The Asian Balance: Myanmar’s Narasimha Rao moment?

A pleasant surprise from the east

This is the unedited draft of today’s column in the Business Standard:

In a matter of months, Myanmar’s infamous junta diluted itself out of power, a new ‘elected’ government took office, duly freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, lifted some curbs on the local media, unblocked YouTube, declared that censorship ought to go, announced the intention to introduce economic reforms and — hold on to your seats, ladies and gentlemen — bowed to public pressure and suspended construction on a huge hydro-electric dam that Chinese companies were building on the Irrawaddy river.

So far, so remarkable and so quiet have these developments been that even seasoned observers are in a state of surprise. It seems impossible that a country which appeared so utterly hopeless even twelve months ago — with a closed-minded, curmudgeonly junta presiding over the destruction of generations of human capital — has turned around even to this extent. Then again, this is 2011, the year of geopolitical surprises, where the unexpected is a daily occurrence. Myanmar is unique because the changes happened without ceremony, without round-the-clock television coverage, without foreign fighter aircraft flying sorties over the capital, even without that symbol of early twenty-first century revolution — the twitter hashtag. And so far, at least, it has been good news.

The country may be at its own Narasimha Rao moment. President Thein Sein, who was in India last week, was a top-rung general in the previous military regime and had served as prime minister. Like Rao, he is an unlikely figure to open his country to the world. And like Rao, he might well be the most appropriate. It is way too early to declare that Myanmar has climbed out of the pit its generals dug for it. The new government’s moves are tentative, but they are in the right direction. What happens next depends as much on how the world responds to Thein Sein’s overtures as on his ability to carry his country’s armed forces along.

Because some of Thein Sein’s key decisions preceded or coincided with his trip to New Delhi, some have portrayed them as a vindication of New Delhi’s approach of engaging the erstwhile junta despite its odious human rights record. Such an argument, however, must be tempered with the fact that the Myanmarese foreign minister visited Washington, which had shunned and sanctioned the junta, two weeks prior to Thein Sein’s arrival in India.

Others have cast the developments within Myanmar in the context of a grand contest between India and China, with reformist-democratic forces gravitating towards New Delhi just as conservative-authoritarians are aligned to Beijing. This is misleading.

Take for instance the halting of construction of the Myitsone dam that angered the Chinese government. Given the enormity of public opposition to the dam which mainly benefits China while causing environmental damage in Myanmar, the Thein Sein government confronted a choice between antagonising its own people and angering China. That it chose the latter is a credible signal of its approach to governance. That said, the geopolitical consequences of rubbing a powerful neighbour on the wrong side had to be managed, which explain the overtures to India and the United States. This does not mean that Myanmar will now start favouring India over China in commercial dealings. Rather, it will seek greater policy autonomy for itself by balancing its relationships with regional and world powers. This is still a positive for India, but only to the extent that the playing field will be more level that it was earlier.

So it is up to the Indian government and Indian industry to capitalise on the opening promised by the Thein Sein government. China’s success in South East Asia over the past decade has been due to a combination of money and speed. India’s announcement of a $500 million line-of-credit for development projects in Myanmar can make a meaningful different, but the our government is unlikely — for good reason — to be able to match its Chinese counterpart in the spreading of largesse. We should not get into a spending race. But we should not make excuses for the glacial pace at which India’s developmental projects move forward.

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, which connects India’s eastern seaboard to its north-eastern states through Myanmar, is of strategic importance. You should be properly horrified to hear that it is proceeding “slowly”. Also, last week, when one of Thein Sein’s cabinet colleagues broached the idea of re-opening the World War II-era Stillwell Road (which connects Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to Myanmar) our minister of development of the north-eastern region’s reply was: “We have told them that Government of India would consider the proposal after it is formally submitted.” In triplicate, he might have added.

We cannot say for sure that the Thein Sein government will sustain its current course. It may only be aiming at gaining greater international legitimacy and foreign investment while only marginally transforming the nature of the regime. In such circumstances, a tit-for-tat strategy — rewarding desirable movement and punishing backsliding — is called for. New Delhi should work in cooperation with the United States, Japan and key South East Asian countries to put Myanmar on an irreversible course towards freedom, democracy and development.

