Guarded optimism

Published : Oct 19, 2007 00:00 IST

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Myanmar Foreign Minister U Nyan Win meet on the sidelines of the U.N. summit. - JAY MANDAL/AFP

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Myanmar Foreign Minister U Nyan Win meet on the sidelines of the U.N. summit. - JAY MANDAL/AFP

Strategic and economic interests make India tread cautiously on issues relating to Myanmar.

External Affairs Minister

The Indian government initially made itself conspicuous in the international community by maintaining a discreet silence as monks took to the streets in Myanmar. Even the Chinese government, which has made non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries a cardinal principle of its foreign policy, had openly called on the Myanmar government to help facilitate national reconciliation by talking to the opposition.

And in what can only be described as bad diplomatic timing, Indian Petroleum Minister Murli Deora visited Myanmar in late September when the protests were intense. The military junta in Myanmar would have taken it amiss had Deora postponed his trip at the eleventh hour. The Indian External Affairs Ministry advised Deora to go ahead with the trip, but keep it as low-profile as possible.

India is keen to source gas from Myanmar. New Delhi has not been happy that China has in recent years successfully bid for many of the gas contracts in that country. Myanmar is known to have huge untapped hydrocarbon deposits.

There is an estimated 30 trillion cubic feet of untapped gas in the Arakan province and its seaboard. The military government there has traditionally sought to maintain a balance between its two giant neighbours as far as trade and politics are concerned. During his visit, Deora held wide-ranging talks with his counterpart, Brig. Gen. Lun Thi, about enhancing bilateral cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector. He signed three production-sharing contracts for deep-water exploration blocks.

New Delhi was upset when Myanmar suddenly announced in 2005 that it was withdrawing Indias status as a preferential gas buyer on two important blocks of offshore gas fields and announced that the gas from that particular location would be going east to China instead of north and west to India. New Delhi had lobbied hard with Yangon for access to the gas. Negotiations about the pricing as well as the routes had reached an advanced stage. The Myanmar government had doubts about the feasibility of the pipelines passing through Bangladesh and the northeastern part of India, as proposed by India.

Before Deora left for Myanmar, former student activists from the country living in Delhi protested with banners that read, Deora, dont go for gas, go for democracy. Myanmarese opposition groups have been claiming that the military regime has been using the profits from the sale of its natural resources to buy arms. The defence budget of the country is said to be 40 per cent of its total budget.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the first political party in India to criticise the military juntas crackdown on protesters. The CPI(M) urged the government to utilise all its political and diplomatic channels to impress upon the military government to cease repression and initiate talks for a peaceful transition to democratic rule.

However, CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat told Frontline that his party was against the imposition of sanctions against Myanmar. George W. Bush, in his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly, had called for international sanctions. European Union leaders are also demanding such sanctions. Karat expressed his satisfaction with the stand the Government of India has now taken.

External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was in New York to attend the U.N. summit, said that India was concerned about the developments in Myanmar. In a speech at the U.S. think tank Council on Foreign Relations, he said India stood for an inclusive and broad-based process of national reconciliation and peaceful reform to lead Myanmars political evolution.

He conveyed Indias apprehensions about the recent developments during his meeting with Myanmars Foreign Minister, U Nyan Win, on the sidelines of the U.N. summit. India is also supportive of the resolution passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on October 2, demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders incarcerated by the military regime.

China has been using its veto in the Security Council to prevent sanctions against Myanmar. The military regime is also protected by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member. Thailand and Singapore, in particular, have strong economic stakes in the country.

Both Beijing and New Delhi are aware that if there is a sudden power vacuum in Myanmar, the biggest gainers would be the Western powers. The presence of Western companies is comparatively limited in Myanmar because of many factors, the most important being unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the E.U.

In the last week of September, the U.S. State Department said that it would try to persuade countries such as China and India to stop investing in new oil and gas projects in Myanmar. The E.U. had wanted the UNHRC resolution to include mandatory international sanctions against Myanmar. The most vocal backers of the Myanmarese opposition have been Western governments. They will expect a payback in the form of access to the countrys mineral resources if the saffron revolution led by monks succeeds.

The Indian government has said that it is willing to work together with like-minded countries to achieve an outcome that is forward-looking, non-condemnatory and seeks to engage the authorities in Myanmar. In the first week of October, New Delhi openly called for the release of Suu Kyi. Two months ago, Pranab Mukherjee had stated in Shillong that India had strategic and economic interests to protect in Burma.

There are many factors that are making India tread carefully on issues relating to Myanmar. For most of the 1980s and the early 1990s, relations between the two countries were frosty. New Delhi was viewed by the Myanmarese military as one of the main backers of the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Indian government had provided refuge to thousands of pro-democracy protesters who fled Myanmar after the crackdown in 1988. In the elections that followed, people gave their vote massively against the junta. At that time, the Myanmarese government had accused New Delhi of financing banned groups such as the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma and the Democratic Alliance of Burma.

The government-controlled media in Myanmar also routinely describe Suu Kyi and her supporters as chapatti lovers a term derisively used to describe people having ties with India. Suu Kyi had spent her formative years in India and had a network of friends. She is distantly related to Usha Narayanan, wife of the late K.R. Narayanan, the former President of India.

Relations between the two countries nosedived after Suu Kyi was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Peace Award in 1995. K.R. Narayanan was then the Vice-President and head of the jury which awarded the prize. To protest against the granting of the peace prize to Suu Kyi, the Myanmar government withdrew from a joint anti-insurgency operation being conducted at the time.

After relations between the two countries started warming up in the late 1990s, the armies of the two countries have been cooperating in the fight against insurgency. The two countries share a 1,600-km long border.

Former Indian Army Chief Gen. J.J. Singh and his successor, Gen. Deepak Kapoor, have acknowledged the importance of the military relationship between the two countries. India, like China, is selling military equipment to the country. India has offered to sell its Advanced Light Helicopters to the Myanmar army for use in counter-insurgency operations.

It was during the National Democratic Alliance rule that the India-Myanmar relations got a fillip. Myanmar figured prominently in the Look East policy started by P.V. Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s but relations improved only after the Congress lost power at the Centre. Indian policymakers now consider Myanmar as a gateway to Southeast Asia.

George Fernandes, who as an opposition leader had donned the mantle of a crusader for democracy in Myanmar, adopted a more pragmatic approach when he became Defence Minister in 1998. The Indian Border Roads Organisation constructed the Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road at $30 million. The road links Moreh in Manipur to Kalewa in Myanmar. It will eventually extend up to Mandalay.

India is the second most important market for exports from Myanmar. The road, besides helping trade to flourish, will make it easier for the security forces of the two countries to take on insurgent groups.

Jaswant Singh, the External Affairs Minister at the time, was the first senior Indian minister to visit the country since the 1988 military crackdown. L.K. Advani, as Home Minister, had publicly thanked the Myanmar government for operations against Indian insurgent groups based in that country. The United Progressive Alliance government seems to have been taken by surprise by the turn of events in Myanmar though there were indications of some serious developments.

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