Cracking the Burma shell
Antara Dev Sen
October 9, 2007
Source: Sify News
It is so easy for us to turn away, shrug dispassionately and say, ‘But what can we do? It’s their own business, really!’ We have done it with Bhutan, and are doing it with Burma. All they need to do is harbour our insurgents from the Northeast and periodically whisper ‘China’ in an unkind fashion. We ignore their human rights violations, run to gather their rebels by the scruff of the neck, help the regimes in flushing out their pro-democracy activists and get into generous arms and trade deals. That seems to have been our neighbourhood policy in the Northeast since the early 1990s.
What a shame for the world’s largest democracy, the emerging economic power desperate to be the regional superpower, the cool dude big brother of South Asia that jumps and shrieks the moment any little neighbour says, ‘Boo! China!’ What a shame that we have – mostly through systematic neglect and corruption – allowed our own people to grow so out of hand that instead of being able to contain our rebel groups through constructive interventions, development measures, proper delivery of justice, honest dialogue and rooting out corruption, we need to side against democracy and human rights. What a pity that we now believe our sovereignty can be preserved only by abandoning moral principles, by purging our international policy of ethics, by routinely prioritising expediency over conscience.
It wasn’t always like this. India’s foreign policy was largely guided by conscience earlier. We were the first and warmest supporters of Burma’s pro-democracy movement 20 years ago and never lost an opportunity to felicitate and honour Aung San Suu Kyi till the mid-1990s. Then we lost our way. We distanced ourselves from those fighting for democracy and actively supported the military regime in Burma. We engaged in trade, invested in their industries, opened up our markets to them, gave them arms and helicopters to fight rebels – our rebels, we said, the violent extremists who take shelter in Burma, crossing the long, porous border with our north-eastern states. But it is believed that these arms are used instead against Burmese activists demanding democracy.
At the same time, we were refusing to lend support to the Bhutanese pro-democracy activists as well. Even the refugees driven out of Bhutan were packed off to Nepal – since they were ethnic Nepalese. Activists attempting to re-enter Bhutan were stopped at the Indian border. Even now, more than 103,000 Bhutanese refugees are squatting in make-shift camps in Nepal. We still keep off. Talk to each other and sort it out, pals, we say to Bhutan and Nepal, knowing that such bilateral dialogue has led nowhere in the last two decades.
Not that Bhutan and Burma are comparable, really. Bhutan’s king Jigme Singye Wangchuk has finally stepped down to pave the way for a parliamentary democracy, while Burma’s military junta still clings to the throne it usurped by brushing aside the parliamentary elections that voted Aung San Suu Kyi to power in 1990, and by putting the charismatic leader under house arrest and crushing every pro-democracy movement with unnerving brutality.
The democracy movements in Bhutan and Nepal are comparable only in three ways. One, both started in the late eighties and looked for support to their close neighbour India, the biggest democracy in the world and a nation that is eternally chattering on about the virtues of ethics, democracy, equality and human rights. Second, they were initially encouraged by the big brother, then let down as India abandoned the activists. Third, both movements have an ethnic edge – in Bhutan the ethnic Nepalese rebelled against unfair royal rules and demanded democracy, and in Burma those fighting for democratic freedoms and Burmese self-determination are largely ethnic minorities. By turning a blind eye, India – the land of ethnic diversity and pluralism – is aiding the ethnic cleansing in its immediate neighbourhood.
As it is, we are in a danger zone. States are crumbling all around us, and it would be difficult to keep standing as a towering democracy while dodging the rubble flying all around from the crash of failed and failing States. Pakistan and Bangladesh, very uncomfortable with democracy, seem to be increasingly under the influence of fundamentalists. Nepal is struggling to balance a fierce Maoist version of people’s power with a democracy freshly wrangled from a monarchy. Sri Lanka’s violent insurgents are creating fault-lines in governance and chipping away at its democracy. Bhutan is in a crossover phase. Tibet has lost its identity to China. And Burma casts decency to the winds as it brutally crushes every uprising, like the latest massacre of Buddhist monks protesting peacefully against the repressive regime. All these countries have seriously violated human rights and curtailed individual freedoms. Including, unfortunately, India. It’s not a safe neighbourhood.
