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The Burma Road
The Burma Road
The Hindu (New Delhi)
November 13, 2000
By C. Raja Mohan
NEW DELHI, NOV. 12. In rolling out the red carpet to a top gun from the
military Government of Myanmar, India is signaling a new phase in its
relations with a very special neighbour and a readiness to pursue its
interests in Asia with some vigour.
Gen. Maung Aye, who ranks number two in the military and political
establishment of Myanmar, is arriving here on Tuesday on an extended
visit to India.
This is the first exchange at the higher political level between the two
neighbours since the late Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had traveled to
Yangon in 1987. It marks a culmination of the quite but productive
engagement between the two nations in recent years.
Since Rajiv Gandhi?s trip to Myanmar, the relations between the two
neighbours have gone through a roller coaster. Following the military
crackdown in 1988 against the struggle for the restoration of democracy
in Myanmar, India went out of the way to support the dissidents. There
was an outpouring of Indian sentiment in favour of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi
leading the democratic movement.
But by the early 1990s, India had to reconsider the wisdom of working
against the Government of an important neighbouring country and began
cautious engagement with the military ruler of Myanmar. There were far
too many stakes for New Delhi in a cooperative relationship with Yangon
to persist with a hostile policy. In warmly welcoming Gen. Maung Aye
this week, India is doing much more than picking up pieces form the
Rajiv Gandhi visit of 1987. It is trying to rebuild a relationship that
got sundered four decades ago, when Myanmar turned insular and the large
Indian community had to leave that country.
India and Myanmar have put behind the many negative elements of the past
and are ready to lay the foundation for a productive bilateral
partnership that is not predicated on the political colour of the
Government in Yangon.
Gen. Maung Aye?s interaction with the top echelons of the Indian
establishment over the next few days will suggest that the limited
engagement of last decade is yielding place to a new warmth between New
Delhi and Yangoon.
Critics of Indian foreign policy at home and abroad will surely point to
the apparent inconsistency of the Indian refusal to deal with the
military Government in Pakistan while laying it out for the Generals of
But the fact is that India?s reluctance to engage Pakistan is not based
on the nature of the regime in Islamabad. It has to do with Pakistan?s
support for cross-border terrorism in India.
There is a huge difference, as far as India is concerned, between the
Generals in Pakistan and those in Myanmar. While the military rulers in
Islamabad are relentless in their support to terrorism in this country,
the military Government of Myanmar has been very helpful in countering
the festering insurgencies in the North-East.
The benefits of cooperation between the Indian security establishment
and the military in Myanmar have indeed been immeasurable in the
management of the situation in the North East. With terrorism looming
large over India?s security agenda in the recent years, few of India?s
neighbours have been as cooperative as Myanmar in dealing with this
But will India risk international opprobrium in engaging Myanmar, at a
time when Western nations are trying to isolate it? Unlikely. All major
powers understand the conflict between ideological principle and
national interest in the conduct of foreign policy.
Even the richest and most powerful nations cannot claim to have resolved
the inherent tension between the ideas of ?power? and ?principle?. The
United States, for example, argues that trading with the Chinese
Communists will encourage their evolution into democrats.
At the same time Washington has suggested that trade embargoes against
Myanmar will force its Generals into restoring democracy. The difference
probably lies in the American assessment that there is more money to be
made in China than in Myanmar.
In any case, the attempts to isolate Myanmar have not really succeeded.
Myanmar is now part of the Association of South East Asian Nations. It
is also part of other regional groupings. Most Asian nations reject the
idea of barricading Myanmar out of the regional mainstream.
Unlike the West and the U.S., India needs to be modest about its
capacity to export democracy to other nations and ability to engineer
political change in other nations. While democracy is indeed a virtue,
it can only be established through an internal impetus rather than
A number of factors are at work in Indian diplomacy towards Myanmar.
Four sensitive States of the North-East lie along the volatile border of
nearly 1600 km between the two nations. Beyond the immediate common
interest in countering terrorism, New Delhi and Yangon will have to work
together in bringing peace and prosperity to the north eastern parts of
India and the remote western regions of Myanmar. Myanmar is the
bridge-state between India and South East Asia. When the new road link
between the North-East and Myanmar, build by the Indian Border Roads
Organisation, opens in a few weeks, the two countries would have taken
the first step in realizing the huge potential for trans-regional
cooperation in the transportation and energy sectors.
India and Myanmar have stake in transforming the Bay of Bengal littoral
into a community of States cooperating across a broad front. New Delhi
and Yangon also have a big responsibility in ensuring the waters of the
Bay of Bengal remain tranquil and do not come under destabilizing
India is beginning to understand that it cannot shape the future balance
of power in Asia without showing the political will to take difficult
decisions and the institutional energy to pursue it interests.