A Conflict of Interests

If the US and the EU want India to act according to its moral values and not its national interests in Burma, they had better do the same.

by Mira Kamdar Comment Is Free, The Guardian
October 14, 2007

The world has been horrified by graphic images of the latest crackdown by Burma's military junta. But the bullets and clubs unleashed on Buddhist monks have worked. The monks have retreated, and an eerie normalcy has returned to Yangon (Rangoon), Burma's principal city and former capital.

That crackdown continues under cover of darkness. When the sun sets in Burma, fear rises. Everyone listens half awake for the dreaded knock on the door. Any night, the military's agents can come for you, take you away, and make sure you are never heard from again.

In recent nights, the junta's henchmen have burst into monasteries, lined up sleepy monks, and smashed their shaved heads against the walls, spattering them with blood. Scores of others, perhaps hundreds, have been carted off for interrogation, torture, or execution. The nighttime assault on a United Nations employee and her family made international news, but hundreds of less well-connected Burmese have been similarly abused.

For 45 years, Burma's people have been subjected to the junta's reign of terror. My father was born in Rangoon long before the 1962 coup that brought the current regime to power. Afterwards, many of my relatives, prosperous Indian merchants who had been settled in Burma for generations, abandoned homes and businesses in order to save their skins as chaos enveloped the city, later renamed Yangon.

A relative who now lives in Bangkok, but who returned part-time to Yangon in response to overtures from Burma's cash-starved rulers, recalled those days: "We lived through hell. We never knew when we woke up each morning what would happen. People were being denounced left and right. They could just come and take you away and take everything away from you." Those who couldn't leave Burma, or didn't want to, have lived with this fear ever since.

The United States and Europe have issued strong statements condemning the crackdown and calling upon Burma's neighbours, especially India and China, to exert their influence on the regime. The response from both has been muted (as it has from Thailand, which also has strong economic ties with Burma).

China balks at interfering in the "internal affairs" of a neighbour from whom it gets precious natural gas and potential access to the sea. India, which "normalised" bilateral relations a few years ago, is reluctant to alienate Burma's military, with which it has worked closely to counter rebels in India's northeast who had been using the common border to tactical advantage. To this end, India has provided aid, including tanks and training, to Burma's military.

But the main reason for India's good relations with Burma's ruling thugs is the country's vast and still largely unexploited energy reserves, which India desperately needs to fuel its economic boom. India has invested $150m in a gas exploration deal off the Arakan coast of Burma, and India's state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Gas Authority of India Ltd have taken a 30% stake in two offshore gas fields in direct competition with PetroChina, which has also been given a stake.

India and China are simply doing what the US and European countries have done for so long: trump rhetoric about democracy and human rights with policies that serve their strategic and energy security interests. US relations with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are two examples, and America's Chevron and France's Total, two of the world's oil giants, continue to do a brisk business in Burma, thanks to loopholes in the sanctions.

But the rise of India and China means that the time-tested posture of western democracies toward emerging states to "do as we say, not as we do" will become less tenable. If the EU and the US want democratic India to act according to its stated moral values and not its vital national interests when these appear to conflict, they had better be prepared to do the same.

Feeling the heat, including threats from some US senators to link America's nuclear deal with India to its actions in Burma, India has announced that it is asking for the release of Burmese democratic opposition leader and Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. But the credibility of all democratic regimes, not just India's, is at stake in what unfolds in Burma.

Mira Kamdar, a fellow at the World Policy Institute and the Asia Society, is the author of Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming America and the World.

In cooperation with Project Syndicate/Asia Society, 2007.