Why India offers tepid response to Burma's release of Suu Kyi

In its relationship with Burma (Myanmar), India is caught between its commitment to principles of democracy and its desire to counter China's rising power in the region.

Khin Maung Win/AP Photo
Burma(Myanmar)'s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi leaves her National League for Democracy party's headquarters on Monday, Nov. 22, in Yangon, Burma(Myanmar).

On his recent visit here, President Obama lustily praised Indians for their democratic ways. But he also wagged his finger at India’s cozy ties with military-ruled Burma (Myanmar), telling lawmakers “that with increased power comes increased responsibility” to speak out on human rights and democracy.

“As the world's two largest democracies, we must also never forget that the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others. Indians know this, for it is the story of your nation,” Obama said.

Many Indians were, to put it mildly, unimpressed. They point out that the story of their nation – and its relations with its eastern neighbor – is also shaped by the same geopolitics that brought Obama to India, namely a fear of Chinese domination of Asia. As long as China seeks to extend its reach into Burma, so India will engage with Burma, whoever holds the levers of power.

In addition, India covets Burma’s energy resources and wants to secure a lawless, nearly 1,000-mile land border that abuts northeast India, where ethnic-based insurgent groups have operated for decades on both sides of the border. In recent years, Burma has stepped up cooperation against Indian-based insurgents, say security analysts.

These calculations explain India’s muted reaction to the Nov. 13 release of Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who elicited praise from Obama and other Western leaders. While the same leaders condemned Burma’s recent elections as an undemocratic sham, India has sided with Asian countries in welcoming them as a step forward. It goes out of its way to avoid direct criticism of the junta, whose supreme leader, General Than Shwe, was here in July.

Realpolitik trumps principle

India’s distance from Ms. Suu Kyi is a 180-degree turn from its previous stance. Until the early 1990s, it openly backed the opposition led by Suu Kyi, who attended college in India in the 1960s and later drew on Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent struggle. But Indian leaders feared being shut out of Burma, which was courting China and other East Asian countries, and switched sides.

Such realpolitik stirs regret among Indian intellectuals who identify with Suu Kyi’s struggle and advocate a more principled foreign policy that befits the world’s largest democracy. They recoiled in horror at India’s tepid response to Burma’s violent suppression in 2007 of monk-led protests against fuel prices. Bloody images of the crackdown resonated in India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

But the public rebuke delivered by Obama, and carried live on television, didn’t strengthen the hand of idealists, says Sumit Ganguly, a political scientist at Indiana University and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi. “Because he said it in parliament, it actually had the opposite effect” of stirring debate, he says.

Moreover, Indian politicians are irked by US military aid to Pakistan, its nuclear-armed rival, and to repressive countries like Saudi Arabia, which exports its fundamentalist brand of Islam to South Asia. Just as the US insists on putting security first in aiding such regimes, so India must put its scruples aside in dealing with Burma, they argue.

“India’s government cannot be blamed for deciding that its national interests in Burma are more important than standing up for democracy there,” wrote Shashi Tharoor, a former diplomat and lawmaker, in a newspaper column.

'Taken over by China'

These interests include cracking down on separatist insurgents in northeast India, who have used Burma as a sanctuary to launch attacks. Security analysts say the insurgents are mostly bandits without political goals, but still present a security threat and are a drag on development in a backward region. Earlier this month, 23 people died in attacks blamed on the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, which has fought since the 1980s.

Cooperation between India and Burma has begun to eliminate sanctuary for these groups. On his state visit in July, Than Shwe signed an extradition treaty with India in order to return captured insurgents to stand trial. Burma also seeks Indian cooperation in rooting out Burma-based insurgent groups that cross the border.

But India’s overriding interest in Burma is checking China’s power play in the affairs of a strategic neighbor. “We’ve already literally allowed the whole country to be taken over by China. This is far more problematic in the long run than dealing with a few insurgent groups,” says Ajai Sahni, director of the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a research centre in Delhi.

Indian diplomats argue that quiet diplomacy can be more effective in Burma than Western outrage. They also point out that India gives political asylum to Burmese dissidents, including those who fled after the 2007 uprising.

Among the refugees is Soe Myint, a student activist who now runs Mizzima, a Burma-oriented news website. His arrival in India made news: In 1990, he hijacked a Thai Airways flight to Burma's capital, Rangoon, and diverted it to Calcutta in order to get publicity for Burma’s opposition movement. Granted asylum in India, he remains hopeful that political pressure can be brought to bear on Burma, even though he recognizes that India has other priorities.

“India’s national interest should include the restoration of democracy and the strong support for democratic forces in Burma,” he says.

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