Our region figures importantly in the Failed States Index of 2007, offered by the magazine Foreign Policy. Our close neighbours are prominent at the top of this list of failures. Among 117 States listed, Pakistan is number 12, Burma 14, Bangladesh 16, Nepal 21, Sri Lanka 25 and Bhutan 47. To be hemmed in by failed States from every side, especially since we share extensive borders with most, is a scary thought. We already have large numbers of refugees from all of these countries, plus Tibet. If we knew what was good for us, we would try to build stable States around us. For only when our government has a reliable neighbour to talk to can we expect results.
So let’s take a closer look at Burma. It has probably the highest number of child soldiers in the world, many of them 10 years old or younger. About 75 per cent of its population lives in abject poverty. Guns and drugs are openly smuggled, apparently aided by the military regime. The junta sponges off the people and the country and grows hideously rich as Burmese citizens are starved of food and basic needs. Thousands of activists demanding human rights and equality are clapped in jail, tortured and killed.
Women and even children of ethnic minority groups are regularly raped. It is this regime that we, with our flamboyant talk of human rights and democratic freedoms, support and work with. This regime that we provide financial and military assistance to, open up our markets to and stoutly remain uncritical of.
We have our reasons, of course. First, we need to counter China – if we push Burma away, we fear that China might creep up closer, hissing dangerously from our Burmese border as well. We need to recognise Burma’s strategic importance and use the country as a bridge to Southeast Asia. Second, we have a serious insurgency problem in the Northeast. Many of these extremist groups have bases and training camps in Burma and apparently operate with the blessings of the military regime. Among these are the ULFA of Assam, NSCN of Nagaland and UNLF of Manipur.
We need Burma’s cooperation to flush these insurgents out. And finally, there is always oil and gas. We have been lusting after Burma’s rich reserves for a while. And even when the junta was killing peaceful protesters on the streets of Rangoon last month, we sent our emissary to talk shop. Petroleum Minister Murli Deora was in Rangoon dodging serenely marching monks and the junta’s bullets to sign a US$ 150 million deal for exploration of coastal natural gas.
Does this shameless sucking up to Burma help? We have finally come up with a statement calling for the release of Suu Kyi, but have wagged our finger at the tone of the reprimand by other nations. We have also opposed sanctions against Burma. I agree with the last, though, since sanctions make the regime more desperate to grab whatever is available and further deprive the masses. Think of the sick and starving in Iraq under sanctions. Remember the faces of the dying children not allowed medicines that would cure them? Remember the anger and desperation of their parents?
But it is amazing how we stick to our empty rhetoric of not interfering in the internal affairs of a neighbouring country. Of course that’s rubbish. Ask Rahul Gandhi. The young general secretary of the Congress will tell you all about how his family single-handedly broke Pakistan in two and created Bangladesh. And our troops have gone marching in to promote peace in Sri Lanka when the Tamil Tigers were getting too tiresome. More recently, we have had a constructive role in the Nepal crisis and helped establish democracy. Besides, a word or two of friendly advice never harmed anybody. Military intervention is not the only way.
Politics is a shrewd balancing act. We cannot discard ethics to indulge in selfish greed and expect to flourish as a democracy. Ultimately, by abandoning the people of Burma –and the larger interests of humanity, human rights and all that we believe in – to secure our own limited interests as a nation running scared, we are harming our long-term future.
Besides, our needs are not secured by this endless pampering of a wild junta. At every opportunity, Burma favours China over India – especially when it comes to oil and natural gas. Our trade with Burma is largely to their advantage.
And our insurgency problem has not been solved. The Burmese junta has not clamped down on the training camps and bases of extremists from India. Instead, it is rumoured to extract money from the rebel leaders caught at the border, and apparently plays one rebel group against another. Besides, with more and more refugees from Burma crossing into Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, our problems have been compounded. There are now about 70,000 Burmese refugees in India.
Most importantly, toeing China’s line is perhaps not the best way to counter China. Providing the Burmese people with a valid option to China would have been a much better bet, especially since we are a respected democracy and could consolidate our position with democratic allies. Besides, it is usually safer to deal with a fair and accountable system of governance than with a bunch of feral generals. And allowing our foreign policy to be dictated by the blackmail of buffer States would be pathetic.
We need to bring back ethics in our foreign policy. We cannot just talk about democracy and human rights and put our weight behind their enemies. We must have a place for ethical principles even if realpolitik guides the nation’s policies. It’s not enough to be vocal and moralistic. We need to be morally correct as well. After all, we were trained by Mahatma Gandhi. We do not have the liberty of behaving like the United States. Even in our own backyard. Especially in our own backyard.
Antara Dev Sen is Editor of The Little Magazine (www.littlemag.com). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org