Burma - A Crumbling Palace of Glass

October 01, 2007
The Buddha Smiled

Things are stirring in Burma.

I've been following news reports of the protest marches that have been ongoing for several days now in Myanmar, as the crowds have gotten bigger and bigger, the protesting voices louder. Myanmar's people are, yet again, raising their voices against the tyranny of a junta that has stayed in power intermittently since 1962. Similar protests have been brutally suppressed, in 1988 & 1996, and pro-democracy activists arrested, beaten, tortured and killed in what has to remain, along with North Korea, one of the most isolated countries in the world.

The world has been watching with worry as the most recent protests have gotten louder. Everyday people expect news of the imminent crackdown, expect to see scenes of violence and brutality unfold through the few camera crews in the country. This week saw first signs of such a crackdown - monasteries raided at night & isolated, monks beaten up and arrested, live rounds fired into crowds attempting to reach Shwedagon Pagoda.

The UN Security Council has already expressed concern. But the organisation remains toothless, because even though the US, UK & EU continue condemning the oppressive Burmese junta, Russia, China & India have developed close economic & defence links with the regime over the years. All three have been attracted by the lure of Myanmar's oil & natural gas deposits, with Indian petroleum minister Murli Deora most recently making a trip to the troubled country earlier this week.

Calls have been increasing for both India & China to respond to the crisis, leveraging their historic & current econoimc & political ties to the country and impose either change or restraint. India, home to many Burmese refugees, is almost expected to take a stance in what is unfolding in its immediate neighbourhood. India, traditionally a supporter of pro-democracy movements around the world, has taken a different stance in its own neighbourhood. It has chosen, instead, to forge military & economic ties with the miltary junta in Myanmar.

India's decision to engage with the junta is predicated on three key factors; and for a change, none of the three factors relate to India's desire to be the moral compass of the world, in which realpolitik was replaced with idealism. The first, and perhaps most directly relevant reason for establishing relations with the junta has to do with insurgencey movements in the Northeast of India. Naga & Mizo rebels have long used the western jungles of Myanmar to regroup and establish logistical centres. Falling outside the area that could be accessible to Indian security forces, the insurgencies have managed to remain active. India's decision to support & engage with the junta has been a direct result of its desire to eliminate these outposts. The strategy, so far, has seemed to work.

The second factor is similarly related to regional stability, but in a more tangential way. With most of the Western world having shunned economic & political ties with Myanmar, the country's greatest supporter has been China, a country with which India itself has a complex relationship. In the dance of the elephant and the dragon, where countries are reduced to areas where the two jockey to extend their spheres of influence, to stand back and let Myanmar get totally overwhelmed by China became a position India could little afford to take. Myanmar has an extended border with India along the Northeast, and securing this border remains, as always a key concern for the Indian security establishment.

And finally, in the most prosaic of terms, India is severely energy deficient.To have massive oil & natural gas reserves in your own neighbourhood, as is the case with both Iran & Myanmar, and not be able to tackle them for reasons of diplomatic morality is a difficult & economically unviable position.

So while understanding why India has chosen to do business with what is quite arguably one of the worst regimes in the world helps contextualise India's current silence on the situation, it does not answer the question of whether or not taking a stand against a brutal and tyrannical regime in its neighbourhood is the appropriate strategy. Because whether we like it or not, India has moved away from its historical blunder of being the world's moral police, adopting the idealistic high ground and wagging a finger at other powers in the world. India has increasingly moved away from this limiting position, towards one where pragmatism has taken root.

The idealist would argue that India should step in, take a stand against the junta, and use its political & economic leverage with the regime to force change, or if not change, at least prevent the sort of bloodshed and brutal suppression that the entire world fears is already underway. I would argue that this is probably incredibly counterproductive; not for Myanmar's people, but for India's longer term ambitions in the country & wider region.

India lives in a pretty bad neighbourhood. With the exception of Bhutan & China, all of our neighbouring states are in the grips of the sort of political turmoil and armed conflict that at worst could flare up into civil war, if they haven't done so already. General (President?) Musharraf is battling to retain control over Pakistan, which is steadily getting out of his hands; Nepal is in the throes of a Maoist uprising, Sri Lanka has yet to resolve the Tamil civil war, Bangladesh looks like a coup is underway, and don't even get me started on Afghanistan. To step into Myanmar, which itself has a long history of ethnic turmoil and political instability, and jeopardise the regime that has allowed India access to valuable energy reserves & cooperation in tackling military training would be pretty self-defeating.

The pro-interventionists argue that if India were to support the move for democracy, it would gain credibility with the local populace, who on forming a democratically elected government would continue to support India the way the junta has done. I'd point out a few facts here first. India has economic clout with Myanmar because it was able to access the market without competing with Western companies. ONGC & CNOCC have access to Myanmar's oil & natural gas reserves because the BP's, Chevron & Texaco's of the world do not. Were Myanmar to gain democracy, the chances of these countries remaining out of the race would decline significantly, taking away the cost advantage that the current arrangement provides.

