A Dictator And The "Largest Democracy"

By: J. Sri Raman, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed

I see I hear I know
I beat I hit I touch
I kill I kill the monks are dead.

That was the chant of Than Shwe, Burma's military dictator, as he meditated recently at Bodhgaya, the place in India where Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment. Or, so says the satirical verse doing the rounds on the Internet. 

Whether the junta leader chanted these words or not, the government of India had indeed seen as well as heard and it knew what the junta led by Shwe had done to the people of Burma. None of this, however, stopped New Delhi from rolling out the red carpet to the 77-year-old general as he arrived in the country on July 26 for a five-day state visit.

Beginning his tour at Bodhgaya, in a gesture obviously aimed at Burma's Buddhist majority (including the monks at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement), Shwe proceeded to the diplomatic part of the mission, and departed with a clutch of bilateral agreements. The pacts provided his regime millions of dollars in assistance and trade revenue and, more importantly, a shade more of political legitimacy.

Clearly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government was not constrained by either its officially oft-cited reputation as the "largest democracy" or its past policy of support for the pro-democracy movement.

The timing of the visit was significant for both sides. Shwe was rediscovering his Buddhist roots in time for the "elections" he proposes to hold later this year. For New Delhi, the more noteworthy fact was that the visit comes just a month after China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao traveled to Rangoon, the Burmese capital, to sign a raft of economic deals.

The planned elections will be the first after the polls of 1990, when the junta simply set aside the voters' landslide verdict in favor of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been under house arrest for most of the time since then. The NLD ceased to exist as a party in May 2010 after Suu Kyi was barred by a new Constitution from contesting polls as someone married to a foreigner.

At the place of pilgrimage, posters greeted Shwe, accusing him of "crimes against humanity." The protesters included refugees who had fled Burma after the monks-led rebellion of 2007. They also regretted the present policy of India, which gave them asylum once and a high state honor to Suu Kyi in 1992. The criticism, however, was countered with defenses of the changed policy as what the interests of India demand. The pro-official forensics were flawed and fallacious.

"A lot of Western countries would rather India had nothing to do with Myanmar but it is a neighboring country where the Chinese have made a significant investment and there are clear security imperatives for India," said Rukmani Gupta, of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, known for proximity to policy-makers. She mentioned, in particular, Chinese access to naval facilities in Burma.

India's energy needs were also advanced as an anti-democracy argument. The country had to compete with China for a share of Burma's natural gas resources, it was asserted, and India's image as a savior of democracy was a lesser interest in comparison.

To many apologists for India's pro-junta policy, their strongest argument lay in the separatist insurgencies of the country's north-east that found bases in Burma's mountainous border areas. One of the agreements signed during Shwe's visit, in fact, was supposed to strengthen cooperation in combating these insurgencies by denying them a Burmese asylum.

Åshild Kolås, of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, has pointed to the absurdity of the argument. She notes that, down the decades, Burma has failed to deliver help New Delhi needs to confront the insurgent groups operating from across the Burmese border. More importantly, she adds, "Even if the Burmese military were capable of delivering, sustaining cross-border militancy is a much better bargaining chip for the regime."

As for the China argument, Kolås stresses that Burma and China have "stronger converging interests." Other experts recall that, for political reasons, the junta granted Beijing special privileges in 2007 for exploiting Burma's natural resources, agreeing to sell new-found gas from the Shwe gas fields to China, despite a more attractive bid from India.

Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, of the Calcutta Research Group, argues that India's "all-carrot policy" towards the junta has not paid off. He compares India's Burma stance to its decision-making on Iran policy, which he described as being "outsourced" to Washington.

The comparison is a commentary on the credibility of the policy of Washington as well as other Western capitals on their Burma policy in practice. Words, of course, differ widely from deeds.In connection with Shwe's India visit, Philip Crowley, a spokesperson of the US State Department, was quoted as saying, "We would encourage India and other countries to send a clear message to Burma that it needs to change its course." The message from Washington itself has not been very clear.

It has refrained resolutely from imposing any sanctions against a giant US multinational corporation, engaged in exploiting Burma's oil and gas resources and enriching the military rulers at the people's cost. Chevron figured in the "dirty list" of such companies, put out by the pro-democracy movement in December 2005, and stays firmly there.

As for the UK, its Prime Minister David Cameron was in India on a state visit at the same time as Shwe. The coincidence did not seem to embarrass Cameron who, by all accounts, carefully avoided raising Burma with his hosts. In December 2005, Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair called on companies not to trade with Burma. A survey released then, however, showed that, since Labor came to power, imports from Burma had quadrupled, rising from 17.3 million pounds in 1998 to 74 million pounds in 2004. The situation is hardly likely to improve under Cameron.

All this meant a particularly sad August 8 for the Burmese people and their pro-democracy movement. The date marked the anniversary of the revolt of 1988, crushed brutally by the military rulers, killing about 3,000 protesters. We noted the observance of the 20th anniversary in these columns (The Games They Play in Burma, August 7, 2008). It was a quiet August 8 in Burma this time. According to scanty and sketchy reports, the remembrance of the martyrs of the prop-democracy took the form now of subdued religious ceremonies across the country.

Shwe's pieties in Bodhgaya have failed, predictably, to deceive Burma's devoutly Buddhist majority.

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