by ChennaiCenter for China Studies
R.Swaminathan, C3S Paper No.396 dated October 29, 2009
Relations between India and Myanmar over nearly five decades have been governed by many complex factors. Amongst them are the strategic location of Myanmar, India’s commitment to idealism-driven support to the restoration of democracy in Myanmar, realism-driven need to deal with those actually governing the country, the implications of China’s increasing presence and role in Myanmar etc. China, fortunately for it, has been able to make its foreign policy decisions without having to bother about the nature of the regime in any country.
India and Myanmar share a complicated and delicate history, marked as much by mistrust as amity. For those who may be interested, a “Historical Background” is annexed to this paper.
P O L I T I C A L
Pro-Democracy Protests in 2007
A series of anti-government protests started in Myanmar on 15 August 2007. The immediate and stated cause of the protests was mainly the decision of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to remove fuel subsidies, resulting in very steep increases in the prices of diesel, petrol and compressed natural gas. The first demonstrations were dealt with quickly and harshly, with many arrested and detained. Starting 18 September, the protests were led by thousands of Buddhist monks, and those were also allowed to proceed. Initially, only a few hundred monks walked down the streets but, by end-September, the protesting crowds had grown to 100,000 – both monks and democracy activists. There was a renewed government crackdown on 26 September.
The military junta’s actions against the “peaceful” and “almost Gandhian” ptotestors evoked a considerable amount of international condemnation. However, Beijing expectedly showed more interest in maintaining stability than in pushing for democracy.
In an official statement issued in the wake of the violence, India expressed its support for the “undaunted resolve of the Burmese people to achieve democracy”. The Burmese language service of All-India Radio (AIR) was more outspoken in its criticism of Myanmar’s military government. It said that India was gradually succeeding in weaning Myanmar away from its near-total dependence on China for economic and military support. It could not therefore be expected to take the strong position that the US, the European Union and Myanmar dissidents were asking her to take; and thus risk – to China’s benefit – the precious foothold it had achieved in Myanmar over the previous decade.
Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nations special envoy to Myanmar, undertook a tour across Asia, with the hope of cajoling Asian governments to take a tougher stance on the junta’s crushing of the protests. When he called on India (in October 2007) to join other countries in pressing Myanmar’s military rulers to stop their campaign of repression against pro-democracy protesters, the Indian government described Myanmar as its “close and friendly neighbor” and assured that it would help in Myanmar’s national reconciliation. India’s decision to avoid direct criticism of the military regime came in for a lot of adverse comments. However, it is not as if India was totally silent on the issue. When Myanmar Foreign Minister Nyan Win, who visited India in January 2008, called on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the PM emphasized that there was need for greater urgency in bringing about political reforms and national reconciliation. “This process has to be broad-based to include all sections of society, including Aung San Suu Kyi and the various ethnic groups.”
Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of “General” Aung San) has been under house arrest almost continually since 1989. When anti-government protests intensified in September 2007, hundreds of monks paid respects to her at the gate of her home. This was the first time in four years that people were able to see her in public. On 29 September, she was allowed to leave her house briefly to meet with a UN envoy who was trying to persuade (eventually, successfully) the junta to ease its crackdown against pro-democracy protesters.
On 4 May 2009, a mentally unbalanced American (John Yettaw) swam across the lake and entered the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, uninvited, and remained there for two nights. Instead of faulting those in charge of security, both the intruder and Suu Kyi were held in prison and put on trial. While the intruder was sentenced to imprisonment, Suu Kyi was awarded (on 11 August 2009) an additional 18 months of house arrest – beyond the earlier term which was due to end on 27 May 2009. The sentencing once again showed how the milit.ary junta was determined to stop her participation in the elections to be held in 2010. In a declared act of “benevolence”, the government had commuted the court’s original sentence of three-years hard labour.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction drew almost universal condemnation. President Obama demanded her immediate release while British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated that “This is a purely political sentence designed to prevent her from taking part in the regime’s planned elections next year” and called for a UN embargo on all arms exports to Burma. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France sought fresh restrictions on Myanmar’s two important export items – rubies and hardwood. Thailand was even more explicit and urged Myanmar to immediately free Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest to allow her to play a role in next year’s general election. However, action by the U.N. Security Council was stalled due to reservations on the part of Russia and China. “India’s reaction to the conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi was shameful to say the least. It had not one word of condemnation or even ‘disappointment”, wrote Col. Hariharan, a very senior analyst of intelligence and security issues.
Suu Kyi is said to have written a letter to Than Shwe, offering to work towards reducing international sanctions on Myanmar, and asked to meet representatives of the US, EU and Australia. Either in a reaction to this or in response to US overtures and demands, two meetings were held in October 2009 between the junta’s liaison officer (Labor Minister and retired Major General Aung Kyi) and Suu Kyi. She was also allowed to meet with representatives from the US, Australia and the European Union. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) party has also been allowed to meet with foreign diplomats, including a meeting (on 20 October 2009) with the US charge d’ affaires. Cynical observers may say that the generals are making yet another attempt to put off international pressure, only to revert back to repression once attention shifts elsewhere. Or, are the generals playing the US card against China, knowing that any improvement in relations with Washington will improve its leverage with Beijing?
Prime Minister General Thein Sein told (on 25 October 2009) the leaders attending the East Asian Summit in Thailand that the junta will consider relaxing the terms of Suu Kyi’s house arrest if she “maintains a good attitude”. He also said that she can contribute to national reconciliation. continue
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