Friday, October 19, 2007

India & Burma: “Look East” or look the other way?

This article was originally published in the November 2007 issue of the Industrial Worker, my union's newspaper.

On October 6, 2007 people in dozens of cities around the world took to the streets in solidarity with activists inside Myanmar/Burma. The aim of these actions was to both call attention to 45 years of harsh military rule and to put an immediate global spotlight on the upsurge of protest within Burma in recent weeks. Dubbed the “Saffron Revolution,” these are the largest and most vociferous demonstrations that have taken place inside the country since the protests of August 1988, which ended in a military coup and the massacre of thousands of civilians.

As in ’88, the current protests within Burma were catalyzed by increased economic austerities imposed by the Burmese government, but quickly assumed a pro-democracy character given the harsh suppression of any form of public dissent. Organizers are now demanding, in addition to economic relief, national reconciliation and the release of movement leaders such as May Win Myint, Dr. Than Nyein, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Myint and Nyein have been imprisoned without a trial since October of ‘97, while Suu Kyi has spent more than 11 of the last 17 years under house arrest.

Predictably, the Than Shwe regime’s response to the protests has been violent, resulting in hundreds of injuries and at least nine deaths. Many activists are calling for immediate intervention by the international community. In particular, organizers have implicated Burma’s main ally, China, as well as multinational corporations doing business in Burma. October 9th was an international day of action against Chevron for its ties to the Burmese government, and a global advertising campaign has targeted the Chinese Communist Party for its support via “investment, imports, and armaments.” Somewhat overlooked in this focus is the important role of Burma’s other major neighbor, India.

In addition to long-standing cultural ties, India and Burma have a shared political history, dating back to their former integration under the British Empire. Sizable numbers of ethnic Indians continue to reside in Burma, and vice versa, again owing to the upheavals of colonialism and its aftermath. Burma also served as a headquarters for the Indian revolutionary Subhash Chandra Bose and his anti-colonial Indian National Army from 1943-5, thus playing a significant role in India’s struggle for independence. Yet what role will an independent, democratic India play in the modern-day struggles of the Burmese people?

While India’s response to the Burmese government’s crackdown in ‘88 was decidedly pro-democracy, in recent years New Delhi has become much more pragmatic in its relations. Cooperation with Burma is in fact a central facet of India’s important “Look East” policy, and India continues to increase its military, diplomatic, and financial ties to the Than Shwe regime, often at the expense of the Burmese democracy movement. High-level diplomatic relations have grown significantly between the two countries, and India’s former Minister of External Affairs Natwar Singh declared India’s desire for a “long-term partnership” with Burma in 2005. India is currently seeking to expand its bilateral trade with the country, has extended millions of dollars in grants and loans, and is engaged in several joint development projects. Indian oil and natural gas companies also continue their explorations in Burma unabated.

Might these deepening economic ties somehow compromise India’s purported interests in supporting the growth of democracy in the country? Mani Shankar Aiyer, Minister in-charge of Development of India’s North Eastern Region, thinks not: “We have long been champions of democracy. We haven't compromised on that, but ground realities are ground realities.'' India's Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Murli Deora, who paid a visit to the Than Shwe government within days of it opening fire on nonviolent protestors, was even more straightforward: "We have a good understanding with the military junta and we are confident that our companies will do big business there in the direction of seeking energy security for the country."

Military relations with Burma have also grown, and serve multiple purposes for India, including securing both countries’ borders and counteracting China’s increasing influence in the region. Earlier this year India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee promised a continued flow of military equipment to Burma. The two countries have also conducted joint military operations along the Indo-Burma border with the aim of neutralizing separatist groups that have been troubling India on its northeastern frontier. Yet these actions not only lend legitimacy to Than Shwe’s government, they also subvert U.S. and E.U. bans on the importation of military items into the country, with India acting as a middleman for the transfer of Western technologies and expertise. Further, India’s military aid (along with the handful of other nations which continue to arm Burma) undermines both armed and nonviolent resistance movements within the country, thereby prolonging the lifespan of the Than Shwe government.

Not surprisingly, there is no evidence of any October 6 protests in China, but India’s rich civil society has begun to step up to the plate. Activists in at least three Indian cities have staged solidarity demonstrations. A small protest march and rally took place October 6th in central Delhi, followed by a candlelight vigil that evening at nearby India Gate. The recent tumult in Burma is receiving significant media attention, and numerous Indian opinion leaders are calling on the country to increase diplomatic pressure and pay attention to more than just its own short-term interests. In response, Indian leaders are attempting to negotiate a tricky middle way which will encourage reform in Burma without jeopardizing India’s own economic and security goals.

Whether Burma’s Saffron Revolution will indeed bring about substantive change in the country, or give way to business as usual, remains to be seen. What is imperative however is that we not give Burma the Las Vegas treatment; despite Than Shwe’s attempts to quash Burmese civil society and isolate it from the outside world, what happens in Rangoon will not stay in Rangoon. The international community must act in solidarity with the people of Burma, and any actions that solidify Than Shwe’s grip on power are a crime against humanity.



-“Burmese army opens fire in monks' clash” Bangkok Post, 9/7/07

-“India’s Untold War of Independence” Amitav Ghosh, The New Yorker, June 23 & 30, 1997

-“Protests against Myanmar junta go global” AP, Sunday Times of India, New Delhi, 10/7/07

-Amnesty International

-“Candlelight protest in Delhi against Myanmar junta” Headlines India, 10/7/07

-“Indian oil PSUs jittery over Burma unrest” Syed Ali Mujtaba, Mizzima News (

September 29, 2007

-ONGC Videsh, the International Petroleum Company of India,

-“Indian govt: Business as usual with Myanmar” October 9, 2007 (NDTV News), posted on

-“India opposes sanctions against Myanmar” October 9, 2007 (Zee News), posted on

-“Indian envoy met Suu Kyi, Delhi backs talks with junta” October 10, 2007 (Indian Express) posted on

-“Burma visit highlights India’s “Look East” strategy” Sarath Kumara, 6 April 2005, published on the World Socialist Website:

-“Look Immediate East” Sanjoy Hazarika October 07, 2007, Hindustan Times

1 comment:

Cheri said...

Good words.