It’s never easy to balance ethics and expediency in foreign policy. Throughout the month-long anti-junta stir in Myanmar, India was at the receiving end of domestic and overseas criticism for being indifferent to the struggle for democracy. The land of the Mahatma was taunted for suggesting a moral equivalence between Senior General Than Shwe and Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who has replaced Nelson Mandela as the living personification of Gandhi. Most damning of all, India’s attitude to the upsurge in Myanmar has been compared to the self-serving cynicism of China — a country with an impressive track of bolstering rogue regimes in North Korea and Sudan.
Viewed in terms of pure self-interest, India’s refusal to come out decisively in favour of the Buddhist monks and National League for Democracy is understandable. In the early-Nineties, New Delhi found itself cut off from the loop in Yangon for its open expressions of solidarity with the popularly-elected leader who was never allowed by the military to assume power. The collateral damage that arose from supporting democracy in Myanmar was profound. The Tatmadaw (as the junta is known) wilfully turned a blind eye to groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, which used camps inside Myanmar as springboards for operations in northeast India.
It took a great deal of patient diplomacy for Indo-Myanmar relations to be restored to a somewhat even keel. By 2000, India was successful in enlisting Yangon’s cooperation in meeting the threat of the northeastern insurgent groups. Not only did the Tatmadaw close down many of the camps inside its territory, it actually facilitated some cross-border operations of the Indian army. The camps that remained were in areas over which the writ of the Myanmar state did not run.
For a military regime that had become excessively dependent on China, it made sense to clutch India’s hand of friendship, if only as a hedge. India extended valuable assistance in upgrading the old Burma Road that links Manipur to Mandalay. Egged on by the state governments in Assam and the Northeast, India mooted a joint project to restore the famous 1,000-kilometre Stillwell Road which began at Ledo in Assam, ran through the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar, before finishing at Kunming in the Yunan province of China. Since a 300-km stretch of the road passes through an inhospitable Kachin belt, a subtext of the proposal was Indian assistance for Myanmar’s domestic anti-insurgency operations.
It is important to acknowledge that India’s engagement with the military regime in Naypyidaw, the new garrison town which is officially the capital, actually stems from a position of utmost weakness. Ideally, it would be in New Delhi’s interest to have an economically vibrant, democratic Myanmar headed by Suu Kyi, who has a deep, personal association with India. The deep involvement of China with the Tatmadaw in both the military and economic spheres has added to India’s fears of Chinese “encirclement”, fears that have grown with the turbulence in Nepal.
Yet, there is a recognition that the democratization of a society caught in a time-warp is unlikely to be trouble-free. Convinced that it is the sole guardian of the country’s traditional values, the Tatmadaw has so far resisted all moves to enlarge the decision-making process. It nurtures the belief that democracy will unleash fissiparous tendencies and undermine Myanmar’s existence as a united, Buddhist nation. In particular, it is fearful that the ethnic insurgencies along the borders will get out of hand with a federal, democratic constitution.
These are familiar concerns of self-serving cliques who believe they alone can safeguard national interests. That, however, does not mean that every fear is based on paranoia. India has reason to be grateful to the Tatmadaw for its success in containing the spread of the insurgencies, particularly those which blend sub-nationalism with Christian evangelism. A weakening of the central authority in Myanmar — unavoidable in the transition to democracy — will inevitably have a bearing on India’s internal security.
If India’s anxieties with the military junta stem from fears of growing Chinese influence, there is the corresponding apprehension that democracy could throw Myanmar into temporary chaos and lead to a free-for-all. The West genuinely wants democracy in Myanmar but this desire does not stem from the worship of ideals. It reflects a pragmatic desire to regain some influence in a country that has chosen to live in isolation from 1962.
For the Anglo-American alliance, the restoration of democracy is also the instrument to contain China’s “hegemonism” in Asia. Tarring China with the brush of encouraging human rights abuses is also a good way of deflating the hype around next year’s Beijing Olympics.
There is a happy convergence between Western designs and Indian wishes. Yet, the problem with Indian foreign policy is its inability to marry the pursuit of strategic and economic self-interest with a larger strategic vision. The mismatch is all the more pronounced since India acquired a new self-confidence rooted in the success of its private corporate sector.
The West, needless to add, would love India to take the lead in implementing a common agenda in southeast Asia — the other candidate, Thailand, has its own junta problems. But where does Myanmar fit into India’s larger scheme of things' If a stable Myanmar is all that India should hope for, it makes more sense to accept in the short-term the certitudes of the Tatmadaw rather than the uncertainties of the well-meaning Suu Kyi. However, if curbing China’s growing influence is the prime objective, how is that to be achieved'
It is interesting that many of these issues were discussed in considerable detail by the Viceroy’s Study Group, established in 1942 under the chairmanship of India’s foreign secretary, Sir Olaf Caroe, a man who combined his fascination for the Great Game with a Curzonian belief in the destiny of India. These deliberations have been dissected in detail by American historian, P.J. Brobst, in The Future of the Great Game.
Caroe envisaged a pivotal role for an independent India, strategically linked to Britain, “at the centre of an Asiatic system”. The defence of India, he argued, had to be based on an “outer ring” that extended to Iran, Tibet, Malaya and Thailand and an “inner wall”, which included Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier Province, Nepal and the North-eastern hill tracts. In Caroe’s mind, the biggest threat to India in the east was a China that “makes no secret of its ambitions to reassert its sway over its former territories; it recalls that it once claimed suzerainty over Nepal and Myanmar… and though in the past it has…had little interest in India, today the shrinkage of distance… may well turn the attention of Chinese imperialists to new and dangerous paths.”
The containment of Chinese imperialism, he argued, depended on establishing buffers all along the “outer ring”. The first was Tibet which gave several hundred miles of depth to India’s frontiers. The second was Myanmar. According to him the neutrality of a small state like Myanmar was impractical. “Any conception of the future of Myanmar,” he wrote, “must be related to a larger international order, to be guaranteed by some greater powers or power.” The buffer roles of “Myanmar, Malaya and Indo-China will depend entirely on the prestige of the sovereign power set against the acquiescence of other powers”. In plain language, it would not do for India to submit meekly to China.
Some six decades later, despite regime changes and the topsy-turvy of frontiers, Caroe’s understanding of Indian imperatives hasn’t lost relevance.