Myanmar, Murli and Morality

Realpolitik is not synonymous with support for the junta

One of the sad consequences of India’s new hyphenation (or worse, the ugly portmanteau “Chindia”), with China is that the names of the two countries cited in one breath over issues like climate change, energy supplies, Africa and now, Myanmar. Western countries—who have little leverage in Myanmar anyway—can announce more sanctions with ease. Sanctions that might not necessarily bite in Naypyidaw but would add pressure on China, and yes, on India. Sanctions won’t be effective, we are repeatedly told, without the support of Myanmar’s trading chief partners—China and India. And the Wall Street Journal had a piece by old Burma hands, that suggested that the nuclear deal with America somehow obliged India to ‘exert a positive influence in the neighbourhood’.

Western hypocrisy is palpable—one has only to look at its attitude towards the struggle for democracy in Pakistan—but does it make sense? Murli Deora, India’s minister for petroleum, proceeded with his trip to Myanmar, despite the public protests. Calling off the trip would have sent a clear signal of India’s sympathy with the protestors’ cause. But does proceeding with the trip necessarily signal India’s support for the junta, based on the philosophy of doing business with whoever is in power? Not necessarily, but many think so.

As the satyagraha succeeds in Myanmar—-as it is bound to one day— and democracy is restored, India and its leaders would not be in their mind because they consistently avoided supporting them. India may have to pay a price for its moral cowardice, called Realpolitik. [B Raman/SAAG]

Realpolitik, like pragmatism, risks becoming yet another abused word in Indian political lexicon. Just like pragmatism was presented as a cover for surrender, lack of policy, lack of action and pusillanimity is being projected as realism. Realpolitik does not dictate putting up with the junta, but rather ensuring that the balance of power—in the region and over Myanmar—allows India to protect its long-term interests.

For all the engagement with the junta, apart from occasional tactical assistance in tackling insurgents in the North East, India has had little to show for its ‘realist’ policy. On the other hand, Myanmar has allowed China to set-up listening posts in the Indian Ocean, given refuge to Pakistani nuclear scientists escaping American questioning and largely weighed in on China’s side in energy supply deals. Indeed, it can be argued that the junta have taken India for ride down the Irrawaddy. It is arguable whether the current approach is any more beneficial to Indian interests than a more muscular one—for instance, hot pursuit into Myanmarese territory during counter-insurgency operations. And perhaps, naval exercises off Myanmar’s coast to help the junta make the correct policy decisions…

So Raman is right—there’s cowardice in India’s policy towards Myanmar. It only passes under the name of realpolitik.

As to his other point—that India’s lack of support for democracy will work against it in future—the answer, again, is not necessarily. As he himself wrote in his memoirs, Bangladesh’s present-day leaders hardly factor in gratefulness for past assistance while taking present day policy positions. To see international relations through the prism of gratefulness is misleading.

Ossification is the biggest problem with Indian foreign policy—due to a lack of imaginative political stewardship, India’s positions do not change as fast as the circumstances demand. Murli Deora’s trip to Myanmar was perhaps a manifestation of that. India will need to signal its position on Myanmar very soon. Failure to do so will leave the field open for China to bolster its claims to regional leadership through initiatives that are little more than exercises in public relations.

From the archives: Sizing up Than Shwe; Hardliners gain strength

10 thoughts on “Myanmar, Murli and Morality”

  1. Although I find the post a bit confusing, I disagree with the notion that Indian government should be helping pro-democracy forces in Burma. Its simply not its job! The government is right when it says “its the job of the Burmese people to fight for democracy”.

    Having said that, the cowardice and irresponsible journalism practiced by Indian media is appalling. What prevents the media from supporting or atleast reporting the events in Rangoon this past week? Where are the rights activists, secularists, Hindutva brigade, communists etc when Buddhist monks and civilians are taking on the Junta there?

    As for as I know, George Fernandes is the only politician who has been actively supporting the Burmese students. Hypocrites like Sitaram Yechury who gleefully went to hoist a terrorist like Prachanda on Nepal (in lieu of that 21th century version of Lord Rama – King Gyanendra) will do nothing in Burma because its against Chinese interests?

  2. Nitin,

    Please also read my latest comment on Offstumped post “Adam’s Bridge Reef or Ramar Sethu”. I wonder what kind of National Interest is being served by the misinformation campaign launched by INI on Ramar Sethu.


  3. Balaji,

    Offstumped’s views are Offstumped’s views. INI does not have common positions on all issues and there’s no campaign on.

    This is off-topic, but I thought I should clarify this.

  4. Balaji (#2),

    That’s an indiscriminate application of the “no-interference” principle. India must intervene when its interests are at stake. In Myanmar’s case they are. Not seeing the strategic importance of Myanmar is the continuation of the logic that lost us the Wakhan corridor.

