Are India’s democratic credentials enough reason for this country to actively shun national interest in order to promote democracy in the extended region habited by a host of autocratic rulers, dictators and military juntas? Ambivalence on this count has already cost the country plenty. It is a pity, for example, that India did not cut a “final deal” on Kashmir with Musharraf a few years back when he was firmly in the saddle, the sort of deal any “democratic” dispensation in Islamabad will be loth to agree to.
Elsewhere, there is something grandly tragic about Ang San Suu Kyi withering away inside her compound even as the democratic movement in that country is quelled outside of it. This is as moving a spectacle as seeing the Dalai Lama gamely traverse the globe, urging support for the even more hopeless task of vacating Tibet of the Chinese presence.
The military junta in Yangon from the start made no bones about distancing Myanmar from the outside world, closing it off to external influences as a means of perpetuating its control over the country. But this had far less heinous an outcome than the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marching into Lhasa in 1949 with the aim, articulated some 40 years earlier by the President of the first Chinese Republic, Sun Yat Sen, of eliminating independent Tibet, Tibetan culture and people in order to solve expeditiously the “minorities problem” that he believed afflicted China, as did Mao Zedong’s murderous cabal.
New Delhi has credibly pleaded “national interest” when choosing to do nothing on the Myanmar issue; it could have done so more credibly if it had all along campaigned vigorously to oust the Chinese from Tibet as demanded by India’s geostrategic situation requiring the vast, high-altitude, desert of the Tibetan plateau to be turned into a buffer zone, keeping the Chinese military as far from the Himalayan ramparts as possible. Instead, after initially joining the US Central Intelligence Agency in training and rendering material assistance to the Tibetan guerillas in the 1950s to fight the Chinese occupation forces, India’s will to contest that space with China flagged until the 1962 military debacle, when even the pretence was given up.
The trouble now is that with the PLA ensconced in Tibet, India simply cannot allow the Chinese to also consolidate themselves in Myanmar, which will happen if Delhi interferes in its internal affairs in a manner that angers the regime of Senior General Than Shwe, pushing it deeper into China’s embrace. This last would be a national security disaster for India, considering that in a future war with China, the PLA will likely take the easier route into the Brahmaputra basin by cutting across northern Myanmar using the network of roads and wide bridges it has built over the years for just such contingencies, making the absorption into China of Arunachal Pradesh—that Beijing has always claimed as its own—a relatively painless exercise. The rapid PLA advance by infantry and armour across the Myanmar border, which the Indian Army is not geared to resist, facilitated by these arterial roads and sustained by heavy 9-tonne trucks carrying military supplies to the front, will be preferred by the Chinese war planners to hazarding the risks of mountain warfare.
Were the Manmohan Singh government to continue making polite noises but otherwise ignore the importuning of assorted do-gooders at home and especially in Western countries which, having burnt their bridges with Yangon, have nothing to lose, India will find that the Myanmarese junta are no fools and will successfully keep their historic distrust of, and animosity with, China stoked and Beijing at arm’s length.
Indeed, the Myanmar foreign minister visiting India several years back made precisely this point, recalling that it was only because India, with whom Myanmar has had the closest social and cultural links over the ages, turned its back on Yangon that his government felt compelled to cultivate China. Quick to capitalize on the main chance so offered, Beijing responded with massive financial help, economic concessions, arms transfers, and construction of first-class road infrastructure, ostensibly to facilitate the inward and outward Chinese trade through the warm-water Myanmarese ports on the Bay of Bengal.
However, even when in economic and political hock to Beijing, Yangon took care to see that requests by China to set up major military facilities on Myanmarese territory were put aside. On an official 2005 visit, the then chief of naval staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, was reportedly allowed to visit the Coco Islands to satisfy himself that the fabled electronic intelligence post to monitor Indian missile firings from Gopalpur-on-sea in Orissa, did not exist and neither did the alleged Chinese underwater submarine pens at Hangyii.
Moreover, at an official banquet, in the presence of Indian ambassador G. Parthasarathy, the Myanmar leader, in a bantering tone, asked the Admiral why it was that India had “sold Myanmar to China”, a remark reflecting the depth of the Myanmarese despair at having not India, but China, to rely on.