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December 2007 - January 2008


Political News

Brutal suppression in Burma ‘Myanmar’ - India’s response a disappointment

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


“For evil to triumph, it is necessary only that, good men do nothing”.
Edmund Burke

A Staff Correspondent of The Sunday Times filed a report from Rango on 7 October 2007 saying: The Burmese Army has burnt an undetermined number of bodies at a crematorium sealed off by armed guards north-east of Rangoon over the past 7 days ensuring that the exact death toll in the recent pro-democracy protest will never be known”. The despatch added “ There was no attempt to identify the dead, to return the bodies to their families or to give them even the minimum Buddhist religious rites”. The correspondent further disclosed that Rangoon was filled with horrifying but unconfirmed rumours that some of those cremated were severely injured people and they were thrust into the ovens alive.

Fergal Keane of the BBC in a report from Rangoon 22 October 2007 warned that it would be wrong to think that Burma’s uprising had its brief moment and had fizzled out. The round-ups were continuing as on the date of his reporting. According to him there was a powerful sense of a defining moment among the young monks. The attack on the clergy had outraged the ordinary Burmese and the hopeful news was that the regime – despite the continuing crack down – understood this. Keane said “ I don’t believe however that there is going to be a Leipzig moment when popular revolution will end the dictatorship any time soon. Nor is there any chance that the status quo can be maintained. The pro democracy movement can only go forward. A monk told the correspondent “ We will do the same again when we have a chance”. Keane made a passionate plea in his Rangoon story “ Don’t let Burma vanish from the headlines”.

The 2007-pro-democracy uprising in Burma was initially led by ordinary people including a handful of civil servants. They began by protesting against a steep rise in fuel prices. The protest marches were soon joined in by unarmed and non-violent Buddhist Monks. Their strength in the entire country is estimated be around 400,000. The young Monks came out in large numbers from their religious dormitories including the Pagodas into the street of Rangoon. The mass protest spread to Mandalay, the ancient royal capital, as also the outlying regions. The world came to know of what was happening in Burma only after the TV channels began showing the Rangoon marchers and the world’s newspapers began coming out with screaming headlines from 18 August 2007 onwards reporting on the developing situation. The Military Junta, known in Burmese language as the TATMADAW, cracked down on the “Saffron Marchers” on 26 September 2007. It was a heavy-handed repression by the security forces with truncheons, automatic rifles, detentions and use of ultra-hard third degree interrogation methods. The Buddhist Monk’s response was completely non-violent and peaceful. There was a full clamp down on the media. All channels of electronic communication including the internet were jammed. It is only when the daring among the world’s journalists ventured into Burma at a great risk to their own safety, that the world could know in bits and pieces about what was happening in that unhappy land.

According to conservative estimates in the military crack-down which began on 26/27 September 2007 and continues without a stop, at least 200 – could even be 300 - unarmed pro-democracy protesters were killed in firing and others beaten to death by truncheons by the security forces. Most of those killed were young Buddhist Monks. At least 3000 were detained mostly by “mid-night knocks on the door” for “interrogation”. The Burmese Army, a 400,000 strong force, most of whom are Buddhists, is known to use torture to extract information from political prisoners. Some of those detained including a close aid of the famous and very respected leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement the Nobel Laureate Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, was tortured while she was being interrogated.

The pro-democracy marches of 2007 developed into a mass protest against the 45-year-long uninterrupted and brutally repressive rule of the Military Dictatorship, which was established by General Ne Win. The TATMADAW is currently led by its Senior General Than Shwe, known for his remote features fit for a tyrant. He hardly speaks in public. His long serving Prime Minister Soe Win, no less a hard-liner, died of cancer in the midst of the eventful days of the March of the Monks. The last time a pro-democracy uprising broke out was about 20 years ago in 1988. In a brutal crack down by the security forces, at least 3000 protesters were gunned down in the streets of Rangoon. The world remembers the fateful events in Burma of 1988 as comparable to the Tienanmen Square Massacre in Beijing.

New Delhi had responded robustly against the military crack down in Rangoon in 1988. Sticking its neck out India came out strongly in support of the pro-democracy movement that had blossomed in Burma. The Government of India let it be known to the world at large that it had an important role to play in its capacity as the only functioning democracy in the region. India holds Ms Aung San Suu Kyi the leader of the pro-democracy movement in Burma in the highest regard. Her father General Aung San is held in high esteem as the father of the nation who had led Burma’s independence movement. He was later posted as Rangoon’s Ambassador to New Delhi serving at the post for nearly a decade. His daughter Suu Kyi had most of her school and college education in New Delhi. Everything about her - her upbringing and her values – makes her as India’s very own.

