Monday, October 08, 2007


‘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.


Sathej said...

Nice to see you back after a long time, Alaphia. Good analysis of the issue. India has to stand up for it, of course, but where are such bold policy-makers to do all that? The Government is too busy with its own stability issues. Burma benefitting more - true. Its ridiculous really!

GeekBeyondRedemption said...

Nice! The promise of oil and gas is itself keeping Indian diplomats quiet.

We're used to being spineless. And if Myanmar plays off China against us, these diplomats will go on bended knees to make up.

Unfortunately, there is no skele-grow available to help them grow a spine in a couple of days.

Unknown said...

The statement written easily reflects general consensus amongst many watching the news. The solutions not offered are not very easy.

To begin with Burmese people are generally not cosy with Indians to say the least (Indians had to leave Burma after 1950 foricbly leaving their investments and homes, many of them from Madras).

I dont believe democracy just arises out of a general consensus amongst people. Apart from having a critical mass of educated populace, strong democratic institutions etc (i am not obviously and expert in this). The lack of this realization is in display in Iraq. However a big part of the sacrifice has to be from the Burmese population themselves.

It is sad to see the brutal deaths. A good friend of mine is Burmese. Perhaps they are "birth pains".

India has been an exception to the above description of the needs for a democracy to sustain (going from experiment to --> exception to--> ? exemplary)

what could India actively do? Could it stop all economic activity with Burma and Viola Democracy is born? Could it impose an embargo on the burmese junta? Would that make democracy or would it kill more children in Burma? (read hunger and malnutrition)

Regional groupings like the ASEAN should have expelled Burma from their club?

Certainly agree that India has to support Burmese Democracy.

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Hi Sathej,
Thanks... I'm certainly back now after a long break.

Geek - India's response is plain embarassing.

Arif - I was reading a Fareed Zakaria piece on how economic sanctions just end up empowering the very people it is supposed to put pressure on. So although the US and EU have imposed sanctions, it actually punishes the Burmese and consolidates the position of its corrupt generals. What India can do is begin by applying some moral pressure. I know the Indians were asked to leave - the Chettiars from Madras who became hugely unpopular - but the Burmese have no hope in China coming to their support so India certainly can make a bolder, stronger statement... if not for the Burmese, for our own sake.

Unknown said...

Wonderful to see you back.

Amazing really how little debate or criticism of India's policy on Burma there has been in the media here.

Alaphia Zoyab said...

Hi Delhi,
Thanks. When I was googling for information on Burma, I kept hitting American media sites. I figured the Indian media isn't saying much, except for karan Thapar who I think asked in the HT of the Indian govt. 'Has the cat got your tongue?'.

This business of non-alignment seemed more like timidity.

simondenyer said...

Yep Karan Thapar's piece was about all there was.
Just to underline your point about how little Burma does to crack down on Indian insurgent groups, we have credible reports that members of the UNLF were given Burmese army uniforms and joined the regular soldiers in cracking down on the protests in Mandalay.
Some of those insurgent groups are very close to the Burmese military.

Anyway, liked your piece very much!
And congratulations on the change of location!