Tuesday, March 20, 2012

India’s genuine efforts must for democratic transition in Burma: Book

Why are the nations giving so much of interest in Myanmar (Burma)? Why did India remain silent on the repressions in Burma? What is the cost India had to pay for this silence and also for offering refuge to democrats? Perhaps, the answer lies in the book, “India-Burma Relations: Trends and Developments 1990-2011” which suggests the rich natural resources of Burma to be the main cause. Availability of natural gas in abundance is understood to be the main magnet drawing nations to invest in Burma. And India’s interest in Burma became all the more intensified and visible when it launched the ‘Look East Policy’ in the early 90s. This policy is thought to have been introduced to counter the growing influence of China in Burma. However, in the words of Prof Baladas Ghoshal, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, “The Look East Policy was counter-productive in the sense that it created hostility towards China as it took advantage of infrastructural development.” The book, published by Burma Centre Delhi and recently launched in Guwahati is a compilation of studies, papers and viewpoints of renowned experts who have profound knowledge, experience and concern on India-Burma relations. It stresses on the relation between the two countries over the last two decades and was published to serve as an insight and to understand the socio-political process in Burma and the trends that evolved between India and Burma. The 93-page book also makes mention of the most historic and famous people’s uprising in Burma - the 8888 uprising started by pro-democracy students in Rangoon on 8 August 1988. Thousands were killed by the Burmese military, and pro-democracy students and activists who fled the country were offered refuge by India. During Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Ministership, India even imposed a sanction on Burma. Lok Sabha MP, Shashi Tharoor says in the book that India will not forget its history of offering refuge to thousands of exiled Burmese students and leaders that fled the country. He says, “When we gave refuge to these students and democrat exiles, they in turn decided to give asylum to terrorists and militants and other men armed with guns crossing over from our north eastern states.” Rajya Sabha MP, Mani Shankar Aiyar held that while India was boycotting Burma, the whole world was not, above all China. “We cannot allow our interest to suffer, whereby giving space to others to enter in an area where we ourselves should be present. And the fact of the matter is when we isolated ourselves from Myanmar there was growing Chinese presence and that has now become a looming business,” Aiyar says. He implies that had India not imposed sanction on Burma, she would have been at the position where China is today in terms of bilateral ties with Myanmar. He affirms India’s support for democracy but not necessarily as ‘crusaders’ for democracy adding “any change of a system must be autonomous to those society concerned and that pertains to a people’s revolt to convert a dictatorship regime to democracy.” South East Asia correspondent BBC, Rachel Harvey in 2011 wrote that Beijing took advantage of the void created by international sanctions and moved rapidly to exploit Burma’s rich natural resources. When India adopted the Look East Policy in the early 1990s in an attempt to engage itself with Southeast Asian countries to revive its economy and emphasize its influence in the region, Burma became more prominent and significant for India as a land bridge for the success of the Policy. Thereafter, India began to engage the ruling military government in Burma. However, it remained silent over issues pertaining to the military control and aggression over civilians, specifically the pro-democracy activists in Burma. The book says, “While the Burmese military-led government was globally condemned for continued repression (during 1988 uprising and when the military regime refused to hand over power to Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy which won 1990 general elections by landslide margin and instead used repressive methods to crackdown on the NLD and the democratic movement), India remained silent and abandoned the principles of humanism and idealism guided by Nehru and Gandhi and opted for its own ‘realist policy’ based on national security interests.” The relation between the two countries is said to have improved drastically since the launch of the Look East Policy, in areas such as trade, connectivity/infrastructure development and military cooperation. The visit of former Indian Foreign Minister, J.N. Dixit to Burma in 1993 is stated to be one of the turning points wherein India officially agreed that it will not interfere with the internal affairs of Burma and vice versa. “As such India considered the issue of democratic movement and Suu Kyi an ‘internal affair’,” the book says. However, in 1995, the relations between the two sides deteriorated when India conferred the Nehru award for Promoting Understanding to Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. But the relations picked up in 1998 when India’s outline policy of closely working with Burma came into existence. The books says that Burma’s political dynamics were directly and indirectly influenced by two large neighbouring countries - India and China who took advantage of the ‘economic vacuum’ and Burma’s rich resources. Particularly, China. It says China is the largest trading partner of Burma followed by Thailand, Singapore and India. Therefore, the Look East Policy was widely believed to counter this emerging power. According to the book, the first border trade was opened at designated custom post at Moreh and Champhai (India) and Tamu and Hri (Burma) in 1994. It was mutually agreed that locally produced commodities from both the sides would be exchanged as per prevailing customary practice