The non-violent pro-democracy movement of 1988 was crushed under the boot-straps of the Burmese Army. India’s support extended to the uprising was gone in vain and it remained a helpless onlooker. The rest of the world ignored both the revolution of 1988 and took no note of India’s fulsome support.

In a remarkable turn of events, in 1991 the Tatmadaw allowed Ms Aung San Suu Kyi to run for elections. In a free and fair election, she secured a landslide majority. In an act of volte-face, the elections were not recognised by the Military Junta and despite international uproar Ms Suu Kyi was sent to serve a term of house arrest in a gated house overlooking a lake in Rangoon. The cruel incarceration of this petit lady has lasted till today. Two decades ago she started as a doughty fighter for democracy and through her sacrifices she has come to epitomise the sufferings of the people of Burma. The Gandhi legacy had meanwhile passed from Nelson Mandela to Aung San Suu Kyi well and truly.

For supporting Burma’s pro-democracy movement in 1988, India became the Military Junta’s enemy No.1. The punishment began with Rangoon looking the other way when separatist outfits fighting India in the North Eastern States set up safe havens on the soil of Burma. The Chinese Intelligence Agencies were allowed to fund, train and equip the separatist insurgents. Terror attacks on India from the Burmese sanctuaries intensified. All these had a terrible destabilising effect on India.

Always looking for any opportunity to spread its tentacles to encircle rival India, China broke through the bamboo curtain, jumped into the gap and began cultivating Burma militarily and economically. The first act for Beijing was to set up an advanced electronic listening post in the Coco Island close to India’s strategically located Naval Base in the Andaman Islands. A Chinese Naval Base, ostensibly to serve as an instrument of power projection in the Indian Ocean, also came into being. China signed up large concessions in the giant gas and oil fields. Burma’s high quality rich timber resource was grabbed by Beijing leaving hardly any room for countries like India to trade in that field. Opium cultivation expanded during this phase.

Since 1988, China has pursued a policy of encouraging Chinese immigrants in large numbers to cross over the common borders and settle in the northern regions of Burma. According to reports, their numbers have swelled to about 2 million. This could be the beginning of Burma’s Tibet-moment.

India had to invest considerable amount of diplomatic effort from the mid-1990s to repair the damage done to bilateral relations for supporting the democracy movement of 1988. Swapan Das Gupta writing in The Pioneer commented: Overlooking democracy and human rights was the price India had to pay for securing Burma’s co-operation in defending its eastern border. Despite these efforts, India was unable to off-set China’s stranglehold over the Burma’s reserves of energy but at least it has now some kind of a meaningful presence there.

Burma constitutes a critical element of India’s “Look East Policy”. Firstly it provides a land bridge to the markets of South East Asia and East Asia – the ASEAN right up to China. A Grand Asian Highway is under construction connecting Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam through Bangkok in Thailand and Mandalay and Rangoon in Burma, bypassing Bangladesh, with Imphal, Gawahati, Calcutta all the way to New Delhi. The highway will also be connected to Beijing and Shanghai in the East to Paris and Berlin in the West. The mega-infrastructure project is expected to trigger a massive regeneration of economic activity in the entire industry-starved and insurgency-ridden Eastern Region of India. Secondly, the importance of Burma to energy hungry India’s urgent need to secure gas supplies from that country cannot be over-emphasised. The decision of Bangladesh Government not to supply gas to India makes Burma an important energy partner. When the pro-democracy Monks were marching through the streets of Rangoon, India quietly sent its Petroleum Minister to sign a $100 million gas deal with Burma.

Although New Delhi’s heart is certainly with the National League for Democracy of which Ms Suu Kyi is the leader. Failure to commit its support to the saffron revolution that the Buddhist Monks unleashed in Burma in 2007 has caused geat embarrassment. India’s moral grand-standing on foreign policy claiming from roof tops that it is the world’s largest democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Gandhian legacy have together added up to make the embarrassment even more profound. A Burmese exile Aung Zaw Editor of a magazine called “Irrawady” published from Thailand wrote with a tinge of sarcasm: “The Burmese Military Junta can count on India, China and Russia to prop up their regime”. The columnist said “The perception that India would prop up a sinister military dictatorship was bad enough. What was worse was that, in the world’s league of rogue regimes, Burma ranks fourth after North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe”. India’s hark-back to Gandhian legacy and ethical moral grandstanding stood devalued at the altar of Real Politick. This time round India was more interested in defending its immediate national interests.

