Why India is selling weapons to Burma

In need of help against separatist fighters, India ignores a EU-US weapons ban.

Since 1988, the European Union has had an embargo on selling weapons to Burma. The US has had one since 1993. But that's not stopping India from selling arms to the southeast Asia military regime.

Last week, India sparked fresh cries of outrage from human rights groups when a report surfaced saying that it plans to sell an unknown number of sophisticated Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) to Burma (also known as Myanmar).

According to a report by Amnesty International and other international organizations, the helicopters should be covered by the embargo because they are made with components from at least six EU countries and the United States.

Indian officials have not confirmed the sale. But they maintain that they need Burma's help in fighting a separatist uprising. This and other recent military sales to Burma are justified in light of India's legitimate security concerns in the restive northeast. India and Burma share a 1,020-mile-long unfenced border, allowing militants from India's northeastern states to use neighbors, such as Burma, as a haven to carry out hit-and-run strikes on Indian soldiers.

But human rights groups are not buying that explanation – and are pushing the European Union to cut all future weapons production deals with India.

"Myanmar is a land of atrocities," says Mungpi Suantak, who and lives in exile in New Delhi and is the assistant editor of Mizzima News, a Burmese news agency. "As done in the past, they [Burma's military regime] will use these weapons to kill their own people."

Mr. Suantak left Burma in 1988 when the current Burmese junta crushed a pro-democracy uprising, killing thousands.

The report, "Indian helicopters for Myanmar: making a mockery of the EU arms embargo?," says that the Advanced Light Helicopters include rocket launchers from Belgium, engines from France, brake systems from Italy, fuel tanks and gearboxes from Britain.

India's breach of the arms embargo, the report says, will undercut EU and US pressure on Burma's military regime to release pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and restore democracy in the country.

The report on ALH sales was released after the UN Secretary General's special adviser on Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, visited New Delhi and Beijing earlier this month to seek the support of India and China to resolve the impasse over opening the country up to great political participation of opposition parties.

"It is an ill-timed and ill-thought initiative," says Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) in New Delhi. "The government of India should be responding to the call of the international community including ASEAN to [promote democracy] in Burma and not sell arms to the junta to give it further legitimacy."

Other Indian weapons sales

This would not be the first time India has sold weapons to Burma. In August 2006, the Indian Navy transferred two BN-2 Defender Islander maritime surveillance aircraft and deck-based air-defense guns.

In September, India's Defense Secretary, Shekhar Dutt, after a two-day official trip to Burma, announced the sale of 105-mm light artillery guns and T-55 tanks being phased out by Indian Army.

And in January this year, the Indian naval chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, visited Yangon in Burma. He announced India's plans to also sell the junta two British-built Islander surveillance aircraft.

India says it needs Burma's help. There are at least 20,000 guerrillas from five major militant groups in India's northeast – all fighting the Indian government for sovereignty or independence – who have training camps in the dense jungles of Sagaing in northern Burma.

New Delhi has been deliberating with Yangon over plans for a military offensive against such groups.

Counterinsurgency operations in India's northeast, says an official from India's Ministry of Defense under conditions of anonymity, cannot succeed unless neighboring countries refrain from supporting the separatist groups based on their territories.

When India's foreign minster, Pranab Mukherjee, visited Burma in January this year, the junta agreed to India's proposal to institutionalize cooperation between their armies for operations against insurgent groups in the northeast.

In December 2006, India's home minister, Shivraj Patil, and his Burmese counterpart, Maj. Gen. Maung Oo, met in New Delhi, and the Burmese agreed to set up a "police liaison post" at the border.

In return, India agreed to initiate action on Burma's pending request for the supply of military equipment.

India is keen, the Indian official says, that "Burma be a partner like Bhutan," the only other nation that has helped India fight insurgents in the northeast.

Bhutan launched "Operation All Clear" to flush out militants active in the state of Assam in 2003. The Royal Bhutan Army launched military operations in southern Bhutan along the India-Bhutan border, shutting down as many as 30 camps and reportedly killing nearly 600 insurgents.

The other argument for sales to Burma is economic. Good ties with Burma are seen as part of New Delhi's "Look East" policy, which is intended to increase trade between India and southeast Asia and, say Indian officials, undermine rising Chinese influence in the region.

India-Burma business is brisk

Trade between India and Burma is said to have expanded from $87.4 million in 1990-91 to $569 million in 2005-06. The most ambitious of New Delhi's ventures is a link between ports on India's east and Sittwe Port in western Burma. The $100 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project is expected to provide an alternate route for transport of goods to northeast India.

It is estimated that Burma has 300 billion cubic meters of gas reserves, and India is engaged in drawing up pipeline routes to transport this gas to its northeast region. India's Gas Authority of India Ltd. (GAIL) and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) are presently involved in this process.

The authors of the human rights report critizing the helicoptor sale note that a large-scale Burmese military offensive in northern Karen State during 2006 displaced an estimated 27,000 civilians, and destroyed over 230 villages. The Burmese Army also destroyed their food supplies and means of production, according to the International Committee of Red Cross.

The report on the sale recommends that the EU "withdraw all existing export licence authorizations and refuse any new applications for any transfers of components or technology that could be used for the ALH" and also "discontinue all future production cooperation with India that might lead to transfers of embargoed equipment to Myanmar."

The EU has not yet responded to the recommendations.

Mr. Chakma is skeptical that India's overtures to Burma will pay off. "Like all good businessmen, the [Burmese] junta sells oil to the highest bidder and not India," says Chakma. And he notes, that in a bid to continue extracting favors from India, the Burmese junta might want to keep the insurgency alive in the northeast.

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