We also have historical precedents of our intervention not quite going to plan. When India entered Bangladesh in 1971, with the full understanding that it was breaking up Pakistan, its soldiers were greeted with cheers by the local population. Within weeks, those cheers had turned to hostile sloganeering, with India being accused of "separating brother from brother". To expect our grandstanding in Myanmar to be received better in the long term is a delusion we would do well to consider carefully. India has an unusual position in South Asia. It is the largest country, and its sheer size, scale & power act as both an advantage, and an immense disadvantage, in its relations with significantly smaller neighbours, who operate out of a mentality of inferiority and resentment.

Finally, Myanmar is today a stable country (not counting the past few weeks). The price of that stability is the brutal suppression we see in the country today. I do not condone that suppression, and neither do I suggest that it should remain in place. However, for India to act unilaterally against it is not in our best interests. Because let's not forget that political allies are fickle friends in the world, and to expect eternal gratitude or friendship from any country is nothing short of delusional.

So what's the way forward? Whether we like it or not, the UN must remain the key tool of international dispute resolution. Myanmar's regime should go, but it is NOT for India to force it to do so.

The title of this post is inspired by Amitav Ghosh's novel, The Glass Palace, which takes place extensively in colonial Burma, and deals with the historic ties between India & Myanmar. No other direct link is implied.

The Buddha Smiled is a product of the global village, with a distinctly Indian flavour. Thanks to daddy ji's job, he grew up in four different continents, went to 10 different schools, and speaks about four different languages (though of what use Bhojpuri is likely to be in Argentina remains to be seen) He is currently doing the "right thing" with his life, which essentially means not giving it all up to go travelling (as if he hadn't had enough). "It" in this context includes working in a big bank in London, where he enjoys playing a cog in the great capital markets wheel. Pet hobby horses include Bollywood, Indian literature, current affairs, taking over the world with a hedge fund and a pencil sharpener, and trying to figure out what all this life stuff is REALLY about.
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October 1, 2007
11:39 AM

Agree with that! But expect you will get brickbats from those who insist on a moral position when it suits them. Good article!

Btw, although, bleeding monks just dont make for good visuals, the so-called promoters of freedom and democracy in western Europe and north America have watched monks bleed in Tibet for decades, while cutting deals with China.

India - for its relatively minor political and diplomatic "intervention" - got invaded for its efforts. Now that it is using the lesson in realpolitik it learned back then, the same countries are "offended"! :-)

October 1, 2007
10:32 PM

The Lefties care more about being able socially accepting amongst their global leftist chatterati, than about supporting the interests of the land they live in.

For our DesiLefties, please sit back and enjoy some entertainment:


The next chapter finds Rambo recruited by a group of Christian human rights missionaries to protect them against pirates, during a humanitarian aid deliver to the persecuted Karen people of Burma. After some of the missionaries are taken prisoner by sadistic Burmese soldiers, Rambo gets a second impossible job: to assemble a team of mercenaries to rescue the surviving relief workers.


"Please great white Christian hero, save me from the heathen tyrants. Show me the one true God." :P
(Yeah, the blonde blue-eyed God that A.S.Mathews and Madhu Chandra worship. Oh, and Karunanidhi and TR Baalu worship him too.)

Ruvy in Jerusalem
October 2, 2007
05:17 AM

"When India entered Bangladesh in 1971, with the full understanding that it was breaking up Pakistan, its soldiers were greeted with cheers by the local population. Within weeks, those cheers had turned to hostile sloganeering, with India being accused of "separating brother from brother". To expect our grandstanding in Myanmar to be received better in the long term is a delusion we would do well to consider carefully."

It isn't for me to say that the Union of India should or should not intervene in the affairs of Burma. I do not live on the subcontinent and do not have to suffer the consequences of my words.

As a general principal, though, I can note that a nation that wishes to be respected as a "great power" has to have leaders who can say "full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes (of world opinion)!" If your nation (o any other nation) does not have that kind of leadersahip, even if it has the wherewithal to back up the utterance of such a phrase, it will not be respected as a "great" power.

On the other hand, based on the author's observations, an incursion into Burma to attempt to set things right would have to be ended quickly to prevent Burma from becoming a quagmire of disaster for the Indian government.

October 2, 2007
08:37 AM

Israeli military aid to Burmese regime

The Burmese junta currently shooting unarmed protestors received a cynical plea for restraint from the Israel government on Sept. 29. According to the Israeli paper Ha'aretz, the Israeli foreign ministry announced "Israel is concerned by the situation in Myanmar, and urges the government to demonstrate restraint and refrain from harming demonstrators." The article ended by pointing out that "Israel denies selling weapons to Burma or Myanmar." (Ha'aretz, Sept. 29)

Not true, according to a March 1, 2000 report in the authoritative British publication Jane's Intelligence Review by William Ashton. The article, titled "Myanmar and Israel develop military pact," details how Israeli companies and the Israeli government have been supplying and developing weapons for the Burmese regime, and sharing intelligence:

Looks like everyone's been in bed with the junta.

Ruvy in Jerusalem
October 2, 2007
09:29 AM

Why am I not surprised? The "peaceniks" have so much blood on their hands. If they were willing to countenance the murder of fellow Jews, why should they give a damn about Burmese?

Just for your information, Aaman, if this is indeed true, the prime minister who sold the weapons was named Ehud Barak. What did I tell you about his bad judgment?

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