For the past weeks, many of us who have travelled to Burma and respect the history and culture of that country and its wonderfully sensitive people, have been deeply concerned by the rush of tragic news of shootings and indiscriminate beatings of the public, including monks and students, the worst since the 1988 crackdown.
The flow of news now is less than the earlier extensive coverage by travellers, media, bloggers and diplomats. But the junta has not been able to stop the news flow totally. We are still getting shaky handycam video coverage shot by amateurs. Filmed in secrecy, these show police and military men hitting people kneeling before them with staves on their heads, kicking them repeatedly and bundling them into trucks which take them to unknown destinations.
Now we learn that many of the monks in detention are refusing food. They are turning their plates upside down when offered by their captors a brilliant, courageous and emphatic declaration of unlimited and peaceful non-cooperation. It shows the non-acceptance of a brutal regime that has in one of the world’s hungriest and desperate countries prided itself on its lavish spending of gilt, gold and cash on its monasteries. All in an effort to “win merit”, as Buddhist beliefs go, for this life and the hereafter. The developments are not merely disturbing; they border on the desperate.
The North-east, which has 99 per cent of its borders with other countries, shares its longest international border with Burma. If we are connected to South-East Asia, it is through Burma, not just through the North-east; the North-east is a bridgehead for India and South-East Asia. Burma is the bridge.
While the failure of the government to take a firm and clear stance on the issue is understandable, it is totally unacceptable and unjustifiable. Our generals, officials, politicians and so-called political pundits believe that a militarised Burma under a vicious dictatorship will give India a good deal in terms of dealing with our insurgents as well as the drugs and arms-trafficking theirs and global cartels, including Indian armed groups. Moreover, it’ll aid the economy through better access to land routes to South-East Asia, to Burma’s extensive energy reserves and for military collaboration. Which, not surprisingly, is actively pursued by generals from both sides and some military analysts. They are wrong.
Since when have the generals
delivered on their promises, either in our western neighbour or our eastern neighbour? Not to forget Bangladesh in-between and its feuding Begums. It has been our experience in this country and with others that there is better engagement and progress on all such issues through a process of transparency, free dialogue and giving opportunities to all to be heard. It may be slow but there isn’t a better system, neither here nor in any other part of the world. And why should Burma be excluded from such a process?
The Burma issue is no longer that country’s internal issue. It is an issue that involves us all, especially the North-east. And haven’t we seen enough of the games that the Burmese generals have played? Supporting one North-east faction and turning the heat on another; talking about promises to crack down but doing nothing; letting one top Manipuri underground leader, who had been detained near the border, go after being paid huge sums in gold and cash.
It is in our own interest that a democratic regime rules Burma. For, that is a regime that will recognise the value of engagement and good relations. The generals cannot be trusted to deliver on anything.
Again, if we think that China will snatch the Burmese ‘prize’ from us and, therefore, we have to adopt a Sphinx-like posture, we are mistaken. In fact, the Chinese will have less space to manoeuvre if India supports the Burmese people, not the brutal regime that is in power, and urges an open effort at conciliation and change. This process was initiated by former military intelligence chief General Khin Nyut. General Nyut was stripped of his powers by the top military leadership in Burma, who have opposed all change, two years ago. We would have much of the world, including Burma’s other neighbours, on our side.
The Indian government says it is promoting a Look East Policy (LEP). But what kind of a policy ignores the internal conditions of one of our largest neighbours? A nation where poverty and hunger are on the rise, gun-running and drug smuggling are established businesses, often patronised by the regime, and people live in abject fear of their rulers. And we say nothing, even when this impacts our fragile border states so visibly?
There can be no LEP (first announced in 1992) without a coherent, comprehensive, long-time policy toward Myanmar and the regime that rules it. Our aspiration of solving some of the North-east’s problems by linking it to the growing economies of South-East Asia must be tempered by this reality.
The government’s failure to take a firm position is unacceptable. If it thinks that we can overlook the tragedy tearing our neighbour apart and mindlessly try to connect to South-east Asia, we are being either foolish, blind, or both. India will suffer the consequences in the short term. No point speaking of the medium since most generals are useless when it comes to dealing with dissident movements. And in the long term, only open governments can engage purposefully in a dialogue that heeds and tries to answer questions of diversity, dissidence, development and divergence.
Merely asking the junta to inquire into its own excesses, as our External Affairs Ministry suggested, is like asking Pol Pot to investigate the killing fields of Cambodia. The Burmese junta will dismiss such a casual and insensitive comment. Let me rephrase Chairman Mao to say that “Power flows not from the barrel of a gun but from the depth of the human heart.” That has been on evidence in the streets and monasteries of Burma.
There are times when we have to look at strategic relationships and our interests. But haven’t we always done so? If we have to look to the future, then we have to consider whether our interests are served by remaining silent on the bloodshed in Burma. If we let the Burmese people down, it will be a matter not of just abiding shame, but a policy (for the absence of a policy is one) that will come back to haunt us in the future when the generals are gone.
India cannot stand aside from the unfolding disaster there. By taking a strong stand against the junta, we will be honouring the man whose birthday on October 2 was celebrated as the International Day of Non-Violence.
If we fail to stand by the Burmese people, we will be dishonouring Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy that was spoken of so eloquently by Sonia Gandhi in New York and the Prime Minister in New Delhi.
(Sanjoy Hazarika is Managing Trustee, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, and has produced the film, Journey Across an Ancient Land — Road to Myanmar)