'Doklam was not about a road. It was the Chinese attempt to create a wedge between Bhutan and India'
Swedish author and Sino-India specialist, Bertil Lintner, chats with Sonia Sarkar about hawks and doves
- Published 17.12.17
Last week, at the New Delhi launch of Bertil Lintner's book, China's India War, one of the panelists joked that India feels gratified whenever the West takes a pro-India stance in the ongoing India-China rift, because international opinion is still shaped by writers from that part of the world. Sitting on the dais, the Swedish journalist and author laughed.
Lintner's narrative on the Sino-Indian war of 1962 is the antithesis of British journalist Neville Maxwell's 1970 book, India's China War. Maxwell had argued that it was India that provoked China in 1962 and China had fallen prey to Jawaharlal Nehru's hostile policies.
Later that week, when Lintner and I meet in a noisy café at the India International Centre, he tells me, "I think, he [Nehru] had too much faith in China; he didn't realise that the Chinese were not of the same wavelength."
Dressed in a deep brown pullover and a pair of jeans, Lintner speaks softly. He tends to explain things in great detail too. The pair of thick, square-shaped glasses he has on adds to the general impression of gravitas. But what is most startling perhaps, off-dais, is the impassive expression on his face.
Inevitably, Doklam comes up. Recent media reports claim that over 1,600 Chinese troops are still present in this region of Bhutan. Most other years, they leave by November. Says the 64-year-old, "Doklam was not about a road. It was the Chinese attempt to create a wedge between Bhutan and India. Bhutan also wanted to show that they are independent of India; they thought India should not get involved as it is about Bhutan and China."
But there is a view among a section of Indian security experts that New Delhi has irked China several times ever since Narendra Modi assumed power. The invitation extended to the "Prime Minister" of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, for Modi's swearing-in ceremony in 2014 did not go down well. Then again, this year, India allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, a territory China claims.
Lintner starts to say something and then stops midway. The words that finally emanate from his mouth, "That's not my subject." I find it strangely cautious, if not surprising, coming from one who is known to be vocal about issues such as human rights violations by the Myanmar Army, has questioned disappearances and imprisonment of politicians and civilians alike in Myanmar and has written extensively on organised crime in the Asia Pacific. He is known to be a champion of Press freedom, too.
And while Lintner makes it abundantly clear that he is not interested in antagonising the Modi government, he does remember to warn India about China's intrusion into the Indian Ocean. He says, "Most of China's oil supplies come through the Indian Ocean, most of its minerals sourced from Africa pass through it and most of its exports, which go through Europe, to Africa pass through this ocean, which India considers as its own lake. When China enters this area in a big way, there is concern - what is China up to?"
China's influence on the Northeast is also huge. In his book, Lintner writes that China has not ceased to support the rebels. "These groups buy weapons on what is euphemistically called 'the black market' in China."
Lintner also talks about how China's presence in South Asia - it is building ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - is a cause for concern. "It's part of China's global strategy and India happens to be in the way," he adds.
Lintner's own India ties date back to 1975. That is also the year he visited Calcutta for the first time. Lintner's mother is Swedish, his father an Austrian refugee from Nazi Germany. He was a political prisoner before he managed to escape to Sweden and, thereafter, left for Brazil. Lintner was six months old at the time.
"When I was 19, I managed to track him [his father] to a New Zealand address, where he had moved with his new family. It was to meet him that I left Sweden for the first time, in 1975, to travel to New Zealand, overland," he says.
Lintner explored India by train and bus. He recalls how he stayed in a dormitory at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House on Calcutta's Sudder Street for Rs 8 per night. He also suffered three bouts of dysentery and lost more than 20 kilos.
During that trip he caught another bug. Lintner claims it was Calcutta that inspired his 22-year-old self to become a writer.
"My favourite part of Calcutta is College Street with all its bookstores and the Indian Coffee House," says the veteran journalist who has travelled the world before choosing for his home, Chiang Mai in Thailand, three decades ago. He is married to Hseng Noung, a Shan or ethnic person from Myanmar.
And that is not the only Myanmar connection he is known for. Globally, Lintner is known for his relentless reporting from Myanmar (erstwhile Burma). The military junta blacklisted him for 23 years, beginning 1989. He started visiting Myanmar again only recently, since 2013.
While it is easy to understand Lintner's take on the Sino-India face-off, his views on Myanmar and the ousted Rohingyas are more layered, somewhat difficult to grasp and to process, thereafter.
For one, he does not seem outraged at the recent killings and exodus of Rohingyas from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. He does not even blame the National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who runs the Myanmar government, for failing to contain the sectarian violence unleashed against the Muslims by the Buddhists.
"There is a democratically elected government in Myanmar but three most important ministries - defence, home and border affairs - are controlled by the military. Suu Kyi has a very limited role to play," says Lintner, who is the author of Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy.
But yes, he concedes, she could have visited the victims of violence, along with other elected representatives, to show the military there is also a civilian space in the country. So far, so good.
But prod him further and you learn that Lintner is not willing to dub the Rohingya situation a "religious" conflict at all. And what, in his opinion, triggered the recent violence that led to the exodus of an estimated seven lakh people from Myanmar to Bangladesh?
Lintner now launches into an elaborate explanation of how on the night the Kofi Annan Commission Report came out this August - the same that asked Myanmar to scrap restrictions on movement and citizenship of the Rohingyas - the armed radical group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa) attacked 30 police stations and one army base at Rakhine. "This triggered enormous backlash. Thousands of people have suffered because of this, but nobody is questioning the Arsa," he says.
The insinuation is obvious - the Rohingyas are responsible for their own situation. And if there is any doubt about his stance in this debate, the next statement makes things clear as daylight. To a question about whether there will be a guaranteed safe passage for the Rohingyas to Rakhine state following the pact between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Lintner says, "First of all, they don't want to come back. Plus, in order to return, they have to prove they are residents of Myanmar and not Bangladeshis. And they cannot prove that." This last is a reference to the fact that in 2015, in Myanmar's first census in 30 years, Rohingyas were not considered an ethnic group of the country.
I have heard him the first time and the second, and both arguments seem at variance with his professional persona. I keep talking to hide any apparent disappointment on my part.
Some Rohingyas have also come to India for shelter, but the Indian government doesn't want them. India regards Rohingya Muslims a national security threat. I am yet to frame the question, but he is already dodging it, laughing. "Well, ask the Indian security agencies..."
This time, I cannot help but say it out aloud - so he is hell-bent on being politically correct when it comes to India? Is that it? "No, no... I am not here to talk about contemporary Indian politics. It is beyond the scope of my coverage... maybe, I will write about it in a book in future..."
Getting answers from journalists isn't easy at all, but books are fair game.
1953: Lintner is born in Sweden and then in 1975 leaves for Asia
1980: Starts working as a journalist; is the Burma correspondent for the Hong Kong-based weekly, Far Eastern Economic Review
1984: Visits India as a correspondent for a Danish daily; covers the stand-off at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and also interviews Dalai Lama in McLeodganj
1985: Undertakes an 18-month, 2,275-kilometre trek from northeastern India across Burma's northern rebel-held areas to China. Codifies this expe-rience in the 1996 book, Land of Jade: A journey from India through Northern Burma to China
Has written 17 books to date, including Bloodbrothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia and Aung San Suu Syi and Burma's struggle for Democracy