Why India likes a dictator Obama loves to hate (Comment)

November 9th, 2010 - 3:39 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama By M.R. Narayan Swamy
US President Barack Obama’s impassioned appeal to India to speak out against the military junta in Myanmar is unlikely to impact New Delhi’s policy. Myanmar is one of the few spots where India does not see eye to eye with the US - for good reasons.

The US and sections of the West - who end up getting labelled the ‘international community’ - view Myanmar’s entrenched military junta as usurpers who need to be toppled to make way for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Delhi-educated pro-democracy leader who has been under arrest for years.

This makes sense - from a democratic point of view. It is not that it is India’s desire that Suu Kyi should rot in prison. But isolating the junta is only pushing it deeper into China’s arms. And this New Delhi does not like.

The US is located far away from Myanmar. India is not. Myanmar shares a 1,642-km winding and porous border with four northeastern states of India - Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. Of these, three have had insurgency movements or still suffer from it. Similar ethnic groups inhabit both sides of the India-Myanmar border, making the border areas vulnerable to instability.

The reality is that Myanmar (earlier Burma) is the only country in India’s immediate neighbourhood which has not played the China card against New Delhi despite Beijing’s growing shadow. And although it had opportunities, Myanmar did not promote insurgency directed at India. India cannot - and will not - ignore this.

It is not that India always supported the military rulers. In 1989-90, it was actively backing the pro-democracy movement. That is when it dawned on Indian policy makers that China had begun making inroads into Myanmar, thanks to the West’s refusal to engage with the regime.

Yes, India understands there are human rights concerns in Myanmar. But unlike the West, India does not believe in megaphone diplomacy. Indian leaders take up with the Myanmar junta issues of democracy and Suu Kyi when they can. But this is not done to score brownie points.

The issues figured in discussions when Senior General Than Shwe, head of the military junta, visited India for five days in July this year. Indian leaders have also clarified this to friendly governments in the Far East, who understand far better than the West the reality in Myanmar.

Decades of sanctions against Cuba did not topple Fidel Castro. Economic sanctions against Myanmar are unlikely to succeed either. And India is aware that Washington will never advocate sanctions against Pakistan though Islamabad has promoted and promotes the worst of terrorist groups.

Indeed, the West is committing a blunder by trying to isolate the junta. This has left the field wide open for China to cement its influence in Myanmar. India is thus the largest country in the democratic world actively engaged with Myanmar, quietly trying to shape events knowing well that the junta is deeply entrenched.

At the same time, India plays host to a large pro-democracy population from Myanmar. Economically, it makes sense for India to use Myanmar to connect its economically-backward northeast with Southeast Asia for trade and commerce. With Dhaka dilly-dallying on transit facilities, Myanmar is India’s best bet.

India does not believe that Myanmar is engaged in nuclear proliferation. There is no clear evidence of this. In any case, while calling on India to shun Myanmar, Western companies do billions of dollars of business with the junta over its oil. Strangely, neither New Delhi nor Beijing buys a drop of oil from Myanmar.

In any case, India doesn’t take the high moral ground on political governance. It sees no reason to topple the military junta. Any instability in Myanmar that spins out of control will cause huge problems for India’s fragile northeast. India cannot afford this.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be reached on narayan.swamy@ians.in)

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