Burma is back in the news amid reports that the ruling military junta has set its upcoming "elections" for October 2010 and is making serious efforts to secure short-range ballistic missiles. Taken with the lack of results from the Obama administration's attempted engagement with the junta, these developments highlight the need for stepped-up regional activism in favor of democracy in Burma, especially from its democratic neighbors.
India in particular faces an increasingly untenable balancing act in maintaining its current accommodation of the junta, and will be under growing pressure this year to move toward a policy that better aligns its values and interests. Such a shift would be a boon to those supporting democratic reforms in Burma, as well as to India's own interests and its regional leadership aspirations.
Since 1993, India has steadily deepened its engagement with the Burmese junta, setting aside ties to Burma's democratic past and moral qualms about this odious regime. Indian foreign policy elites defend this unprincipled policy by pointing to cooperation between the Indian and Burmese militaries on their restive common border, and the growth in trade between the two countries. They also claim that the relationship is an important strategic counterweight to the junta's close relationship with authoritarian China.
But in reality India's benefits from cooperation with the junta have been disappointingly small on both the economic and security fronts. The Burmese regime plays India and China off of each other, protecting its own interests above all. But when forced to choose, the Burmese junta invariably favors Beijing.
A case in point was the 2005 decision to award China a 30-year contract to develop the most valuable blocks of the Shwe natural gas fields despite India putting in a higher bid. Senior General Than Shwe and his ilk may dislike and fear Chinese hegemony, but they know Beijing will suffer no attacks of conscience or domestic political pressure over the junta's human-rights abuses.
Recent security-related developments should give India's "realists" further pause. Last week, Australia's Lowy Institute published a report by Burma expert Andrew Selth on the junta's alleged long-running efforts to secure Scud-type short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from North Korea and other sources. Mr. Selth writes that the junta is more interested in obtaining SRBMs than nuclear weapons technology and posits that much of the evidence cited in media and intelligence community reporting about Burma's nuclear ambitions is more likely attributable to its pursuit of SRBMs.
If Burma's generals get SRBMs, which have a range of 700 miles, India is a potential target. In light of the junta's closer relationship with Beijing, and the links the Chinese have endeavored to build between the Burmese and Pakistani militaries, Indian defense planners are unlikely to be comforted by Mr. Selth's prediction that Burmese missiles would be pointed at Thailand.
The regime's planned elections this year provide a fitting opportunity for India to change its approach. Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper and the Democratic Voice of Burma radio service have reported that junta officials have scheduled the elections for Oct. 10, 2010 (a date consistent with their penchant for numerology). The regime reportedly plans to permit the National League for Democracy to compete in the elections, even though NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi will likely be prohibited from participating and many party activists will remain in prison. These polls will take place against a backdrop of fear and repression under a constitution designed to institutionalize military rule, thus ensuring they fall far short of any standard for a credible election.
Such a blatantly manipulated election presents a serious policy challenge for India. China's unelected leadership can pronounce the Burmese junta's most deeply cynical electoral efforts to be a triumph of democracy with a straight face, but Indian leaders will and should be held to a higher standard. Giving their stamp of approval to a farcical election would undermine the ideals that animate Indian national identity.
New Delhi should be more clever about using its own values and role as a leader within Asia to change the regional calculus on Burma. This means working with fellow democracies in the region such as Indonesia, Japan and Thailand to press for political reform and improvement on human-rights, economic and internal security issues that have external consequences for the region.
These democratic countries occupy a privileged position that gives them unique prerogative to address the quality of Burma's electoral processes, and they should use their status to full effect in the coming months. The additional weight of India's voice to this group, particularly if raised through Asian venues such as the Bali Democracy Forum, would undoubtedly move the center of gravity within Asia. China would be forced to adapt or find itself outside the regional consensus.
By embracing its values and the leadership role that naturally follows, India can better protect its interests, while undermining China's present advantage in Burma. Unlike India's present failing approach, such a policy has the advantage of being smart—and the right thing to do.