The release of Aung San Suu Kyi comes at an important juncture in India’s relations with Burma. During the visit of General Than Shwe — leader of the junta and Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council — to India earlier this year, the two sides concluded a raft of economic and security deals and agreements. The lengthy joint statement issued at the end of the visit made no reference to the political situation within Burma, let alone anything about the internment of Ms Suu Kyi. This was particularly problematic in the context of political developments in the country: the adoption of undemocratic election laws; the disqualification of Ms Suu Kyi and the dissolution of her party, the National League for Democracy.
India’s stance has been criticised by Western democracies. US President Barack Obama’s pointed observations in his speech to the Indian parliament captured the prevailing views on this subject. India, he noted, had “often shied away” from condemning gross violations of human rights. When the Burma junta openly suppressed democratic aspirations of its people, “democracies of the world cannot remain silent”. India’s concerns, he suggested, stemmed from a misplaced concern about violating the principle of state sovereignty.
In fact, concerns about state sovereignty have seldom inhibited India from speaking its mind. Think of India’s consistent and vocal criticism of apartheid in South Africa — not least when Western democracies were mealy-mouthed on the issue. Rather, India’s stance on Burma reflects both its better understanding of the problem and its realpolitik calculations. The latter, however, seem to be based on questionable assumptions. And there is scope to finetune and bring them in sync with our democratic identity and values.
The dominant Western narrative about Burma is of a struggle dating back to the 1980s between forces of democracy led by Ms Suu Kyi and the repressive junta. This captures an important facet of the political context in Burma, but it is too simplistic and myopic. Any meaningful attempt towards a democratic transition will have to address a larger set of problems — issues that played a critical role in weakening democracy and tightening the junta’s grip in the first place. The country’s debilitating problems date back to World War ii. Some of the most difficult and brutal battles of the war were fought in Burma. The British decided that a war-ravaged Burma was not worth holding on to. By the end of 1946, they began to parley with the leader of the Burmese resistance forces, Aung San (father of Ms Suu Kyi). The following year tragedy struck, as Aung San and several members of his cabinet were murdered under circumstances that still remain obscure. Worse, by 1948 the situation in Burma had spiralled into a civil war.
The communist party was the first group to take up arms against the government. Soon, an Islamist insurgency erupted in the north of Arakan. Shortly thereafter, the Karens and Kachins of the highlands turned against the Rangoon government. A couple of years later, the Shans joined the ranks of rebelling tribes. These groups had enjoyed considerable autonomy under the British and feared that their standing would be eroded in a self-proclaimed Buddhist Burma. Some of the groups were rather well armed, having played a major role in the anti-Japanese resistance during World War ii. Others benefited from covert support by China and Thailand.
This anarchical situation resulted in gradual militarisation of the Burmese state. The military began to consume the largest slice of the financial pie and became by far the most powerful actor. Only in 1989 did the government begin to negotiate ceasefire accords. These have been concluded with 16 groups so far. But the underlying disputes are yet to be resolved. A broad attempt at national reconciliation will have to focus on these disputes as well as the demands of Ms Suu Kyi. Reacting to her release, foreign minister S.M. Krishna expressed hope that this would be “the beginning of the process of reconciliation in Burma”. But New Delhi can do more than simply hope for “an inclusive approach to political change”. It can certainly nudge the junta to move further and faster.
Part of the reason why India is unwilling to do so is its concern about China’s influence in Burma. China is its largest trading partner, supplying everything from military equipment to foodgrain. China’s involvement in a range of infrastructure projects has also been a matter of concern for India. These are seen as facilitating China’s access to the Indian Ocean. Yet New Delhi should not over-estimate China’s clout nor regard every Chinese move as detrimental to Indian interests. Historically, Burma’s relationship with China was rarely smooth. Although the two sides managed to resolve the boundary dispute, China continued to assist Burmese communists and insurgents. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, anti-Chinese riots erupted in Rangoon. It was only after 1989 that China and Burma grew closer, united by the international criticism of their human rights record.
Nevertheless, in the past few years the Sino-Burma honeymoon appears to have ended. The junta purge of 2004 and the dismantling of military intelligence network removed key Chinese contacts. The decision in November 2005 to relocate the capital to Naypyidaw took the Chinese by surprise. Beijing made its displeasure clear in January 2007, when its envoy told the UN Security Council that the problems in Burma were “quite serious”. Later that year, Beijing allowed the Security Council to issue a presidential statement critical of the junta. In the wake of Cyclone Nargis the following year, the Chinese urged the junta to cooperate with the UN.
New Delhi need not assume that a more forthright stance towards the junta will necessarily redound to Beijing’s advantage. Our Burma policy has to remain ahead of the trajectory of political developments inside that country. Let’s not forget the central feature of recent democratic transitions: before it happens every revolution seems impossible, but after it happens it seems inevitable. The challenge is to avoid being caught out by history.
- Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi