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Look east, look Myanmar

The government is safeguarding India's geo-political and economic interests by not intervening on behalf of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar.

world Updated: Nov 17, 2010 01:17 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

PV Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister is said to have made the decision to reverse India's support for the elected but never enthroned ruler of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi. It was not a decision lightly made: national interest in its hardest form shaped his view. Kashmir was in flames, India had to denude the Northeast of troops, but doing so would give free rein to the Naga insurgency. The solution: persuade the generals in Yangon (earlier Rangoon) to deny the rebels safe haven. Their price: end India's support for Suu Kyi.

The episode was representative of two strands of New Delhi's Look Near East Policy. One, the most important stake India has in Myanmar is its role in the stability and, one day, full integration of the northeastern states into the Indian milieu. Two, India believes a policy of quiet engagement with Myanmar eventually yields results.

India has little patience for the international community's Myanmar caricature. There is Suu Kyi, the Democratic Beauty. There are the generals, the Despotic Beasts. And in between there are only rapacious Chinese businessmen, ethnic freedom fighters and gentle Buddhist monks.

Myanmar is a matter of greater nuance.

One, Suu Kyi and the generals are two sides of the dominant ethnic Burmese elite. If the junta has kept her alive, it is because they still see her, daughter of the late comrade-in-arms Aung San, as someone they can do business with. The real question has been: under what circumstances do we talk?

Two, New Delhi is confident the generals are second to none in the intensity of their nationalism. They live, breathe and seek guidance from their country's history. One of them, Saw Maung, had to be put out to grass because he began to believe he was the avatar of Kyansittha, an 11th century Pagan monarch. Brutal and corrupt, the junta believe they are the guardians of country and society.

Three, this is why India is more relaxed about the extent of the Chinese presence in Myanmar than it lets on. China's commercial footprint east of the Irrawaddy is considerable. But the largest foreign investor and trading partner is Thailand. Earlier this year, the generals thumbed a nose at Beijing by throwing out illegal Chinese workers.

Four, Myanmar has been remarkably responsive to India's concerns. Besides helping maul the Nagas to the point the latter have agreed to talks, Yangon has allowed New Delhi to verify reports of Chinese military facilities on its soil — to show they are largely false. Members of the long-shunned Indian diaspora are now being provided citizenship documents. India can even claim credit for Suu Kyi's release. From the highest level downwards, New Delhi has repeatedly and privately pushed for her release.

Myanmar is severely allergic to even the perception of external pressure. The big story is what is happening inside its borders. This is about a reconciliation of two visions of the country. There is Myanmar: xenophobic, centralised and paranoid — a country that it will lose its territorial and cultural cohesion. There is Burma: inclusive, federal and confident modernity can be handled thanks to Buddhist traditions and democracy. No prizes for guessing for who stands for what.

India sees its policy as being the promotion of a national reconciliation process between these two visions. In Myanmar this is a slow and cautious bit of choreography best left to its rulers. Suu Kyi probably best understands this. And from this stems the patience and confidence that marked her incarceration.

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