Changing India’s Foreign Policy Towards Burma: Does Indian Civil Society Have the Clout?

January 29, 2008

AFP/Getty Images/NEWSCOM

What can the international community do to pressure Burma/Myanmar’s military leaders to end their repressive tactics and human rights abuses? Well, sanctions imposed by the US and EU will have little value, when Myanmar’s neighbors continue to offer opportunities to the current regime for financial gain. Much has been written on China’s economic and political support for Myanmar (usually along the lines of this piece in the Christian Science Monitor, this piece from the Telegraph, or this AP story), but fewer mainstream media articles have focused on India’s continued support for Myanmar’s ruling junta.

This brief Burmanet story (re-printed from the Asia Times) illustrates the “investment lifeline” that India is currently providing to Myanmar’s military regime. As Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch points out, India’s continued tacit support for the Myanmar regime should feel incongruous to a country celebrated for its democratic values.

Although Burma has dropped off from network news-cycles and newspaper editorials since the protests of August-September 2007, the global community is largely united on this issue, saying that human-rights abuses are no longer acceptable. But unless China, India and Thailand take a strong stand, the regime will simply ride out the storm, stuffing dissidents in jail and getting away with the killings of unarmed protesters. Little was ever expected of China and Thailand, but India is celebrated as a democracy, one that accommodates religious and ethnic diversity, boasts of its active civil society and free media. So it has come as a great shock for many around the world to see India continue with a business as usual approach.

The good news is that there appears to be strong domestic opposition to the Indian government’s current policies toward Myanmar. As the Burmanet article notes:

There is widespread local support for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, judging by the well-attended protest rallies held in New Delhi coinciding with Nyan Win’s visit. All of India’s major political parties, including Congress, the Communists and Bharatiya Janta Party, have called on the government to change its policy on Myanmar. Civil society groups have joined this call, especially those representing ethnic groups located in India’s northeastern regions, which share a border with Myanmar.

Since broad coalitions of civil society actors have successfully influenced foreign policy outcomes in other countries (think of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines coalition), it is reasonable to consider whether Indian civil society actors might wield similar clout and whether they would use it to oppose India’s current Myanmar policy. I don’t know enough about Indian domestic politics to intelligibly speculate on this question, but sustainable foreign policy change on this issue will undoubtedly need to be spearheaded by influential domestic players. I hope for Myanmar and India’s sake that India’s civil society actors are willing and able to take up this challenge.

UPDATE: According to the Oct 30, 2008 Financial Times, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is also seeking India’s help “to more actively support UN efforts to broker a dialogue between the military junta and Aung San Suu Kyi.”  Hopefully, Indian civil society activists will get behind this call…


10 Responses to “Changing India’s Foreign Policy Towards Burma: Does Indian Civil Society Have the Clout?”

  1. Sandeep Says:

    i find it interesting that congress was one of the parties rallying against his visit, seeing as how PM Singh is from Congress, yet knowing somewhat how politics in India work(limited but it’s there), it was more likely than not a show for the people…or at least that’s what popular opinion among my dads friends is…

    while I like the notion of using dialogue and negotiations(maybe cuz i’m indian?), perhaps a harder line is needed when the opposite party on the table quite clearly doesnt care about what you say…

    I quite rather agree that we can’t just sit back and point the finger another way and shift the blame away when someone points at us…but what can society do when there remains clearly a lack of political will?

  2. lmcinhk Says:

    Good question. In the case of the anti-landmines NGO campaign, which we will be studying in some depth, a big part of the coalition’s success can be attributed to their effective use of media to generate the political will. Not sure if there are parallels in this case, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine that there are.

    — LMC

  3. Sandeep Says:

    ok i’m going from pure memory here

    the problem with landmines was primarily that major countries like the US France and russia dint want to give them up and it wasn’t until france gave in that they clogs started fitting into place…although i’m quite sure USA and India(among others) havent signed the Ottawa Treaty(i looked this up :P)

    my point here is that even with treaties and pressure, the solution we get still might be only half-hearted and essentially useless to combat the entire problem…

    USA dint sign on cuz of korea, it seems reasonable to assume that India and China(yes yes I, an Indian, am trying to shift blame, or at least deflect some :P) wont give in to helping Burma unless there is some sort of concession, and I’m not sure concessions are what the ppl of Burma can afford

  4. lmcinhk Says:

    My view is that we should not let our inability to achieve perfection dissuade us from trying to do the right thing. In the case of landmines, the treaty and the international anti-landmines norm that it helped to create have been influential despite the fact that key countries didn’t ratify it. As for Burma, I’m not sure what you mean by “concession,” but while India will have to sacrifice certain material gains in cutting ties with Burma (which might be unsustainable in the long run with the current regime anyway), it could also be argued that it could gain political capital by taking the lead on this issue, both domestically and internationally. LMC

  5. Sandeep Says:

    to that…i totally agree =D
    (specially the bit about the unsustainable relationship with the current regime)

  6. Luigi Says:

    The entire Myanmar situation displays for the whole world the truly desperate situation our world in. The US and others have done the right thing in upholding sanctions towards the Junta, and can only ask Myanmar’s neighbouring countries to do the same. I don’t believe it is reasonable to go tit for tat on various issues if the said neighbours do not want to cooperate (ie, cutting trade to India or China).

    I do however think it is reasonable to act as a leader by example. The US and others have whole other agendas that they seek to fulfill by way of their arms distributions, military installations, and secret negotiations to increase their own power throughout the world. What is occurring is no longer a global sense of security, but an individual cause that only heightens the security fears of neighbouring countries. Each country will always only look out for their own security unless the world leader takes the appropriate leadership by example to dispel security concerns throughout.

    What has happened however, is that the US does not wield the economic power it once did, thus when it had the chance to do the right thing, it failed. Now it is up to the growing powers in India and China to bring about global unity to quell further harmful situations much like the one in Myanmar.

  7. Sandeep Says:

    hmmm…i agree half way but i’m reluctant about the sanctions bit.

    Sanctions tend to work best in the “threat” phase…i’ve read this somewhere but god help me if i could remember it…i reckon Cuba is the best example of this, as long as Cuba continues getting help from China and Venezuela(doh what happens now is a matter to think about with Fidel leaving) then the Unilateral sanctions by USA barely make a ripple, and then of course u have all the Cubans from the USA making remittences…

    In terms of Myanmar, i reckon its the same, and this ties down to what u mention in the second half. USA simply does NOT have that power to make worlds move anymore(all too obvious in the case of Darfur, regardless of what Spielberg does). The USA setting a blind eye to blatant human rights violations in places like Uzbekistan and even to a certain degree Pakistan, only because(prima facie) they are strategic allies in the war on terror seems to suggest that they tend to work in their best interests(and well…why not?)

    Ultimately it comes to that, as long as they are getting help from SOMEONE, the rest of the sanctions wont really help much…but yes keeping them in place certainly keeps up pressure…to a certain degree

  8. luigi Says:

    I agree with you…but same same, only half way. Unilateral sanctions are not effective without the support of the global community…which leads the sanctioned country to become more defiant (as obviously their policies don’t bother everyone, so why bother to quell them. But sanctions are a good start, and can put pressure on a country. Look at the situation in N. Korea. Desperate times make some countries really think about where they are headed, and why. Heck, the NY Philharmonic in Pyongyang, would that have happened without certain leaders really giving themselves a good hard look on the inside?

    I also mentioned that when USA had the chance to do the right thing, and actually have it mean something, it failed. Might not their bad actions or even inactions really altered people’s thinking as to whom they could and should really trust or rely on. One might think, “Obviously the US won’t uphold global peace so why should we? They have looked out for themselves and gotten themselves rich and powerful all these year, now its our turn.”

    Its definitely up to another country to set the pace. That country could even be China. Sure it has a shady present and past, but the administration is really taking a look at the world and sees their potential to be the next great state.

    China would then wield the power in the east. Then we may have formidable change to the melting pot of policies gone wrong. Thus as you mentioned, keeping sanctions in place certainly helps keep up the pressure. We just need leadership by example.

  9. lmcinhk Says:

    Luigi —

    I agree that China is in a position to take a more pro-active global leadership role on humanitarian issues, but why should they? What’s in it for them?

    — LMC

  10. chrisj Says:

    True what is in it for them? They’re liberal/mercantile approach to foreign relation does not have a conscience, china will deal with anyone to secure more natural resources to keep fueling its economic growth.

    as for burma, what can we do? primarily the ASEAN 6 have sought out to pursue open diplomatic and economic relations with the junta in hopes of opening and turning their opinion only to see the INCREASE their arms expenditure and lock down on the country even further.

    I think heads of state surrounding Burma are starting to realize how much of a security threat they are to the region and hopefully in due time things will shape up? who knows though, civil war has been in somalia for the last 2 decades, whats going to change whats going on in Burma especially when the SPCD have locked up all armed resistance through 16 individual cease fire agreements and are now controlling a multitude of puppet armies that once use to be resistance.

    And on the subject of Indian policy change, it would indeed have some positive effect on the situation, after all Burma does purchase hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment from India, ranging from artillery, modern light arms, to light attack helicopters.

    what can you do though, India feels threatened with China in its backyard, anyways any sort of pro democracy movement by the indians would be a great thing.


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