Copyright © 2011. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

Damming the Mekong

Who can resist China?

While researching for today’s Business Standard column I came across Ame Trandem’s article in Vietnam’s Than Nien newspaper on the controversy relating to the Xayaboury (Xayaburi) dam in Laos. Here’s an excerpt of my subsequent email interview with Ms Trandem:

Nitin Pai: What is China’s position on the downstream dams that Laos is building & Thailand is financing? China is not in the Mekong River Commission (MRC) but are they playing a role in the shadows?

Ame Trandem: While China is not a member of the MRC, it is a dialogue partner. However China’s own upstream dam construction on the Mekong has helped pave the way for the Lower Mekong mainstream dams to re-emerge on the region’s agenda. With four dams built on the mainstream in China, its dams have begun changing the river’s hydrology and sediment flow, which has helped ease past reluctance in mainstream dam building.
Continue reading “Damming the Mekong”

By invitation: Peace comes to Assam?

Betweeen Sheikh Hasina’s gift and the need to neutralise the recalcitrant faction in Myanmar

by Bibhu Prasad Routray

There is expected hype in Assam regarding the proposed 10 February round of talks between New Delhi and a faction of the militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). At the same time, however, there is a terrible sense of unease with the actual delivery capacities of the negotiation process to what is being euphorically described as the ‘outbreak of peace in Assam’.

Cadre strength of ULFA, born in 1979, has continuously declined since the December 2003 offensive by Bhutan, where the outfit had maintained sizeable presence. The outfit lost half of its 1500 cadres and several important leaders to arrests, disappearances during and subsequent to the month-long military maneuvers. In 2008, two potent companies of ULFA’s main fighting arm, the 28th battalion based in Myanmar, came overground complaining of the divide between the ULFA top ranks and the field based cadres. Even though rest of the cadres and leaders, mostly based in the safe houses in Bangladesh, sat tight and vowed to continue with their three-decade long armed struggle, arrests of several of its top leaders in Dhaka provided the turning point.

By all means, the present development is a gift from the government in Dhaka. Since she came to power, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has delivered consistently on her promises of not allowing the territory of Bangladesh to be used for anti-India activities. Even in the face of little reciprocation from the Indian side, Bangladesh has arrested and handed over several ULFA top leaders—including the outfit’s chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, ‘deputy commander-in-chief’ Raju Barua and ‘foreign secretary’ Sashadhar Choudhury—to India. It is this gesture, and certainly not the military operations by the army, para-military and police combine in Assam, that has broken the back of the outfit and led to the creation of a sizeable section of pro-talks leaders within the outfit.

A lot has been commented upon ULFA now agreeing to an unconditional round of talks with the government by giving up its key demand of sovereignty for Assam. However, such a stance has not emerged out of a change of heart among the pro-talk ULFA leaders, but rather is a compulsion imposed by the possibility of their prolonged incarceration. This is Mr Rajkhowa’s second hobnobbing with the peace process. In the early 1990s, he disappeared after a round of talks in New Delhi. This time, however, he and his accomplices have nowhere to run to. At the same time, a façade of negotiations and its associated paraphernalia— frequent trips to New Delhi, money bags, furnished office space in the Assam capital—is much more than the elderly ULFA leaders can bargain for.

In a politically charged and divided Assam, ahead of the May 2011 elections to the state Legislative Assembly, the initiation of talks with the ULFA will add to the list of ‘achievements’ by the incumbent Congress party and would possibly translate into popular support it badly needs while being pitted against a united opposition. To facilitate Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s return to power for the third successive time, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) appears amenable to contradict its own stand of not negotiating with factions of militant groups.

Paresh Barua, ULFA’s commander-in-chief, is believed to be in Myanmar leading a gang of 100 odd cadres. He remains opposed to the talks and continues to issue periodic statements to the media vowing reprisal attacks. Mr Barua is accompanied by a number of senior leaders like Jiban Moran and Bijoy Chinese and retains the ability to create nuisance. It is the neutralisation of this group and not the present peace talks, which would hold key to peace in Assam in times to come.

