India's Burma Silence Says Volumes

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We expect China to go easy on thuggish dictatorships such as Burma's because China is a dictatorship itself. But what about Asia's other rising power India, the world's biggest democracy? Surely Delhi has joined the rest of the world in condemning Burma's violent crackdown on anti-government protesters over the past few days.

Well, no. Despite pressure from Europe and the U.S. for India to use its influence with Burma to help end the bloodshed, Delhi has taken a softly, softly approach to the current crisis for the same reasons China has: potential trade with and influence over the energy-rich Southeast Asian nation. "We are concerned at the situation in Myanmar and are monitoring it closely. It is our hope that all sides will resolve their issues peacefully through dialogue," said External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee in the single short public statement he has made on the subject so far. "As a close and friendly neighbor, India hopes to see a peaceful, stable and prosperous Myanmar, where all sections of the people will be included in a broad-based process of national reconciliation and political reform. Myanmar's process of national reconciliation initiated by the authorities should be expedited."

That's a long way from the days when India backed the pro-democracy movement of Aung San Suu Kyi, the celebrated opposition leader who, in 1993, Delhi awarded the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award. Within years, India had begun wooing Burma's junta, a relationship publicly cemented when strongman Than Shwe visited India in 2004.

Delhi's strategy is threefold. Its initial overtures to Burma's military leaders came as India faced a growing insurgency in its northeast. Many of the rebel groups in that region are based and train across the border in Burma. As India has grown friendlier with Burma's generals the two countries have worked together — with some limited success — on eradicating the northeastern insurgents.

Like China, power-hungry India is also keen on exploiting Burma's huge oil and gas resources. This month it signed a production deal for three deep-water exploration blocks off the Rakhine coast. It is also searching for gas in two other blocks. Access to Burma's resources will help boost India's power supplies but it is important for geopolitical reasons as well. The new production deal comes only months after Beijing beat Delhi on securing a deal to build a pipeline through to Burma's gas fields. The race for resources has helped make Burma the frontline in a larger struggle for influence in Southeast Asia. The threat of unfettered Chinese influence in Burma is one of Delhi's main ripostes when Western allies question India's ties with Rangoon.

Will such a stance hurt India's democratic credentials? India's former Defense Minister George Fernandez, a longtime supporter of Burmese democracy activists, thinks so, calling such quiet diplomacy "disgusting." "This government is not concerned with what is happening in its own neighborhood," he says. In one of the few Indian newspaper opinion pieces to question India's stance Karan Thapar asked in the Hindustan Times last week whether a "Cat got our tongue?" "Indian democracy has shrunk because of its unwillingness to speak out," he wrote.

But don't expect to hear Delhi start shouting any time soon. "We have already reacted with a statement and that's all we have to say," an Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman told TIME two days after his minister's only four sentences on the crisis. "We are monitoring the situation and if the situation develops we will act appropriately. But I can't get as to when."