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EAST WITH BITS LEFT OUT
- A more imaginative Myanmar policy would do India good

Most countries do public diplomacy abroad. In its standard use, the term refers to cultural and educational programmes, radio and television broadcasts, and citizen exchanges to promote foreign policy goals. In recent years, it has come to include ‘soft power’ — the goodwill that a country has because of the influence of popular culture and its positive image among foreigners. The target of public diplomacy is usually foreign audiences.

India however, chooses to do public diplomacy at home. For the second time in less than four months, the external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, visited the Northeast to explain the Look East policy. Both events were sponsored by the public diplomacy division of the ministry of external affairs. One can only welcome the belated discovery by the South Block of the value of the public discussions of foreign policy. But one wishes that these exercises were more about taking input from the ground, rather than about explaining policy from the top. From the perspective of India’s multiple global audiences, there may be some risks in calling these exercises public diplomacy. Does our external affairs ministry treat the Northeast as India’s ‘near abroad’ or the ‘far-east’ within'

Mukherjee explained the promises that the Look East policy holds for northeastern India and how the priority given to its economic development fits into our foreign policy goals. The Planning Commission deputy chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, was around as well. He said that the Northeast would see a massive upsurge in economic development over the next five years. Audiences in the Northeast, however, have grown a bit tired of the repetitious nature of what they have been hearing about the Look East policy. The reporter for The Telegraph pointed out that Mukherjee’s speech in Guwahati was almost an exact reproduction of the speech he gave in Shillong four months earlier.

But the missing 800-pound gorilla from the Guwahati deliberations was the situation in neighbouring Myanmar. What are its implications for the future of the Look East policy' As fear grips Myanmar following the crackdown by the military junta, questions are being asked everywhere about the implications of the recent developments. What, for instance, does the crackdown on the Buddhist monasteries mean with reference to whatever residual legitimacy the military regime still has'

Since our Burma policy took a U-turn in the early Nineties, India has been betting on the military regime’s durability. Thus, even though the decision of the army chief, Deepak Kapoor, to publicly articulate foreign policy goals raised some eyebrows, his statement calling the crackdown in Myanmar an “internal matter” was not out of line with official policy. Mukherjee has said, “It is up to the Burmese people to struggle for democracy, it is their issue.” And the most scandalous of all was the presence of the petroleum minister, Murli Deora, in Myanmar to sign a deal for natural gas exploration when the crackdown was in full swing.

Our foreign policymakers like to describe our Myanmar policy as being premised on realism. The concept is subject to much criticism in the academic literature on international relations. Realism can easily be an excuse for lazy thinking: letting some supposedly objective national interests get the upper hand in shaping foreign policy.

The sudden end of the Cold War in 1989 spelt the failure of realism to explain some of the new forces that were transforming the world. Among these emerging forms of more globalized political activism are those that have been further energized in recent years by the internet, the mobile phone and the proliferation of 24-hour news channels.

The impact of some of these forces is apparent in the pressures on Myanmar and on many other governments — including India — vis-à-vis their Myanmar policy. In the past few days, India has had to modify its initial stance in response to these pressures. It voted for the European Union-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning the Myanmarese government for its violent repression of peaceful demonstrations. The council has also approved a resolution calling for an independent investigation of the human rights situation in Myanmar.

Myanmar itself has responded to these pressures by clamping down on the internet, the mobile phone network and by taking steps to stop the flow of news and pictures from the country.

Recently, China’s sensitivity to world public opinion has been all too apparent. Even on Myanmar, unlike India, China did not take a strict “internal matter” line, but opted for behind-the-scenes diplomacy. With the Beijing Olympics on the horizon, China does not want to be seen as being closely associated with unpopular, repressive regimes.

After initial resistance, it began putting pressure on Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur. Activists have warned that Beijing risks hosting the “Genocide Olympics”. While no one expects Beijing to become an advocate for democracy in Myanmar, there is little doubt that its Myanmar policy reflects sensitivity to global public opinion and the importance of soft power.

China is not alone in this matter. Unlike the early years of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, when there was a reluctance to intervene in the internal affairs of member states, political liberalization in countries like Indonesia and Philippines, and political activism in Thailand and Malaysia are leading it towards siding with the forces for change in Myanmar. Japan’s Myanmar policy has also changed significantly. Even Singapore has said that it is “deeply troubled” by the crisis in Myanmar.

India may be the laggard in responding to this new era of global activism. Indian foreign policy- makers had discovered realism rather late. It is understandable that countering Chinese influence, and hoping that Myanmar (and Bangladesh) would extend to our security establishment the kind of help that Bhutan provided in 2003 to eliminate Northeastern rebel groups would be major considerations in India’s Myanmar policy. But shouldn’t we be worried that India’s national interest defined in that way — and often articulated by active or retired military generals — requires the presence of non-democratic regimes in the entire neighbourhood'

Rather than betting on the generals’ survival for much longer, it is time for India to take a long-term view, draw lessons from its isolation on Myanmar, and rethink its Myanmar policy. It is in a good position to take the leadership in a global initiative to bring about a political transition in Myanmar. That would enable India to side with the forces of Myanmar’s future. In another era, when Burma was a province of India and the separation of Burma from British colonial India was debated, the Buddhist monks of Burma took a strong pro-India position. Writing from Calcutta in 1931, Ottama Bhikkhu of Burma supported a federal scheme tying India with Burma that had Gandhi’s blessings. None of Burma’s traditions, he said, “hark back to China, all hark back to India”. He pointed to Burma’s historical connection with India by sea and land dating back to “the earliest times”. Madras and Bengal, he said, “supplied dynasties of Burmese kings, priests and peasants”. The Buddha gave Burma its religion and “Indian architects their style of architecture.” Contrasting this with the relative absence of cultural influence from China, he said, even though China is near Burma, its “interest in Burma seems to have been limited to these trade-routes, for traces of her influence are hard to find”.

No other country has more of a reservoir of soft power assets in Myanmar than India. Today, the democracy movement there is led by a woman who once lived in India, and is the author of a book called Burma and India: Some Aspects of Intellectual Life under Colonialism.

We should not squander these soft power resources by letting our obsession with economic growth and energy security and our security establishment’s inclination to put counter-insurgency ahead of conflict resolution stand in the way of a more imaginative Myanmar policy.

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