Bibhu Prasad Routray, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, is currently a visiting research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Failed states index – a look under the hood

It’s not the ranking, it’s the change in the score

In 2005, when Foreign Policy magazine first published a failed state index, The Acorn argued that “rankings by themselves do not convey as much information as the direction of their change. How countries change their position, even by this imperfect measure, will be the thing to watch in future years.”

In fact, the rank on the league table is not so informative as the actual change in the country’s score. For instance, Pakistan’s rank improved this year (from the 9th most failing state in 2008 to the 10th in 2009). Yet, it’s total failure score increased from 103.8 to 104.1 (See the article on the magazine’s website). Assuming that the good people at Foreign Policy have used the same methodology year after year, this doesn’t suggest an improvement in Pakistan—it suggests a worsening of conditions.

Here’s a comparison of the actual score of countries in India’s neighbourhood over the last four years.

Data: Foreign Policy/Chart: The Acorn

It’s generally bad news: other than Bangladesh, state failure is worsening in the neighbourhood. Bhutan does best, but even its score has (surprisingly) fallen.

Related Post: A post on the 2006 index.

A naval standoff between Bangladesh and Burma

A new territorial dispute in the Bay of Bengal

The Burmese navy has withdrawn two of its warships from an area in the Bay of Bengal 50 nautical miles south-west of Bangladesh’s St Martin’s Island. Bangladesh is to withdraw its four ships after the intruding commercial gas exploration ships leave the scene. (via Information Dissemination)

It appears that the standoff ended without shots being fired. But not before a war of words.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said he had warned Myanmar’s envoy to Dhaka that “all steps would be taken to protect the sovereignty and territory of Bangladesh.” [AFP]

A senior official from Myanmar’s military government said they were open to talks, but insisted that oil and gas companies were operating inside their territory and far away from the disputed sea boundary. “We will try to solve this peacefully, but we are also ready to protect our country if needed … we will not tolerate being insulted, although we do want good will. We will continue with exploration,” [AFP]

So who’s going to run relief operations over the junta’s heads?

America, Europe and a coalition of the willing

It should be abundantly clear by now to any thinking person that Burma’s generals are not about to open up their country to foreign relief workers, even if they somehow agree to accept foreign relief supplies. It should also be abundantly clear that in doing so, the generals would be responsible for making the humanitarian disaster worse, the recovery longer, and the human cost higher. It should also be abundantly clear that the generals don’t care.

So all those who are trying to negotiate with the junta can only be hoping that Burma and Cyclone Nargis will be buried under the rubble of disasters elsewhere, the Sichuan earthquake, the Jaipur bombing (at least for India) and the latest twist in the US presidential election campaign.

Countries like India–that have some leverage with Burma—are quietly delivering relief goods; more than a week after Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, it is possible to discern that India’s strategy is a calibrated, low-key approach, that balances the objective of keeping communication channels (with the junta)open while delivering humanitarian relief goods.

What about countries—like the United States and Europe—that don’t quite have working relationships with the Burmese regime? Well, Anne Applebaum has it right—a “coalition of the willing” is exactly what the situation needs. Only the United States has the capacity to make a meaningful difference to the relief effort. It would be justified in going into Burma on a humanitarian mission, without sanction from the Burmese regime or the UN Security Council. India should support such an initiative, but is likely to take a neutral position. It is extremely unlikely, though, that the US will act. Not because of regard for international law, not because of what happened over Iraq but because it might not see it as important enough to US interests. [Update: Robert Kaplan invokes the pottery barn rule]

It is interesting to see the European Union call for forceful international intervention under the “responsibility to protect”. Given that Europe has no military assets of its own in the region that it can deploy at short notice, it is hard to avoid the impression that it sees its own responsibility to protect as largely moral. So, ironically, the Europeans have to convince the Americans that, well, a “coalition of the willing” is necessary.

Just how callous can governments be?

And why the option of airdropping relief supplies to Burma’s disaster victims should not be dismissed

The numbers the Burmese junta killed while suppressing pro-democracy protests last year fade in comparison to the numbers they’ve killed in the last two weeks.

