Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

South Asia

Politics silences Delhi on Myanmar
By Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI - India's uncharacteristically muted response to the renewed incarceration of Myanmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been prompted by India's own problems with insurgent groups that thrive in its northeastern states near Myanmar, say observers here.

"India has been bogged down with long-standing insurgency problems in its northeastern states, which it hopes to check with support from the military government in Yangon," said Ganganath Jha, an expert on Myanmar and professor at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

Jha said India's earlier policy of vocally supporting democracy in Myanmar has driven the generals who rule that country to seek ever more support from their other large and powerful neighbor, China, in return allowing Beijing military facilities in Myanmese territory.

"There is a realization that the region is very volatile and that India can achieve more by extending support to initiatives made by ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] than by acting on its own," Jha said.

Recently, India's former foreign secretary and the architect of India's policy of engagement with the Myanmese generals, J N Dixit, commented that while India should be "passionate with our own democracy", it should not "take the mission" to other countries.

This has drawn protests from the large Myanmese exile community in India that is carrying on the struggle for democracy in their homeland. "Non-existence of democracy next door is a threat to India's own democracy," commented New Delhi-based Soe Myint, editor of the Mizzima News website specializing on Myanmar.

Soe Myint, who is facing trial in Kokata for hijacking a Yangon-bound Thai Airways airliner 14 years ago to draw attention to the suppression of freedom in Myanmar, said he appreciated India's problems with its insurgencies and with rival China - but not how these were being dealt with.

"What is happening is that the Burmese government is playing its cards well by pretending to crack down on insurgents in the northeast and by playing off one country off against the other," India against China, Soe Myint said.

Referring to a visit in January by Myanmese Foreign Minister U Wing Aung - the first by a high Myanmese official to India in five years - Soe Myint said the military regime was taking care to balance it with simultaneous visits by its high officials to Beijing.

Aung's visit was marked by agreements to develop road and port facilities, hydroelectric power projects, joint exploration of offshore and inland petroleum and gas resources and also boost defense relations.

Under its "Look East" plan, India is already helping to build a trilateral road link connecting its northeastern states all the way to Thailand and helping its neighbor build a port at Sittwe.

According to Indian officials, who asked not to be named, Yangon has been cracking down on the insurgency in India's northeast. This, they said, has helped immensely in bringing the main factions of the armed Naga rebel group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) led by Isak Muivah, to the negotiating table.

A smaller but important faction of the NSCN, which is committed to the creation of a "Nagalim" or homeland for the Naga tribes that is carved out of Indian and Myanmese territory is said to be continuing to maintain camps in Myanmar.

The Indo-Myanmese border stretches for nearly 1,700 kilometers of heavily forested area. It is home to various ethnic groups such as the Nagas, Kukis and Mizos, who straddle the border and have been in serious conflict with the Indian government at various times over the past half-century.

India and Myanmar carry on a border trade mostly between the Indian town of Moreh and Tamu, its Myanmese counterpart, and includes engineering goods, machinery and pharmaceuticals. But large amounts of heroin are also carried across the border form Myanmar into the Indian state of Manipur, for onward movement to destinations in the West.

Soe Myint feels that it was not enough for India to be satisfied with small-time trade or merely tagging along behind ASEAN. New Delhi should instead be playing a more proactive role in Myanmar's democratization process because of its size, reach and influence, he argued.

"Right now the situation is that [the] Burmese government's claims to legitimacy rest partly on the ground that it can claim to have the support of both China and India - two of the world's largest countries," Soe Myint pointed out.

The political opposition in India has called for the immediate release of Suu Kyi, who Myanmar's military rulers say is being held under "protective custody" after a violent attack May 30 on her and her supporters, said to have been instigated by pro-government groups.

These opposition groups are led by the Congress party and the Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M). Important constituents of the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) such as the Samata Party have joined the calls for Suu Kyi's release, also made by ASEAN last week.

But Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party has made no comment on the incarceration of Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, who went to school and college in India and has many personal friends in New Delhi.

Officially, the Indian government has resorted to "diplomatese" - saying only that it has been "watching very closely with concern the recent developments in Myanmar".

(Inter Press Service)

Jun 24, 2003

Yangon feels the tightening of the screws
(Jun 6, '03)

Myanmar problem needs Asian solution
(Jun 3, '03)

Prospects brighten for Kunming Initiative
(Feb 12, '03)

Naga peace plan deepens ethnic wedge
(Feb 7, '03)

India plays it both ways with Myanmar
(May 15, '02)

Myanmar shows India the road to Southeast Asia
(Feb 21, '01)

Click here to be one)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong