India has expressed the hope that the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the recent election in Myanmar would be steps towards democracy taking root in the military-ruled country.
But the tone and tenor of a statement by external affairs minister S.M. Krishna over the weekend made it clear that India will not be changing its policy of engagement with Myanmar’s government anytime soon, analysts said.
In a significant though low-key reaction, India joined other countries and world leaders in welcoming the release of Suu Kyi—jailed or held under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.
“We hope that this will be the beginning of the process of reconciliation in Myanmar,” Krishna said, referring to Suu Kyi’s release. “The recent elections in Myanmar are an important step in the direction of the national reconciliation process being undertaken by the government of Myanmar. We have always encouraged them to take this process forward in a broad-based and inclusive manner.”
“In this context, as a close neighbour of Myanmar, we are confident that the release of Madam Aung San Suu Kyi will contribute to efforts for a more inclusive approach to political change,” Krishna added.
The release of Suu Kyi, who spent a part of her youth in India, came a week after Myanmar held its first elections in two decades. Critics say the 7 November elections that Suu Kyi was barred from contesting were manipulated to give the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party a sweeping victory.
On Sunday in Yangon, Suu Kyi called for freedom of speech in Myanmar and urged thousands of supporters to stand up for their rights and not lose heart, indicating she might pursue a political role.
“Democracy is when the people keep a government in check. I will accept the people keeping me in check,” she said to cheers and loud applause outside the headquarters of her National League for Democracy party, adding the “basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech”.
According to former Indian foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh, Krishna’s comments signalled that New Delhi was unlikely to change its present policy towards Myanmar, which shares a 1,640km unfenced border with India. The open frontier allows militant groups of India’s north-east—where tribal and ethnic groups are fighting for greater autonomy or independence—to use Myanmar as a springboard for hit-and-run strikes.
At least half a dozen such groups, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang faction, are alleged to have training camps in northern Myanmar, although they are also known to shift operations across Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal as well.
“Sometimes India is accused of being hypocritical, that is, while stating that democracy is the best form of government, New Delhi has been doing business with a military regime like Myanmar’s. But India’s engagement is for strategic reasons that involve national security,” Mansingh said. “Ultimately it is for the people of Myanmar to decide their own future. India cannot force the pace of democracy in another country.”
Once a staunch and vocal Suu Kyi supporter, India began engaging with Myanmar’s junta in the mid-1990s—a shift that has seen security, strategic priorities and a search for energy sources needed to fuel its growing economy override traditional concerns over democracy and human rights.
And the engagement has yielded dividends. In July, during a visit to India by junta chief Than Shwe, India signed a mutual legal assistance agreement with Myanmar through which Indian insurgents held in that country can be deported for trial under Indian laws—a pact hanging fire for two-and-a-half decades.
As well as needing Myanmar’s help to counter ethnic separatists operating along their remote common border, India is eyeing oil and gas fields in Myanmar and fears losing out to China in the race for strategic space in Asia. This has seen India invest in several key infrastructure projects in Myanmar—though the levels have been much more modest than China’s.
Indian officials say the investments also help developing the landlocked north-east, but that has not stopped countries from criticizing India for supporting Myanmar despite its own democratic credentials.
US President Barack Obama, while supporting India’s ambitions for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, last week pointedly noted India’s silence on military-ruled Myanmar, urging the government to speak up for democracy and human rights in the country.
But Mansingh recalled that when New Delhi had backed Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1993 by the Indian government, “Myanmar didn’t want official relations with India and walked straight into the arms of China.”
“We also saw that militant groups from the north-east were setting up bases there and it took some effort to change things around.”
India also understood that China, with which it fought a brief war in 1962 and has had an unsettled border problem with since, “is opportunistic enough to fill any strategic space (in India’s periphery) that falls vacant”, Mansingh said. Since then, India has engaged Myanmar while nudging it towards democracy, he added.
Besides national security and strategic imperatives, India and China are also looking to tap Myanmar’s oil and gas reserves to fuel their economic growth, a government official said.
“With our objective being double-digit growth to lift millions of our people from poverty, we are looking at energy—oil and gas—from different sources including Myanmar. And China does that as well,” said the official, who wanted to be unidentified as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
According to G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, “India has to make a choice on whether to engage with a country that shares borders with three Indian states that are insurgency-prone and China.”
“It is in our vital national interest to engage whatever government is in power there. While India empathizes with Suu Kyi and her aspirations for her people, India can’t force change in Myanmar. Democracy is a slow and evolutionary process,” Parthasarathy said, adding that India’s policy was in sync with many other countries in Asia including Thailand and Singapore.