Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Myanmar: Under pressure to prove its democratic credentials, India’s strategic interests win out in relations with Myanmar

Source: International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

Though under pressure to prove its democratic credentials, India’s strategic interests win out in relations with Myanmar, Harsh V Pant comments for ISN Security Watch.

By Harsh V Pant for ISN Security Watch

Myanmar’s (Burma) reclusive military leader, General Than Shwe, began a five-day visit to India last week - the second such visit by a top junta leader in a year, and India rolled out the red carpet for the head of Myanmar’s State Peace and Development Council.

During the visit, the two sides signed a raft of pacts, including treaties on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, counter terrorism, development projects, science and technology and information cooperation. A memorandum of understanding was signed to provide Indian assistance in restoring the Ananda temple in Bagan, a major tourist attraction in Myanmar.

Two issues were front and central - energy cooperation and insurgents operating in India’s north-east who manage to use and hide along the 1650-kilometer India-Myanmar border.

India plans to invest more than $1 billion in Myanmar’s energy sector over the next few years. Among the infrastructure and development projects discussed were an India-Myanmar-Thailand highway project, a hydro-electric project, a truck assembly plant and a trade point on the Mizoram-Myanmar border.

Than Shwe’s visit to New Delhi came days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech at an ASEAN meeting urged regional countries to push Myanmar to comply with UN human rights resolutions and nuclear non-proliferation commitments.

Clinton has described life in Myanmar as “dangerous” for the country’s inhabitants, and has urged other nations to push for democratic reforms there. The US is concerned that the junta in Myanmar will use its increasing engagement with India to gain greater global legitimacy.

US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has suggested that India’s growing role in global politics should be used to penetrate the tight military clique that runs Myanmar and that New Delhi should “encourage interlocutors inside [Myanmar] to embrace reforms.”

Previously a harsh critic of the Myanmar junta, since the mid-1990s, India has muted its criticism and dropped its vocal support for detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in or to pursue its ‘Look East’ policy aimed at strengthening India’s economic ties with the rapidly growing economies in East and South East Asia.

More important to New Delhi has been China’s rapidly growing profile in Myanmar. As India realized that Myanmar - one of its closest neighbors and a major source of natural gas – was increasingly under China’s orbit, it reversed its decades-old policy of isolation and has now begun to deal directly with the junta.

India has found it difficult to toe the western line on Myanmar. It is stuck between the demands of its role as the world’s largest democracy and the imperatives of its strategic interests. The large Burmese refugee community in India is a product of the 1998 military crackdown in Burma.

Indian elites have long admired the freedom struggle led by Suu Kyi, who was honored with one of India’s highest civilian awards in 1993. Even today, the official policy of the Indian government is the eventual restoration of democracy in Myanmar. But India’s strategic interests in Myanmar have become significant in recent years, especially as China’s trade, energy and defense ties with Myanmar have surged.

Strategic interests have led New Delhi to only gently nudge the Myanmar junta on the issue of democracy. India has gained a sense of trust at the highest echelons of Myanmar’s ruling elite and it would be loath to lose this. As such, India remains opposed to western sanctions on the country.

Even as the Myanmar military junta was readying for a violent crackdown on monks and democracy activists in 2008, the Indian petroleum minister was in Yangon (Rangoon) signing a production deal for three deep-water exploration blocks off the Rakhine coast.

While India did support the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution censuring the military junta, it tried to tone it down to little effect in order to balance its democratic credentials with its desire to retain its influence over Myanmar.

Yet India has found it difficult to counter Chinese influence in Myanmar, with China selling everything from weapons to food grains there, and projecting power in the Indian Ocean will become an even greater challenge if China increases its naval presence in Myanmar.

India is under tremendous pressure to demonstrate its credentials as a responsible global stakeholder, but it is unlikely that New Delhi will take a strong anti-military posture vis-à-vis Myanmar. Indian strategic interests demand a robust partnership with Myanmar, and New Delhi seems to view democracy promotion as a luxury it cannot afford at the moment.

Harsh Pant is a lecturer at King's College London. His research interests include WMD proliferation, US foreign policy and Asia-Pacific security issues. He is also presently a Visiting Fellow at CASI, University of Pennsylvania.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).