Published on October 18, 2007
The government here claims there are genuine concerns over energy and security interests to consider. But critics have raised the question of the responsibility of a nation that has always prided itself on being "the world's biggest democracy".
"Why is the voice of Indian democracy silent about the momentous struggle for liberty and rights in Burma?" asked Karan Thapar, president of ITV of India, in an eloquent article published here soon after the Burmese junta cracked down on the protestors.
He was speaking on behalf of many when he wrote: "We seem to have forgotten that Aung San Suu Kyi grew up in India, was educated in Delhi and once considered this country a second home. In 1992 we gave her the Nehru Prize. We've forgotten that the tens of thousands of monks marching in silent protest through the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and Pegu look on India as a spiritual shrine. Indeed, we call ourselves the land of the Buddha."
On that same day, a well-known Indian foreign policy analyst told me that China was India's biggest reason for the policy shift from a pro-democracy stand before 1988 to one sympathetic to the generals.
"Why? After the 1988 massacre and the military suppression, China moved into India with a vengeance and, as a result, we lost our position in Burma to China. It's a geopolitical move. It's a strategic decision," the academic told me.
It's as simple as saying India "lost" Burma to China because it had taken a moral stand - and it didn't take long for politicians to decide that morality would have to give way to pragmatic concerns.
When international pressure built up for India to play its part in nudging the Burmese generals into "national reconciliation" all that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee managed to say publicly was: "It's our hope that all sides will resolve their issues peacefully through dialogue. As a close and friendly neighbour, India hopes to see a peaceful, stable and prosperous Burma, where all people will be included in a broad-based process of national reconciliation and political reform."
But that didn't sit well with what a local paper described as "Minister Murli Deora's fly-by-night mission to Burma while Rangoon bleeds". The minister cut short his bridge session to fly to Rangoon on September 23, just as the protests got underway, on a "strategic mission" to sign an energy deal on the Rakhin coast of Burma.
It's no secret that India's strategic interests in Burma include a gas deal worth about $100 million. The petroleum minister's visit at the time that the protest was building up might have been a deliberate attempt to show the Burmese generals India was serious about making up for its setback over China's win over India in a recent gas deal.
Talk to any Indian technocrat and politician, and you'll hear the strategic argument. Burma's vast oil and gas reserves can meet a big chunk of India's demand of 2.8 million barrels a day.
"If he is diplomatic, an Indian official would tell you we need to help support national reconciliation. But if he is really frank, the same official would admit that India had reversed its policy from being a vociferous supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi in the early 1990s. The present pro-junta stand serves its "look-East" policy to check China's influence and protect India's own energy and security needs, a veteran journalist told me.
Another strategic analyst pointed out that India would not publicly admit it, but there is a growing fear of China's encircling India through Burma. He said China has been supplying arms and know-how to the Burmese, and Beijing has begun to upgrade ports and facilities close to India, which shares a 1,700-km-long border with Burma.
India, in trying to counter Chinese influence, has provided the generals with helicopters, military hardware, counter-insurgency training, arms and ammunition. Burma has responded by helping India deal with armed militants operating from its territory.
In Delhi, I saw a group of pro-democracy activists and Buddhist monks from Burma raise clenched fists to protest against the reign of terror at home. They were openly dazed by the ambivalent attitude taken by the Indian government.
One refugee told me: "India has a special role to play. The principles of the Buddha, Gandhi and democracy are under attack in my country right now. Don't forget that all three originated here in India."
Former defence minister George Fernandes added an angry public statement: "It's time we forgot oil and China and took the lead in aiding the democracy movement in Burma. The junta, for me and for those fighting against it, is a bunch of criminals and the [Indian] government should view it so."
Soe Myint, managing editor of the Delhi-based news agency Mizzima, one of the few windows through which news from Burma is filtering through, had this to say: "Burma has been in the international news for some time now. However, our lack of democracy and human rights go unreported. Even in the Indian media, news coverage has been minimal. Mostly it's been a case of no coverage for days. In '88-89, India supported us. Now, it supports the generals."
As China effects a subtle shift in its policy - by not exercising its veto right over the issuance of a statement against the Burmese junta by the UN Security Council - India may also be contemplating a diplomatic repositioning. But that change will come only in a low-key, almost muted fashion. As one Delhi-based diplomat told me: "When it comes to the game of diplomatic subtleties, we Indians surely won't let the Chinese win without a real fight."
By Suthichai Yoon