained strong after Burma gained its independence in 1947. An Indian business community thrived in Burma’s major cities, and cultural and political affinities were well established. India’s nationalist leader and first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a close friend of the Burmese nationalist hero Aung San, whose daughter, the Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, studied in New Delhi.
For many years, India was unambiguously on the side of democracy, freedom, and human rights in Burma – and in ways more tangible than the rhetoric of the regime’s Western critics. When the generals suppressed the popular uprising of 1988, nullified the overwhelming election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1990, shot students, and arrested the newly-elected leaders, India’s government initially reacted as most Indians would have wanted. India gave asylum to fleeing students and a base for their resistance movement (along with some financial help), and supported a newspaper and a radio station that propagated the democratic voice.
But then reality intruded. India’s strategic rivals, China and Pakistan, began to court the Burmese generals. Major economic and geopolitical concessions were offered to both suitors. The Chinese even began developing a port on the Burmese coast, far closer to Calcutta than to Canton. And the generals began providing safe havens and arms to a motley assortment of anti-Indian rebel movements that would wreak havoc in India’s northeastern states and retreat to sanctuaries in the newly-renamed Myanmar.
All this was troubling enough to Indian policymakers, who were being painfully reminded of the country’s vulnerability to a determined neighbor. The clincher came when large deposits of natural gas were found in Burma, which, it was clear, would not be available to an India deemed hostile to the junta. India’s rivals were gaining ground in its own backyard, while Indian businesses were losing out on new economic opportunities. The price of pursuing a moral foreign policy simply became too high.
So India turned 180 degrees. When Pakistan’s President, Pervez Musharraf traveled to Myanmar to celebrate his country’s new relationship with his fellow generals, India’s Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh soon followed. The increasingly forlorn resistance operations staged from Indian territory were shut down in the hope of reciprocation from the Burmese side. And India sweetened the generals’ tea by providing military assistance and intelligence support to their own never-ending counter-insurgencies.
India’s journey was complete: from standing up for democracy, India had graduated to aiding and abetting the military regime in Rangoon (now Yangon). When monks were being mown down on the streets of Yangon in 2006, the Indian government called for negotiations, muttered banalities about national reconciliation, and opposed sanctions. India also sent its minister for oil to negotiate an energy deal, making it clear that the country’s real priorities lay with its own national economic interests, ahead of its solidarity with Burmese democrats. (At the same time, Indian diplomats intervened discreetly from time to time on behalf of Suu Kyi, though their effectiveness was limited by India’s unwillingness to alienate the junta.)
All of this was in fact perfectly understandable. Officials in New Delhi were justified in reacting acerbically to Western critics of its policy. India needed no ethical lessons from a United States and a Britain that have long coddled military dictators in India’s South Asian neighborhood, notably in Pakistan.
Any Indian government’s primary obligation is to its own people, and there is little doubt that the economic opportunities provided by Burmese oil and gas are of real benefit to Indians. There is also the strategic imperative of not ceding ground to India’s enemies on its own borders. India confronts an inescapable fact of geopolitics: you can put your ideals on hold, but you cannot change who your neighbors are.
India’s government cannot be blamed for deciding that its national interests in Burma are more important than standing up for democracy there. The member countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations, on Burma’s eastern flank, have made similar calculations.
But many Indians are asking themselves what such a policy does to India as a civilization. If that idealistic democrat Nehru had not been cremated, India’s stance toward Burma might cause him to turn over in his grave. It is a policy that is governed by the head rather than the heart, but in the process India is losing a little bit of its soul.