Silence again?

India and Myanmar have signed several agreements that will boost economic and security co-operation between the two countries. A treaty on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters has been signed. This has implications for India’s counterinsurgency operations in the Northeast. India can expect more robust action from Myanmar’s generals now in denying anti-India insurgents sanctuary on their soil. Agreements under which India will provide financial assistance for improving infrastructure linking the Northeast with Myanmar have been signed. Such cooperation should improve the economic prospects of the Northeast. Bilateral ties have never been better.

Political ties are expanding and trade has grown remarkably from $273.32 million in 1997-98 to $995.37 million in 2007-08. And yet, there is reason for concern. Almost 15 years after it adopted the more pragmatic policy of engaging the generals, India’s security concerns over China’s growing influence in that country have not diminished. India might wield more influence in Myanmar today than it did a decade ago but it is still a long way off from swinging decisions on issues where it is pitted against China in Myanmar in its favour. One wonders then whether Delhi’s wooing of the generals and the consequent abandoning of the pro-democratic movement there has paid off.

India’s silence on developments in Myanmar has earned it the condemnation of pro-democracy activists worldwide. Officials often claim that the silence is because raising issues relating to restoration of democracy through the media is unproductive. Fair enough. But is India then raising the issue quietly? Did it do so during meetings with Than Shwe? Amidst the flurry of deals did the Indian government remember to raise the question of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release? Shwe’s visit presented India with an opportunity to nudge him in the direction of restoring democracy. If Delhi decided to stay silent on the matter, anxious not to annoy the generals, it has lost a golden opportunity. It has failed the people of Myanmar yet again.

The economic and security imperatives that compelled India to adopt a pragmatic policy of engaging the generals are understandable. Not engaging with a neighbour, that too one where China wields enormous influence is simply not an option. India is right in dealing with Myanmar’s government. Yet its reluctance to use its growing influence over the generals to get them to take small steps to democratise is unconscionable. Hopefully, India did right this wrong during Shwe’s visit.

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