India is surrounded by a litany of democracy-deficit failed states. Arguably its status as the world’s largest democracy could have been put to good use providing leadership to these states to get ready for democracy. Then there is the “ The Flying Geese” model for the promotion of democracy. As the queen goose takes to the skies, the other geese follow, joining up instinctively with the leader, and get into a flying formation. India’s role model as the only functioning democracy in the region combined with its economic success achieved through robust democratic practice, have the potential to attract other nations in the neighbourhood to fly with India. It has squandered this golden opportunity. New Delhi’s silence on the dramatic developments in Pakistan following the return of Benazir Bhutto on 18 October 2007 to her home country after 8 years in exile had opened the door to the return of democracy in that country is another example of India’s unwillingness to provide leadership on the world stage.

The US and the EU have taken up the cause of democracy in Burma. Both have suggested UN sanctions to be imposed on Burma but Russia and China are opposed to sanctions. India too opposes the imposition of UN sanctions against Burma on the ground that only the poor will suffer not the rulers. President George W Bush wants India to play its part in its capacity as the only vibrant democracy in the region but New Delhi’s over-cautious stand on the issue has so far remained a source of great disappointment.

It would however be wrong to say that India had nothing to say on the matter. New Delhi has asked the Military Junta to set Ms Aung San Suu Kyi free from her detention and also appealed to the Junta to set a process of national reconciliation on the basis of negotiations and not violence. However, the articulation was so low key that the world failed to take notice that India had at all said something on the issue.

The UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari, a former Foreign Minister of Nigeria and a seasoned diplomat, who has engaged the Junta in a negotiating process, said in New Delhi on 16 October that what India had done so far was not enough. He wanted “ India should do more on Burma”

What strategic or commercial interests do the West have in Burma? Frankly not much. Their case looks bordering on moral bankruptcy when one compares how democracy-deficit Saudi Arabia and military-ruled Pakistan are tolerated while Burma’s Tatmadaw is demonised and Nawaz Sharif’s exile is overlooked while Aung San Suu Kyi’s incarceration is seen as a matter of great concern.

Is there a larger strategic thrust behind the indignation of Washington and London over the events in Burma namely the containment of Chinese hegemony in Asia. To quote columnist Swapan Das Gupta once again:“ The containment of China whether in the form of an overthrow of the Tatmadaw or deflating the 2008 Olympic is the sub-text to the re-appearance of Burma on the international radar. It is on this count that India’s and Western interests seem to converge ”.

But if the pro-democracy movement is crushed, what are the chances of the military junta being overthrown? If US President resorts to taking recourse to regime change and succeeds, it will almost certainly be followed by a weakening of the central authority of Burma, which could lead to the revival of the ethnic insurgencies of the KARENS, the SHAANS and the KACHINS on the Burmese side just as it could trigger a return of the separatist insurgencies of the rebel NAGAS, the MIZOS, the BODOS, the MANIPURIS and a plethora of other groups on the Indian side, destabilising the whole region. China, with Pakistan on toe, may once again get into the act of supporting insurgency in India’s North Eastern States as before.

The newly appointed Chief of Army Staff, General Kapur has said that the Indian Army-to-Burmese Army bilateral relationship must remain cordial in a mutually beneficial strategic configuration in the region. In his view a stable Burma is what India needs which means democracy or no democracy, stability is what India would seek to achieve in Burma. The world may be regretting that in the tradition of the old Great Powers, India too – an emerging new Great Power - in the name of stability has begun supporting dictatorships as against democracies?

There is however another side to it. New Delhi’s articulation of a standoffish policy in response to the current crisis in Burma may perhaps be consistent with pragmatism and is in line with its historical experience within the narrow framework of its security interest but in the wider context of the evolving balance of power in the region, India may find it unavoidable having to pay a high price for it in the long run. By choosing to follow a policy of self-denial, ignoring invitations from the international community to play a more pro-active role there, India in effect left the field almost entirely to China to help come up with solutions and in the bargain allow it to consolidate and strengthen its own presence in Burma with implication in the wider region..

Apart from that, one thing is almost certain that it will leave Ms Aung San Suu Kyi – the torch-bearer of the Gandhi legacy of peace and non-violence and a long-standing friend of India - deeply troubled and not a little disappointed. .

The author is a retired Indian diplomat.

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