Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Thoughts on Burma

Burma, or Myanmar, is of strategic importance to both China and India given its location between the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia, and its coastline of 1,600 miles. The country has an area of 261,000 square miles and a population of 50 million. It is led by a corrupt and authoritarian military dictatorship ostracized by the West. India's interests necessitate that it mediates between the military junta and the democracy movement. A policy of constructive engagement, and not blind support for western sanctions, is in the long term interest of Burma and India.

Burma's armed forces are the second largest in South East Asia after Vietnam. A military government has ruled that country since 1962. Burma's economy has been mismanaged by corrupt generals and poverty is endemic. The country is racked with 17 tribal insurgencies, five of which represent serious threats to its national unity. The writ of the center does not run in vast swathes of Burmese territory peopled by ethnic and religious minorities. The ethnic Burmese constitute only 65% of the population. The regime is forced to co-opt local war lords through offers of lucrative smuggling deals. The trade in narcotics is highly profitable in a country that is the world's second largest producer of opium. A sudden end to military rule might lead to further instability.

The country's only recent experience of elections was in 1990 which were convincingly won by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The military proceeded to crush the democratic movement. The United States, Europe and Australia imposed economic sanctions which failed to weaken the military. China is Burma's biggest supplier of weapons. The long open border between the two countries enables the import of millions of dollars of Chinese weaponry and US$ 1 billion worth of Chinese consumer goods each year. The Chinese had sought a naval base in the Greater Coco islands off Burma to neutralize India's navy. Beijing envisions Burma as providing its landlocked province of Yunnan access to the sea. Meanwhile, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore retained vibrant trade links Burma while Japan, South Korea and Taiwan continued to invest in that country despite the sanctions. Russia, Ukraine and North Korea provided weaponry to the junta. While western sanctions hit the Burmese poor, it failed to dislodge the authoritarian military regime.

India realized that its initial stand off policy only ensured a growing Chinese clout in Rangoon that was not to its interests. India did a strategic rethink of its Burma policy in 1998. It began to cultivate generals in the ruling junta. It discussed plans to build a port in the Burmese province of Arakan. India proposed a highway between Shillong and Bangkok to open up India's north east. It explored ideas to link the Brahmaputra and Mekong rivers, and to connect the landlocked Indian state of Mizoram with the sea. India clamped down on Burmese insurgent groups based in Mizoram. It successfully elicited Burmese cooperation to close down Naga and Meithei rebel bases in its territory. India followed China's interest in the development of Burmese off-shore petroleum resources.

Western sanctions have failed to weaken the military. India has no option but to continue engaging Burma's dictators to ensure that the Chinese do not monopolize that country's geostrategic assets. India to this end should endeavor to constructively mediate between the Burmese military and the leaders of the democratic movement. Any other policy would be to its own peril.


doubtinggaurav said...


I think Myanmar is a key player in Chinese strategy to encounter India.
India must ensure that Myanmar doesnt do so.


Jaffna said...


India can only ensure that China does not use Burma to encircle India by actively involving itself in the development and politics of Burma. The Indira and Rajiv administrations played a key role in Sri Lanka. This verged on the military. I am not arguing for a similar role in Burma. But India's private sector can easily invest and its government mediate between the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi. For one, India has the relative trust of both parties.

Generals Than Shwe and Maung Aye might be inclined towards India as a counter to China. The now disgraced but one time powerful General Khin Nyunt was pro-Chinese. The otherwise authortarian and corrupt military junta opened up to India only to secure options that a sole reliance on China might not have provided. India should leverage that.

India lacks a coherent Nepal policy, a Burma policy and a Sri Lanka policy today. This needs to be remedied.

The National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi has several ex-military officials in its ranks. The army is all pervasive in that country. Perhaps, India can start by offering to train raising Burmese military personnel in return for a gradual opening up to representative democracy in Rangoon (or Pyinmana - the new capital).

The Greatest Hokie Ever !! said...

[Jaffna] That is what I was eluding in on one of my blog-posts, India has displayed considerable lack of fore-sight in developing alliances. We are still stuck in the Socialist pattern and still hark on SAARC. There is a dire need to understand that our main enemy is China and we need to counter the Chinese by cultivating relationships with the Burmese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese and anyone else who want to take on the Chinks.


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