India’s state-run Meteorological Department said it had alerted Burma two days before the cyclone struck. The department’s spokesman, B P Yadav told reporters in New Delhi on Wednesday: “Forty-eight hours in advance we informed the Burma weather department about the likely area of landfall as well as time and intensity of the cyclone.” [The Irrawaddy]

“I’ve never seen an emergency situation such as this before,” said Greg Beck, Asia regional director of the International Rescue Committee. “A week after the disaster, the entire humanitarian community is still sitting in another country, outside the affected area, looking for means to access the disaster zone.” [WP]

Burma has deported the few aid workers in the country after declaring it is “not ready” for foreign search and rescue teams following a devastating cyclone. [Herald Sun]

Update:Dozens of aid experts are reported to be waiting for visas in neighbouring Thailand – but the Burmese embassy there has now closed for a public holiday until next Tuesday. [‘BBC’]

The larger point is that there are few instruments to hold the junta’s leaders criminally liable for these deaths. Sins of omission are seldom punished.

Frustrated by the junta’s refusal to open its doors to international humanitarian relief, the US state department proposed airdropping relief supplies without their permission. It was shot down by the US defence secretary on the grounds that it would violate Burma’s sovereignty. Similarly, the French foreign minister proposed an international humanitarian intervention under the “responsibility to protect”. The usual UN logjam stopped that. (China, Vietnam, South Africa and Russia argued against the UN Security Council getting involved. “China’s envoy compared the crisis to a deadly heat wave in France in 2003, questioning why the Security Council should step in now when it did not do so in the French case”)

At times like this it is useful to recall Operation Poomalai (Eagle Mission 4).

Cooking up a relief race in Burma

Reporters or imaginers?

“Tiger vs Dragon again, this time to help Myanmar” announces a headline in DNA. Seema Guha, who wrote that article, ‘reports’ that India and China are competing to send relief to cyclone-hit Burma.

It’s a very good example of very poor journalism.

First, it is undeniable that countries can use their participation in international humanitarian relief efforts, in part, to boost their stature. It is also undeniable that Burma is among the countries in the region where the geopolitical competition between India and China manifests itself. But to link these together and claim that there is some kind of a humanitarian relief race on is absurd. Perhaps Ms Guha could point out cases in the neighbourhood where India did not intervene because there was no geopolitical prize. She can’t, because there isn’t one. India would have participated in humanitarian relief efforts even if, and perhaps especially if, no other country had come forward. So, what ‘race’?

Second, the report presents facts that contradict its conclusions. It announces that “China was first off the block when it pledged $1 million as initial aid for relief and rehabilitation. On Wednesday, a Chinese Boeing 747-400 landed in Yangon carrying 60 tonnes of emergency relief material.” But it then goes on to say that “Earlier on Monday, two Indian Navy ships, INS Rana and Kirpal, were dispatched with initial aid from Port Blair. The ships reached Yangon Port early on Tuesday morning and anchored four miles from the harbour, awaiting offloading.” So how is it that China was “first off the block” when its aircraft arrived a day after the Indian ships?

Third, Ms Guha forces her own conclusions down your throat, despite the people she quotes saying the very opposite. Both the people interviewed—a JNU professor and a foreign ministry official—emphatically denied that India’s relief operations are motivated by a “race”. Yet, Ms Guha and her editors saw nothing out of place in publishing the report as they have.

It might even have been excusable if Ms Guha’s article had appeared as an op-ed. But it’s being offered as reportage. What a shame.

How do you help a country like Burma?

The tricky business of delivering aid to victims of a natural disaster who are also victims of a repressive regime

A closed regime. Media controls. A category 4 cyclone. Damaged infrastructure. Broken communication links. Death toll first in the hundreds, rapidly upped to the tens of thousands.

From ReliefWebIt’s highly likely that the Burmese junta can’t cope with the disaster. Worse, its isolation is making a bad situation much worse. The international response is hobbled by the lack of communication channels, common frameworks and operating procedures.

India was among the first to respond. India’s military base at Port Blair, in the Andaman & Nicobar islands has some capacity address humanitarian disasters in the Bay of Bengal region. But while India dispatched INS Rana and INS Kirpan with emergency relief material—tents, medicine and food—the lack of communications (and previously agreed contingency plans) means that at the time of sailing, the ships didn’t quite know which port they could access.

