Engaging the junta

Than Shwe's visit to New Delhi

The planned visit of Myanmar’s military junta ruler General Than Shwe to India from July 25 to 29 has raised eyebrows in some capitals of the world. This needs to be studied in the perspective of India’s engagement with its neighbours. The military junta has called for elections sometime later this year. The election dates have not been  fixed, however.
Though it is alleged to be a ‘disciplined democracy,’ meaning that the army will determine the conditions to which candidates will conform to fight elections, it would be a welcome trend that a military junta has chosen a democratic path. The planned election is not going to be perfect in the democratic tradition. Yet it is the better option than none at all.

The military junta has fixed tight rules for political parties which can participate in the election process. According to one of the conditions, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi’s gets automatically eliminated. The military junta’s move has also led to a split the NLD. While the San Suu Kyi group wants to boycott the ‘sham’ elections, some other group in the NLD is willing to contest. In a clever move to maintain military control, the junta ruler has ordered his colleague to take premature retirement and participate in the civilian election process, which is resented by the people in uniform.

Myanmar has remained under military rule under Than Shwe for the past 18 years through the State Peace and Development Council. Gen Than Shwe took control of the reins after Gen Saw Maung suddenly resigned. Since then, Myanmar has remained in virtual political isolation.

Interestingly during this period, China’s influence in Myanmar has increased considerably, causing worries to India. Though China has its own strategic interests to engage the junta, the junta seems to be worried that its image outside Myanmar is sullied because of repression of human rights allegations and it wants to correct this by introducing some kind of democracy in the country.

What is not to be overlooked is the fact that though China has remained the big benefactor by providing an economic lifeline, something similar to North Korea, the junta ruler has decided to visit India first and then make a trip to China after some time. He did the same in 2004 after deposing Prime Minister Khin Nyunt who was favoured by China.
Obviously, notwithstanding Beijing’s alleged complicity in Pyongyang’s nuclear links with Myanmar and Beijing’s arms supplies to the military regime, the junta has defined a foreign policy strategy which clearly shuns sole dependence on Beijing.

As in the case with Pakistan, India has favoured dialogue for  achieving its long term objectives. Imposing of sanctions to obtain compliance to international norms by ‘rogue’ states have not worked effectively. North Korea’s case is a clear example. While limited sanctions may be desirable to keep the country on lifeline, dialogue on a sustained basis may be more effective to get the desired result. India has pursued such an approach towards Myanmar.

Chinese policy

The fissures in Sino-Myanmar ties in connection with Beijing-brokered agreements with ethnic minority groups in north east Myanmar and its impact on the junta’s India policy must not be overlooked. As per the agreement in late 1980s, the ethnic minority groups were to surrender arms but the Chinese have supported the groups to retain their arms with its tacit assurance of autonomy with a view to keep the groups under its influence. This has clearly irked the junta as the Chinese policy tends to undermine Myanmar’s autonomy.

As part of its political reform measures, the military junta has proposed to convert the militia groups into border guard forces, much to the displeasure of the Chinese. The heightening of tension because of this in the north-east Myanmar and China has the potentials of an armed confrontation in the border area that makes the junta uneasy.
In contrast to Chinese policy of ‘assertiveness,’ India’s policy is benign and its democratic foundation is a source of assurance to its neighbours. Maintaining good neighbourly relationship between the two matches their mutual interests. Increased road connectivity and reopening of the historic Stillwell Road facilitates increased commerce.

The Indian help in building parliamentary institution by way of training to Myanmarese officials, offer to help in conducting poll is well-appreciated in that country. The foreign secretary’s visit to Myanmar’s new capital Nay Pyi Taw in March 2010 with offer of increased investment in the projects, particularly in infrastructure sector, oil and natural gas exploration are tempting opportunities for the junta.

The relations between the two countries had soured during Rajiv Gandhi’s time following India’s support to Aung San Suu Kyi when the junta crushed democracy protests in 1988. However, of late, Than Shwe has been warming up to India and recently, the junta entered into an agreement with India to sell 80 per cent of the power from a dam in Sagaing division in return for Indian assistance in Myanmar’s construction projects.
There is greater understanding between the two countries now. Besides providing arms and military training to the junta’s militia, India has opposed resolution at the UN against the junta’s human rights violations. Three factors influence India’s Myanmar policy: economic as part of its ‘Look East’ policy, junta’s help in controlling insurgencies in the northeast region, and to countering China’s regional influence. India also has an eye on Myanmar’s large reserves of untapped natural gas that it needs for its sustained economic growth.

(The writer is a senior fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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