    As for your other points, it’s obvious that the cheat sheet was not followed.

  5. After the insurrection in 1988 and the general election in 1990 the Burmese junta could maintain its control over the nation, only because China helped the junta. China continues to support the Burmese military rulers with weapons and funds”
    Chinese interest in Burma is guided by primarily three reasons. If the mentality of imperialism by China is first reason, preventing India’s influences in Burma remains another MOST important concern for Beijing. Moreover, China finds Burma as a cheap source of natural resources. Oil, Timber, Minerals and Gems.

    In fact, driven by the growing need for energy, both China and India are spending money for the development projects in Burma. India is also appeared determined to enhance its strategic ties with the Burmese junta to avoid conceding ground to China. On the other hand, the junta known as the State Peace and Development Council have found that they can play a lucrative game:
    Playing India off against China and winning projects from both.

    China, without having its own seaports for access to the Indian Ocean, would dearly love to get Indian Ocean access via Burma’s rivers and seaports. The fact that both of the two regional powers, India and China, want exactly the same thing from Burma puts them in a position very vulnerable to be exploited by Burma’s streetwise generals

  6. Over the past decade or so there have been authenticated reports of large-scale increases in the Chinese population in all of northern Burma, upto 90% are now ethnic Chinese who have displaced Burmese including in cities like Mandalay, Lashio and rural areas.

    There are also reports that the large scale purchase of property in central Mandalay and Yangon by comparatively wealthy Chinese from PRC has driven up property prices to the point where the bulk of the Burmese population can no longer afford to live in the city center and have moved to satellite towns and slums.

    The impact of cheap Chinese imports on Burmese light industry one analyst says it has essentially been totally destroyed by the competition from China.

    The chinese are using the Burmese generals against their own people.

    They have paupered the burmese people and are now all set to completely destroy the burmese nation using genocide and make it a province of china.

    Every bullet that the burmese junta uses to kill burmese people has china’s name written on it.


    8-8-2008 will be the 20th Anniversary of the Burmese protests.
    It will also be the starting date of the Beijing Games.

    We need to start a build up of forces in the Eastern states as soon as possible.

    Upto half a million to a million infantry, artillery and paramiltary forces, 3 armoured divisions and half the Indian airforce. We also need a lot of pack-animals (Mules, Bullocks and Buffaloes) and the half the Indian Navy heading
    towards Rangoon.

    On 08-08-2008 when the chinese are busy with the Olympics, The Indian armed forces need to invade Burma via land, air and sea.

    We need the campaign to be over in 10-12 days.
    followed by permanently stationing troops on Burmese soil with a democratic government in place.

    The ROAD TO MANDALAY will also put us on the ROAD TO REGIONAL SUPERPOWER STATUS in the Indian Subcontitnent.

    Unfortunately the INDIAN ARMED FORCES HAVE NOT EXPANDED TO THE EXTENT WHERE they can conduct military campaigns outside India.

    This TUNNEL VISION of allocating the ROLE of ONLY DEFENSE for Indian armed forces will be suicidal for India in the long run.


  8. No Dear Sir.

    We need to fill the big shoes which have been put in front of us
    by EU and the US. When will we rise to the occasion ?

    If we can bring about regime change in Burma, Not only the Burmese,
    but the entire world will be greatful to us and treat us with respect.
    Let us do it in a dispassionate manner without expecting any returns.
    ( With infinite and pure love and an unsullied heart !)

    I have had ENOUGH of this chinese perfidy and inequity.

    The monsters in Zhongnanhai are the worst criminals in the annals of
    human history. A millions time more worse than Hitler and his Nazis.

    Will you stand aside and watch, while your neighbour is getting slaughtered.

    Burma is not the only state which has undergone such horror.
    North Korea is another living example of a notorious regime being
    propped up by the chinese.
    The Khmer Rouge was another such regime.
    No wonder the chinese attacked Vietnam when the Vietnamese liberated
    the Cambodians from the murderous Khmer Rouge.
    china is a Rogue state and no one has the guts to stand up to them.

    DAMN ! What is the world coming to ??

    We need the Thai government to help also.
    But unfortunately they are also under military rule.

    BUT MOST IMPORTANT of all keep china out of this.

    Why is the world requesting the chinese to influence the burmese
    when china’s soldiers disguised as burmese troops are beating up
    the monks and opening fire on them and the students and killing them ?

    The lag in which the government responded is a key indicator that
    troops who are supressing the protest are coming from across the border.

    Keep the baby killers away from the babies !!

    Yatho Dharma ! Statho Jaya !!

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