The foreign ministry states that India is considering “further immediate relief and medical supplies, including by air”. Thailand is reportedly preparing to send supplies by air. Burma has also accepted Australian help. These responses will be constrained by Burma’s capacity to co-ordinate the use of its airspace, airports and landing strips. According to some weather reports, Cyclone Nargis could be followed by an even stronger cyclone, adding in a factor of urgency to this matter.

Ultimately, the delivery of relief supplies to the affected people depends largely on the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. The scheduled referendum introduces a political complication. That the junta is deeply unpopular is clear enough: but a botched response to the cyclone might well break the camel’s back. [Cyclone Bhola struck East Pakistan in late 1971, also ahead of elections, and set off a chain of events that led to the birth of Bangla Desh]

The problem is—the generals know this too. They could decide that the presence of foreign volunteers, media and military personnel is a risk to the survival of their regime, even if it means that the humanitarian response suffers as a result.

The toughest question for India and the rest of the world is should the world’s humanitarian response become an instrument to effect political change in Burma? For, isn’t releasing the Burmese people from the clutches of a brutal, repressive regime also, in the end, a humanitarian act? The answer is yes. As The Acorn has argued before, doing so is in India’s interests.

Related Links: NASA’s Earth Observatory has “before and after” images of the affected area; a briefing from the Global Disaster Alert and Co-ordination System

Using Bollywood for regime change

Why Tarun Khanna is wrong about Burma and confused about geopolitical power

The India-China hyphenation is doubly dangerous: one the one hand, the conflation of China and India (and its unspeakable, dreadful portmanteau) ignores the differences in the outlook, policies and global impact of these two countries. On the other, stretching the differentiation indiscriminately can lead to some very flawed policy prescriptions.

Like Tarun Khanna’s. In Mint, he argues that India should not try to match China in embracing the junta but rather extend “unstinting support” for democracy. Because because “India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power” and because “India’s true strength lies in projecting soft power”, and because “trying to play China’s game against China is folly, not to mention unprincipled”.

Mr Khanna’s analysis, unfortunately, is drowned in cliches and unfortunate generalisations. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable that trying to beat China in its own game might not be a good idea. But what if it is not really China’s game, and that China is a player in a game that has its own age-old rules. Like the balance of power game, for instance. It certainly doesn’t make sense to suggest that India should not play the game just because China is playing it better. Does this mean that India should cuddle the junta? Not quite, as this blog has argued, but for very different reasons. [See this op-ed and this post]

There is something disturbing in Mr Khanna’s assertion that India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power. He seems to have forgotten Hyderabad 1948, Goa 1961, Bangladesh 1971, Maldives 1988 and Sri Lanka 1987-1991. The claim that India is structurally incapable of deploying hard power does not hold water. Moreover, Mr Khanna misses a very important point: projecting “hard” power is not quite the same as using military force. Nuclear weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles and a blue water navy project hard power. None of this means that India must even threaten their use, much less use them.

Whenever commentators call for the “projection of soft power”, one listens to see how exactly they propose this could be done. In Mr Khanna’s case, India would do this by an unstinting support for democracy and you-can’t-be-serious-ly through Bollywood. Here he is incredibly mixed up. Now unless India is willing to support democratic forces with financial and military support (“hard power”) they can’t conceivably overthrow the junta, not least because it will turn to China for support. And at this juncture, the fact that there are Bollywood lovers in Burma isn’t going to matter much. In other words, talk about moral support for democracy is certainly about softness, but won’t work without real power.

Moreover, it is naive to believe that turning Burma into a democracy will necessarily transform it into a pro-India country. Democratic governments can play one power against another, just as well as dictatorships can.

Mr Khanna begins his essay by pointing out how Chinese influence has supplanted Indian influence in Burma. This is not as much because of politics as it is because of economics. China’s economic growth has given it the clout it has. India can regain the clout at the ground level in the same manner. Like geopolitics and balance of power, the trade and investment game is also not “China’s game”.

There is a case for India to support democracy in Burma but not on the grounds Mr Khanna has laid out. And as a foreign policy prescription, it is dangerous to propose that all that is needed towards this end is “a projection of soft power”.