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October 23, 2007

MYANMAR-INDIA : Politics
India to take a more public role in pressuring junta

A United Nations envoy visited India on Monday, hoping to rouse the world's largest democracy from its relative silence over the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests by the military government in neighboring Myanmar.

U.N. envoy Ibrahim Gambari is on a six-nation tour to press Asian nations — in particular China and India — to take the lead in resolving the crisis as the European Union and the United States press for expanded sanctions against Myanmar. He met with India's foreign secretary, Shivshankar Menon, on Monday and was to meet other officials before departing Tuesday.

India, which has established deep economic and military ties with the junta over the last decade, says it's talking quietly to its neighbor, an approach that has galled critics who argue New Delhi's inaction makes it complicit in the brutal repression taking place in Myanmar.

"We feel that India should stop protecting and strengthening the military butchers of Burma," said Thin Thin Aung of the Women's League of Burma, while protesting recently outside the home of Sonia Gandhi, the head of India's ruling Congress party.

On Friday, U.S. President George W. Bush announced new measures targeting the assets of Myanmar's leaders. He also tightened controls on U.S. exports to the country, also known as Burma. In addition, he urged China and India to do more to pressure the junta that has ruled the Southeast Asian nation since 1962.

While China has taken some action — Beijing is credited with pressuring Myanmar's generals to meet with Gambari earlier in the month — India has done little publicly. In fact, as the protests gathered steam last month, India's petroleum minister, Murali Deora, was in Myanmar signing a US$150 million gas exploration deal.

Days later, the Myanmar's rulers ordered a crackdown that saw soldiers open fire on the tens of thousands peaceful protesters pressing for a return to democracy and thousands of people, many of them Buddhist monks, arrested.

The junta claims that 10 people were killed in the crackdown, but diplomats and dissidents say the death toll was much higher.

Apart from several mild statements expressing "concern" over the situation in Myanmar and suggestions that it would be "helpful" to release detained democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, India has said little else, even as pressure has grown on New Delhi to act.

India insists that quietly working behind the scenes is more effective.

"Violence and suppression of human rights is something that hurts us," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters last week on the way home from a visit to South Africa.

"Having said that we have to recognize that Myanmar is our next door neighbor and sometimes it does not serve the objective you have in mind by going public with condemnations," he said.

Critics dismiss India's quiet diplomacy, saying New Delhi is simply loathe to give up access to Myanmar's copious natural resources, such as timber and natural gas.

"As a democracy one expects more from India," Brad Adams, the Asia director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"We would like India to speak publicly. They do their diplomacy in private but there is no doubt that public diplomacy is necessary" said Adams, adding that India needs to make it clear to the junta that there will be consequences for its actions.

India shifted its policy from one of support for Suu Kyi to engaging the generals in the early 1990s in part because of a desire to access Myanmar's large, close-by natural gas reserves.

As India's economy began to boom it became desperate to lay its hands on the energy resources necessary to fuel its rapid economic growth and provide power to its 1.1 billion people. Myanmar's reserves proved too tempting.

As India's economic clout expanded it has also sought a diplomatic standing to match. That, in part, has meant trying to counter China, which was making deep inroads into Myanmar, becoming their principle ally.

India has also been keen to secure the cooperation of the Myanmar military to help contain several separatist groups fighting New Delhi rule in India's northeast, a region that borders Myanmar. Several of the groups have set up bases over the border used to launch attacks against India.

"In dealing with this, we need to cooperate with the government in Myanmar regardless of its color," Singh said.

Opponents say not only has India abandoned Myanmar's democrats but they have largely failed to secure their goals in Myanmar where China remains the major player. Courtesy AP

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