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Our bridge to southeast Asia

While pressing for democracy, pragmatism dictates that India must engage with Myanmar.

india Updated: Nov 14, 2010 20:16 IST
Hindustan Times

Myanmar's generals are nothing if not manipulative and sharp. This explains why they timed the elections, which of course, the army won hands down, days before the house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi came to an end. She has been released, but the generals are safely in power and there is not much she can do to unseat them for quite a while to come, if at all.

India has held its counsel on developments in Myanmar, despite a rap on the knuckles from President Barack Obama. While India has always expressed its support for democracy, it has followed the southeast Asian policy of constructive engagement with the regime much as the US as done with undemocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia and military regimes in Pakistan. India's geopolitical considerations are slightly different from those on the Washington beltway given that it shares a 1,600-km border with Myanmar. The generals have been more than accommodative of India's concerns on counter-terror cooperation and border management. New Delhi sees Myanmar as a bridge to southeast Asia, consistent with the UPA government's Look East policy. Foreign policy pragmatists in India don't feel that the promotion of democracy can be a consistent pillar of policy for any nation, and India is no exception. There are restive minorities on both sides of the border with Myanmar and long-standing insurgencies that India wants to contain on its side. For this, security cooperation with Yangon is vital. India also wants transport corridors from its volatile northeast to some of Myanmar's cities. It has recently asked for a transport corridor to the northeast through Myanmar and for shipping routes from Kolkata to Sittwe port from where goods can move overland to Mizoram. Indian companies have substantial stakes in Myanmar's rich oil and gas fields and in its abundant natural resources.

The theory that we have to engage with those in power, irrespective of their democratic credentials has worked for western powers who are quick to preach a different set of rules to us. While New Delhi is chary of China's growing influence in Myanmar, it has not made an issue of it. Instead, it has actually explored the possibility of joint ventures with China in Myanmar, a smart bit of foreign policy thinking on the part of both countries. The recent upheavals in Myanmar and the refugee crisis have underscored the need for both China and India to ensure that there is stability in that country. The release of Ms Suu Kyi could be a sign that the military is now toying with the possibility of easing restrictions in the country, something that will hopefully be a harbinger of democracy in the future.

First Published: Nov 14, 2010 20:12 IST