‘Maybe Myanmar is our Pakistan’

Long before U.S. President Barack Obama publicly asked India to use its influence to do more for a return to democracy in Myanmar, U.S. officials were quietly, but unsuccessfully, pushing New Delhi to take a tougher line against the military junta.

At each push, Indian officials told the U.S. that while New Delhi also wanted to see a democratic government in Yangon, it believed this could be better done by engaging with the junta rather than cutting off ties with it. Moreover, India had its own important geopolitical reasons to develop ties with the military regime.

More than 40 U.S. Embassy cables classified from New Delhi and Yangon, spread over the period from 2003 to 2009 and accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks, confirm the reality that in diplomacy, national ideals are no competition to that thing called “strategic interest.”

India had no problem dumping old friend Aung San Suu Kyi (‘ASSK') to romance Myanmar's generals. The cables reflect U.S. frustration over the years at New Delhi's flat-out refusal to toe its line on Myanmar because of India's own concerns about growing Chinese influence in that country and safe havens in Myanmar for insurgents operating in north-eastern India.

In the cables, the U.S. comes out all for democracy in Myanmar – and for “ASSK.” But significantly, in the same time frame it was working behind the scenes to arrange an agreement between Pakistan's military ruler Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan People's Party leader Benazir Bhutto in order to give the military leader a democratic look.

Imperative for several reasons

One notable conversation between Ted Osius, Political Counselor at the New Delhi Embassy, and Mohan Kumar, MEA Joint Secretary dealing with Myanmar, is reported in a cable sent on February 20, 2007 ( >97303: confidential ).

Mr. Kumar told the American diplomat that engagement with the Myanmar junta was an imperative for India for several reasons.

“The ULFA guys hiding in Burma are screwing the hell out of us!” he said, noting that “Burma is the only one helping us” to tackle the northeastern insurgency. “Tell Bangladesh to co-operate and I am happy to say bye bye Myanmar.”

India was also trying to deal with the insurgency by creating economic opportunities in the northeastern region, and Myanmar was crucial for this, too.

“Bangladesh's stubbornness in allowing access to transit routes for trade leaves us with Burma as the only alternative to connect the northeast to ASEAN markets,” and provide an economic incentive for the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) to lay down arms.

Mr. Kumar commented that the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China maintained close ties with Myanmar but did not face the same pressure from the U.S. to refrain from engaging with it. “Do you want us to connect through China?” he asked. Tit for tat, he asked Mr. Osius why the U.S. was not pushing for democracy in Pakistan. “Why not pick on Musharraf? Where is democracy there?”

He compared India's policy in Myanmar with the U.S. policy in Pakistan. “Maybe Myanmar is our Pakistan,” he is quoted as saying in a dubious, though memorable, formulation.

But Mr. Kumar also allowed that India had not given up on democracy altogether, stating that the government “continues to push them at every opportunity.”

One such opportunity apparently presented itself during an October 2004 visit of Senior General Than Shwe. Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Joint Secretary Mitra Vasishtha told Political Counselor Geoffrey Pyatt on November 2, 2004 ( >22299: confidential ) that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised the issue of democracy with the General “in a much more intense way than could be expressed in the media,” despite the potential for a negative fallout on the bilateral relationship.

She said New Delhi had battled for the inclusion of a paragraph in the joint statement that expressed India's support for “national reconciliation and an early transition to democracy in Myanmar,” and described it as a “coup for India.”

Ms. Vasishtha told the American diplomat that New Delhi decided to proceed with the visit even after the ouster of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt because India did not view his replacement as an indication of “which way the dust would fall” on democracy. Rather, it was an “internal struggle,” she remarked, speculating that the junta might be somewhat fragile.

As evidence, the Joint Secretary offered the interesting observation that “Than Shwe travelled with the wives of two other powerful generals, Thura Shwe Man and Soe Win, who she mused may have been used as ‘hostages' to ensure tranquillity among the generals in Rangoon during Than Shwe's absence.”

Reflecting the Indian worry about China's influence in Myanmar, Ms. Vasishtha commented that “what you hear about the PLA [the Chinese People's Liberation Army] in Burma is only the tip of the iceberg.” She added that U.S. intelligence must surely know this. She said China took Myanmar for granted and this was why Myanmar wanted to engage with India.

Confirming a $20 million Indian grant to the junta for the development of energy and gas infrastructure, Ms. Vasishtha said the funds would be given “only if they do certain things.” She projected this as part of New Delhi's people-to-people strategy to encourage democracy.

Ms. Vasishtha was of the view that the world had made democracy in Myanmar synonymous with Ms. Suu Kyi, and predicted this could “backfire.” She described the Nobel laureate as someone whose “day has come and gone.”

A cable sent on March 30, 2005 by the U.S. Embassy in Yangon ( >29750: confidential ) is headlined “All Smiles: Indian Foreign Minister's Visit to Burma.” It is an account of Natwar Singh's March 24-27 trip.

“FM Singh knows Aung San Suu Kyi personally and, according to the Indian Embassy, ‘holds her in high esteem'. However, Singh made no reference to her or the democratic opposition during his four-day visit, an Indian pattern of engagement with the regime that sticks to platitudes and doesn't rock the boat.”

The cable noted: “FM Singh achieved his dual objectives of maintaining dialogue with Burma at the political level and pushing for certain development projects of benefit to Mizoram, including the Kaladan multi-modal transport project (Rakhine State) and a GOI-funded road project to improve access to a border-trade crossing opened in January 2004 (Chin State).”

The author of the cable, Embassy Chief of Mission Carmen Martinez, commented that India's “pragmatic” approach was “a severe blow to the leaders of Burma's beleaguered democratic opposition, most of whom draw their inspiration from India's historic struggle for independence and democracy.”

At one point, the Americans tried to push New Delhi to make a public declaration of its ban on arms sales to Myanmar, in a cable sent on November 7, 2007 ( >129067: confidential ). Joint Secretary T.S. Tirumurti acknowledged that a Myanmar request for military equipment had been turned down, but when Political Counselor Osius suggested the government go public with this, he offered no response.

Instead, he noted that External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee had sent a letter to the junta's acting Prime Minister to give UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari “maximum broad-based access” to leaders in Burmese society, reminding the regime that national reconciliation must be “broad-based.”

India did once give a glimmer of hope to the U.S. on Myanmar. Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Blake cabled on December 15, 2005 ( >47761: confidential ), noting a shift from “months of wishy-washy Indian posturing on Burma” in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's public call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Dr. Singh made the appeal on his return from the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur, where he also said after a meeting with Myanmar Foreign Minister Soe Win that India “favors national reconciliation and the movement towards democracy, respect for fundamental human rights and allowing political activities to flourish.”

Mr. Blake commented that this is a “strong departure” from New Delhi's “recent tactic of downplaying democracy concerns with the GOB [Government of Burma] in return for greater cooperation in energy and counter-insurgency operations near the shared border, and signals a greater Indian willingness to put public pressure on Burma's military junta.” He described this as a “welcome development.”

But when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008, it was India's influence with the junta that the U.S. fell back on (dealt with in cable >153452: confidential , sent on May 12, 2008) in order to reach international aid to the country. It is now known that very little of that aid actually reached the victims of the cyclone.

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