Burma: India’s Bad Neighbor Policy

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.