including the barter system. The agreed items for exchange include mostly of agricultural, forest and food products. The list has a total of 22 items and the 23rd being any commodity that may be mutually agreed upon according to the situation and demand. Later, in 2008, a MoU was signed for an additional list of tradable items from the existing 22 items. In the same year, India included 18 more items for trading bringing the total which the Indian side allows to 40 items such as bicycle spare parts, life-saving drugs, fertilizers, insecticides, cotton fabrics, paint and varnish, sugar and salt, photo papers, jewellery etc. However, the book cites official meeting minutes of DoNER in 2010 which stated that the additional 18 items was yet to be approved owing to the issue of country of origin. The meeting decided that the country of origin of these commodities should be properly checked when it enters from Burma to India through Moreh. According to the book, media reports revealed that several third country items were available in the local shops in Moreh (India) and Tamu (Burma) where almost everything from soap to shoes to beer was either Chinese or Thai made. Goods such as automobiles are Japanese. Citing another media report appearing in 2006, it pointed out that India previously exported 150 truckloads of wheat flour (maida) per day to Burma but the export got reduced to only 65 truckloads. The reason was that China was supplying wheat flour at a cheaper rate. Out of the 22 tradable commodities, only betel nuts and dry ginger were being imported from Burma. It was stated that goods such as footwear, clothes, medicines, motorcycles and mosquito repellents were being traded illegally. NEDFi report stated that the intensity of illegal trade was found to be very high on the Moreh-Tamu route. The total annual volume of illegal trade is estimated at INR 331 crores. Authorities are aware of these illegal activities but security and other considerations prevent them from curbing such practices. Consultant with South Asia Analysis Group, C.S. Kuppuswamy asserts that the India-Burma trade is below its potential level due to insurgency and the lack of infrastructural development in Northeast India. The problem of insurgency in the border areas will never be solved unless the flow of weapons from China through Burma is tackled and will remain a threat to national security and the success of Indo-Burma bilateral cooperation, writes former BBC eastern correspondent Subir Bhaumik. Both the countries have each other’s assurances that their territory will not be allowed to be used for carrying out anti-national activities against each other. Prof Baladas believes that the ruling government in Myanmar is not fully cooperating in curbing insurgency. Col (Retd) Anil Bhat, a syndicated columnist writes that quite often in past years Myanmar army has made a show of launching operations without actually doing any damage to the groups camping there. He cites security sources making statements that the insurgents were tipped-off prior to such operations. “The Burmese army routinely carries out cosmetic operations before thrice-a-year bilateral meetings with India and then claims to have cleaned up Myanmar territory occupied by Indian insurgents,” Bhat cites the source. Social activist, Jaya Jaitley queries, “If the Burmese government with all their guns has really helped India to control its militancy why do we need our army there with AFSPA and Irom Sharmila fasting for ten years?” She refers to former union defence minister, George Fernandes’ constant statement that India cannot have its armies fighting its own people. “They (Indian army) are there to defend our borders, to defend the attack from other countries. So why should there be AFSPA at all? .... If we have been able to make our own strength on our borders in the north east, it will give our own protection against militancy,” Jaitley writes about Fernandes’ assertion. The book concludes that the present forms of relations between India-Burma is measured only in terms of economic, military cooperation, while several resistance have also been witnessed in many areas such as mega projects like Tamanthi Dam, Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project which have resulted in massive human rights violation and environmental damage. People demand that in such developmental projects there should be full public consultation and participation and that the benefits should go to the least advantaged communities including the citizens of Burma and neighbouring countries. Exiled Burmese Parliamentarian, Dr. Tint Swe feels that India being a flourishing democracy, all different views are heard and paid attention whereby the Burmese struggle for democracy can enjoy full sympathy everywhere in India. He nevertheless asserts that there are only a few countable numbers of Indians who do know the real Burma of today. Dr. Swe says that the Burmese pro-democracy movement should not be misunderstood if they show some hostility towards India whom they feel should treat them better. India as Burma’s immediate neighbour and world’s largest democracy and with its increasing influence in the region, the book says India needs to genuinely put efforts, both in terms of economic and political for a true democratic transition in Burma. It is felt that the ruling government in Burma should take further step, not only in the release of Aung San Suu Kyi but to take into confidence all political parties and ethnic groups in this important period of democratic transition in Burma. The book quotes Aung San Suu Kyi, “I would like India to do more to promote democratic values” as having said on December 1, 2011. Mani Shankar Aiyar says, “We wish a regime in Burma which will be more comfortable than a military regime. The change will have to come from within, we wish good luck and say that our hope will not be true unless you (Burmese in India) are not able to go home.”