MUMBAI, India — While human rights groups and much of the international community has criticized Burma (renamed Myanmar by its ruling junta) over its upcoming election, its neighbor to the west — the world’s largest democracy — has remained noticeably silent.
India will not comment publicly on what others call a sham election because it is in the process of courting the Burmese junta and trying to lure it away from China’s influence, according to foreign policy specialists. It may privately try to persuade the Burmese government to make political reforms like the release of its national democracy icon, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest, but publicly India’s lips are sealed.
“One of the goals of India is to wean Burma away from China. You don’t wean a neighboring country from the influence of a potential enemy by keeping on criticizing the country for this reason or that reason,” said Delhi-based journalist and strategic analyst Rajeev Sharma.
India views China as a regional rival and considers its efforts to build closer ties with India’s neighbors such as Burma and Pakistan a threat to the democracy’s sovereignty and security.
In addition to wanting to offset China’s influence, India sees Burma as an important partner in its counterterrorism efforts and economic growth. In July, India welcomed with open arms Burma’s Senior Gen. Than Shwe — known as one of the world’s most oppressive dictators — for a five-day visit that included the signing of security and economic pacts.
“Against the backdrop of China's growing clout in Myanmar, India has rolled out the red carpet to welcome Than Shwe,” read a Times of India article during the visit.
Under Than Shwe, Burma has been accused of gross human rights violations, including using systematic rape as a weapon of war, forced labor and kidnapping children to serve as child soldiers in its battles with ethnic groups.
The two nations share a 990-mile border along India’s northeastern states, where India has long faced problems of insurgency. India hopes to rely on Burma’s help in tackling these insurgents who in the past used Burma as a sanctuary from which to conduct cross-border raids.
As India’s economy grows at a rate of 8 percent a year, it also looks to Burma as a source for energy and mineral resources. Indian companies hope to benefit from the exploration of oil and other natural resources in Burma, which despite its deep poverty boasts great natural wealth.
Burma, positioned directly between India and Southeast Asia, also poses an important link in India’s Look East policy. India hopes to use Burma as a land bridge to other nations.
“This is nothing but pragmatism,” said Sharma, describing India’s policy. “Democracy is one thing, but national interest and foreign policy and strategy is another.”
All countries must focus on their national interest first, he said, including the United States.
“The U.S. is the most powerful democracy in the world, and yet the U.S. has traditionally been supportive of dictators across the globe particularly Pakistan,” he said.
Burmese journalists and human rights activists disagree and argue that India’s policy towards its rogue neighbor should be broad-based and include support for the democracy movement and the building of a civil society there.
In addition to its own national interests, India should focus on helping Burma’s democracy movement by pressuring the junta to release political prisoners and Suu Kyi and working with other governments and neighboring countries to encourage talks between Burma’s military generals, ethnic groups and democratic forces there, according to Soe Myint, the editor-in-chief of Mizzima, a publication on Burma run by exiles based in India.
Soe Myint, famous in the Burmese community for hijacking an airplane and forcing it to land in Calcutta in 1990 to bring attention the plight of his people, added that the Indian government does allow Burmese groups and publications like his to operate and deserves credit for that.
Activists also argue that a broad-based policy would help India’s interests in the long-term as it would be better for the country to have a peaceful, stable, thriving neighbor.
The current policy is “in the short-term interest for India so they can do business. But for long-term it is not good for India,” said Tint Swe, who is based in Delhi and was elected as a member of parliament of Burma’s opposition National League for Democracy. “For long-term interests, India should invest in the democracy movement in Burma.”
“Having a stable and developing country next to you would be more beneficial. What India has is an unstable and unhappy and stagnating country,” said David Mathieson, a senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
India’s policy on Burma has dramatically changed over the years. It was the first country in the region to recognize Burma’s independence from Great Britain in 1948. India then helped Burma deal with various ethnic and political groups trying to break the country apart.
India’s policy shifted in 1962 when a military government took over in Burma and turned the country inwards, isolating it from the world and implementing deeply xenophobic policies.
For the next quarter of a century, India supported Burma’s democracy movement, and there was almost no communication between the two nations. When Burma’s government brutally cracked down on peaceful protesters in 1988, India announced its support for the "undaunted resolve of the Burmese people to achieve their democracy.”
This changed in the early 1990s when India realized that China had moved in and gained influence with Burma’s generals, and India launched its Look East policy.
India also realized its efforts to support Burma’s democracy movement had been unsuccessful, said C. Raja Mohan, strategic affairs editor at the Indian Express. He said India — like the West — cannot bring change in Burma even it wanted to. That matter should be left in the hands of the Burmese people themselves.
“It didn’t work out so we should be realistic about our capacity, and we should also be modest enough to say we aren’t going to impose our will on other people,” he said.
Now, India has gone from supporting the democracy movement to constructive engagement to what appears to be full-blown support for a brutal junta.
“India’s change of policy has nothing to do with democratic reform in Burma. It’s purely a self interested approach with the view that their support of the democracy movement wasn’t getting them anywhere,” Mathieson said.
As for the future, no one expects India’s relationship with Burma to change after this election, particularly because no one expects the election to change much of anything. Foreign policy specialists say India and Burma’s relationship is only likely to strengthen and deepen in years to come.
Tint Swe, though, refuses to give up.
“If India can make a u-turn in ‘92-’93, why not another u-turn?” he said. “I never lose hope.”