India's heart may be with Aung San Suu Kyi and the struggle for democracy but its head knows there's no alternative to dealing with the military. Is there a middle path?

Senior General Than Shwe, head of Myanmar's military government, is not a man who travels outside his country very often. So the fact that he will spend five days in India this week and be given a ceremonial reception in New Delhi on Tuesday has raised eyebrows around the world.

Most international commentators have noted the obvious contradiction of how a nation with a proud democratic tradition is playing host to a dictator. India's special relationship with Myanmar is said by western critics to be a good example of what happens when countries formulate their foreign policy based on realpolitik rather than morality and principles. In 2006, George W. Bush made a pitch for India to join the United States in isolating the military regime. “India's leadership is needed in a world that is hungry for freedom”, he said in a speech at the Purana Qila in Delhi. Naming Burma and a few other countries, he said India and the U.S. “must stand with reformers and dissidents and civil society organizations, and hasten the day when the people of these nations can determine their own future and choose their own leaders”.

Fine words, but the reality is a little more complex. There was a time when India stood on the side of the angels in Burma. In the early 1990s, it backed Aung San Suu Kyi in her opposition to the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC), as the military dictatorship was known back then. But as bilateral relations grew frosty, New Delhi saw itself lose out to China. The generals forgave Beijing for its long-standing support to the Burmese Communist Party and other armed rebels and pushed for Chinese investments and political support. Indian policy makers also worried about the activities of insurgent groups in the North-East and their use of Burmese territory as a safe haven. Starting in the mid-1990s, therefore, a course correction was effected. New Delhi began engaging with SLORC (and its current avatar, the State Peace and Development Council), dropped its vocal support for Daw Suu Kyi and, in a sense, has never looked back since.

Whenever the Indian government has had second thoughts, or come under western pressure to re-evaluate its approach to the military regime, it has baulked at changing course for fear of giving a greater handle to the Chinese. Though China has made spectacular inroads, it remains wary of Indian influence there. Not surprisingly, the generals in Myanmar have become quite adept at playing Beijing off against New Delhi. Each of these rising powers is insecure enough about the other to pander to the endless demands of the Burmese junta for economic assistance and political legitimacy.

One way to break this cycle is for India and China to have a frank dialogue with each other about Myanmar and to see if a win-win situation can be brought about in which the military regime agrees to ‘normalise' the economic and political situation in the country. If the West's policy of sanctions and boycotts has failed to make a dent, India and China ought jointly to leverage their engagement with the regime to help bring about some improvement in the conditions of the Burmese people.

An India-China JV

This, in turn, begs the question of whether India and China have enough in common to think about a common approach. At first blush, their interests seem orthogonal. In strategic terms, China is interested in Myanmar as a cargo and energy transit route along a south-north axis running from Sittwe in the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan province. For India, however, the west-east transit axis is crucial since Myanmar is a missing link both for better connectivity with north-eastern states like Mizoram and with the wider Asean region. Unless Myanmar comes up to speed, the trans-Asian railroad and highway will remain incomplete.

China, which has not been an enthusiastic supporter of India's integration with ‘East Asia' might arguably have a stake in disrupting this west-east connectivity. But Beijing also knows the forces of political economy in a networked world cannot forever be held at bay by the lack of border infrastructure. Indeed, the benefits that will accrue to Myanmar as a result of its emergence as a transit route along multiple axes will generate positive externalities for China as well.

Similarly, India has no reason to fear the Chinese plans for a natural gas pipeline from Sittwe to Kunming; if anything, by making China less insecure about the vulnerability of its sea lines of communication, such infrastructure may actually lead to a scaling back of Beijing's plans for an expansion of its naval fleet.

India and China compete for Myanmar's offshore gas but there are other markets in the fray too like Thailand and there is no reason for energy to become a zero-sum game. India lost out in 2006 not so much because of Chinese competition but because Delhi's inability to work out a transit plan through Bangladesh meant it had no immediate use for the gas being produced. Today, given Myanmar's potential in both natural gas and hydroelectric power, there is enough to keep Indian companies like OVL and NHPC gainfully occupied in the long-term even as Chinese companies operate.

One more guided democracy

In a pre-emptive move against growing international and domestic pressure for change, the generals in Nay Pyi Taw have begun laying the groundwork for the transition to a ‘managed democracy'. In April, Prime Minister Thein Sein hung up his uniform and announced the formation of the Union for Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The USDP, which has subsumed the activities of Myanmar's biggest government-organised NGO, the Union for Solidarity and Development Association, will be the army's designated political vehicle when national elections are held, presumably later in 2010.

Though the results of the election are a foregone conclusion, the National League for Democracy ought to reassess its decision to boycott the process. There is no way the NLD will be allowed to surprise the military's party the way it did in 1990 and Daw Suu Kyi cannot participate since the rules bar prisoners from being members of political parties. But a boycott will be effective only if the NLD can mobilise enough support on the streets and if the military fears the adverse impact this would have on its international standing. Neither of these conditions hold. The SPDC has already hit rock bottom in the global popularity stakes and the opposition's chances of paralysing Yangon, Mandalay and the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw are low indeed. Given how well-entrenched the military is and given the South-East Asia region's preference for ‘order', a ‘guided democracy' is the best that can be hoped for under the present circumstances. But even this would be a huge improvement over the current stalemate and would open up political spaces that Daw Suu Kyi and the NLD could slowly utilise.

In 2000, when the SPDC last experimented with its version of political reconciliation, the Bush administration and the rest of the west took a dogmatic, all-or-nothing, stand. The result was that Daw Suu Kyi was sent back to jail. Khin Nyunt, the powerful intelligence chief who convinced his military colleagues that a limited relaxation at home would open doors abroad, ended up getting purged. To the extent to which India's word still counts, it should urge the NLD and others to participate in the upcoming election. And it should tell the senior general that if he is prepared to liberalise politically, New Delhi will do its bit to help end Myanmar's international isolation.