‘Don’t go for gas, go for democracy.’
As India’s petroleum minister drove to the New Delhi airport on his way to Burma (Myanmar), pro-democracy protesters lined the streets with this message. But even as blood flowed on the streets of Rangoon, India went with blinders on, just for the oil.
Last week in mysterious, isolated Burma, democracy was crushed once again. Buddhist monks spearheading a new pro-democracy struggle were rounded up, beaten, jailed, and even killed when they rose up against the repression of their military rulers. The desperate Burmese looked to India for help and moral support because none was forthcoming from China. But India’s response was frustratingly typical. Like an ostrich sensing trouble – India buried its head in the sand, calling the protests Burma’s “internal matter.”
The world’s largest democracy, India, must shed this timidity, and mark its presence on the international stage by wielding more influence in the region. This fence-sitting is terrible for its image.
Boasting an annual growth rate of more than 9%, India has significant energy interests that have overtaken principled foreign policy issues. But the return on investment thus far in Burma is so below par that even the two main issues of the politics of realism or realpolitik do not justify India’s silence.
First, energy hungry China and India are competing for Burma’s natural gas and oil reserves. To achieve this, India started wooing the military junta in 1994. But in the last 13 years India has received no gas from Burma. Indeed, a few weeks ago, two contracts were awarded to PetroChina.
Second, Burma shares a border with India’s volatile north-east, plagued by tribal insurgency. India believes it needs the Burmese military’s help to flush out insurgents setting up training camps on the Burmese side. But, of the many groups that operate there, the Burmese army has taken action against only one, with whom India had a ceasefire anyway. Burma even receives arms and ammunition from India for these so-called counter-insurgency operations.
It seems then that tiny, dictatorial Burma benefits more from this relationship with India than the other way around. That’s pathetic for a country that likes the title of ‘superpower’. Now is the time to enhance that reputation because India has gained little from Burma anyway.
Besides, India can’t wish away Burma’s struggle for democracy. Economists warn that the uprisings will keep returning to political centre-stage in Burma because of the fragile nature of its economy. The Army has made most Burmese hopelessly poor. This latest struggle began on August 15th when the junta recklessly withdrew fuel subsidies. The price of gas went through the roof, rising almost 500%. Most Burmese could not even afford a bus ride. The Generals are handling the economy so poorly, that unrest might become a permanent feature in Burma. Given this situation, India will have to deal with its eastern neighbour sooner or later. It simply can’t afford to look away every time.
India must support democracy in Burma. As the only stable democracy in the region, it has the moral authority to preach it. It can’t justify supporting the dictators because it has gained nothing yet from the relationship economically either.
The Burmese have faced grave injustice for more than four decades. They want democracy but it’s been snatched from them with guns and violence every time.
Ironically on 15th August, when unrest began, India was celebrating its 60th year of independence. It’s time then for the world’s largest democracy to speak up boldly and stand up for freedom in its own backyard.