India shifts policy on

The international community keeps eyeing the political turmoil in the military ruled Myanmar. Understandably, neighbors better understand. Why India seemingly has a lukewarm interest in the Myanmarese democratic movement?

It was the 1988 uprising which brought India significantly into the Myanmar politics. This was the time when Myanmarese people contemplated on bringing down the military regime.

The failed uprising forced hundreds of refugees crossed international border into India. From 1988 to 1992, India’s policy vacillated between support for democracy movement and diplomatic isolation.

Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s (1991-1996) “Look East” policy basically changed India’s foreign policy toward Myanmar. The dramatic policy shift, however, happened during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s (1998-2004) administration.

There were two major factors responsible for India’s policy shift: First, to counterweight the strategic influence of the People’s Republic of China, and secondly to deal with insurgency problems in the Northeast India. Economic interest also contributed to it.

Of the two, countering China’s regional influence remains to be the number one concern for India. Having experienced a bitter war with China in 1962, India feels insecure and threatened when China’s influence is broadened.

China-Myanmar bilateral trade hit US$2.057 billion in 2007, up 40.9 percent compared with 2006. China’s exports to Myanmar took $1.686 billion, up 39.6 percent, while its import from Myanmar stood $371 million, up 46.9 percent. China enjoyed a trade surplus of $1.315 billion.

Similarly, India’s exports to Myanmar in 2007-2008 amounted to about $185 million, while its imports from Myanmar were valued at around $810 million. In addition to the Tamu-Kalay-Kalewa highway upgradation, India has made investments in projects such as energy and gas exploration. Most recent India’s assistance was the $200 million project in IT program.
All these moves and counter moves are the direct result of scrambling for power by the two Asian powers. India, at least for now, sees engaging with the military regime an effective means to narrowing the influence of China.

Another important factor for India’s foreign policy shift was due to the rise of insurgency problems in the restive Northeast India. About 20,000 insurgents from different groups of Northeast India have bases in Myanmar, mostly in the Northwestern part of the country in Sagaing Division.

Talks for coordination between India and Myanmar security forces in counter-insurgency operations have taken momentum in recent years. During his visit to New Delhi in 2004, Gen. Than Shwe assured the Indian government that he would not allow his country to be used by anti-India elements.

Sometimes, bilateral talks and agreements have not really been put into practice.

Although the Myanmarese military, in a number of occasions, has asked the Indian government to silent the Myanmarese dissidents, New Delhi so far seems to pay a wishy-washy response. Similarly, Nay Pyi Taw appears to be not fully engaged in dismantling the bases of Indian insurgents operating from Myanmar.

India apparently is not totally ignoring her support for the Myanmarese democratic movement. One evidence is the presence of more than 50,000 Myanmarese refugees (no official figure available) taking refuge in India, including some leading dissidents.

India rather acts in tandem with her national interest and security in the face of China’s influence in the region. By engaging with the military regime, India feels better served. To many, this looks if India has adopted a double-standard policy toward Myanmar.

In the event of Myanmar becoming a democratic country, India is expected to be one of the first to throw her support. Till then, India will continue to compete with China, while the western world is likely to continue with traditional sanctions.

The writer is the General Secretary of U.S.-based Kuki International Forum (www.kukiforum.com) and a researcher on the rise of political conflicts in modern Myanmar (1947-2004).

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