Monday, June 18, 2012

How India missed the Myanmar bus

17 June 2012
arijit sen
IT was unbearably hot in Kolkata in May last year when 31 Arakanese and Karen men walked out of Presidency Jail. It took them a little time to spot the TV cameras waiting to record their acquittal, their walk to freedom. Once they knew where to look, they posed with victory signs. Yet, most were too tired to flash a smile or even realise they were free. Three of their comrades were still in jail. Two others had died over the years. The tiredness was not surprising. It had been 13 years since February 1998 when these men had been allegedly stabbed in the back by the Indian Army. 
The rebels were members of the National Unity Party of Arakan and the Karen National Union. They had worked closely with Indian Army Intelligence since 1995. They supplied information on training camps of North-east Indian insurgents inside Myanmar. In return, they had the assurance of support from Indian Intelligence for their struggle against the Myanmarese military junta. 
It was with this promise and an invitation, in 1998, that these men set sail from Thai waters on two boats for the Andamans’ Landfall Island. The idea was to set up base for their struggle. India, however, had a bigger gameplan. It wanted them to monitor Chinese movements in the region. New Delhi had reason enough to believe that there was a Chinese presence in the area. The Chinese were being helped by the Myanmarese junta.
For the rebels, it was an unexpected welcome at the little, uninhabited island. They were arrested as soon as they arrived and their leader, General Khaing Raza, and five others were allegedly dragged into the jungle and shot dead. In a press briefing, the Indian Army informed the media that international gunrunners who had been trying to supply arms to North-east Indian rebels had been caught in “Operation Leech”.
This was one of many examples of India’s recent Myanmar engagement that has been one of false promises, false starts and myopic operations that turned deadly for others.
Ten years before Operation Leech, in September 1988, the streets of Yangon were witnessing one of the world’s most spontaneous outcries against the repression of democracy. The National League for Democracy, headed by the magnetic Aung San Suu Kyi, had won over the hearts and minds of each and every one in Myanmar. But the army generals had other plans. They would not let go of power so easily. So NLD workers were jailed, students shot and Suu Kyi, daughter of the legendary General Aung Saan, founder of an Independent Burma, was put under virtual house arrest.
In 1990, her party won 80 per cent of the seats for a committee that was to draft a new constitution. The results were rejected by the generals. In 1987, a year before Yangon’s democracy wave, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited the country. It was a time when a lot was happening in that corner of the world. Gandhi had successfully signed a peace treaty with the rebels in Mizoram in June 1986. He had signed the Assam Accord in 1985 with Prafulla Mahanta. His engagement with North-east India and the 1,600-km border it shared with Myanmar was knowingly and unknowingly gathering pace and evolving.

India, it seemed, was “looking East” and “acting East” much before the “master of public speaking”, Harvard-educated American President Barack Obama, would dare the Indian government to do so in his famous speech in Parliament in 2010. And yet, to outdo and erase it all, India would soon don blinkers and start its turnaround on Myanmar.
This month, 25 years after Rajiv Gandhi’s Myanmar visit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his band of tweeting and iPad-carrying new age Indian Foreign Service and Indian Administrative Service officers decided it was time to hop on to the Myanmar bus. Last year, that country had witnessed a heavily rigged election that had allowed the military regime to embrace democracy. General Thin Sein and his military cohorts, who are remembered for their brutal repression of pro-democracy movements by Buddhist monks in Myanmar in 2008, are now “elected” ministers. For India and the rest of the world, Myanmar’s Berlin Wall Moment had happened with its elections.
When we landed with Dr Singh and his team in Myanmar, we were actually in the middle of nowhere. The capital city, Nay Pi Taw (meaning “Abode of Kings”) had been built in 2005 by the military junta, apparently to assert more control over the people. Forests had been cleared and government officials had been forced to shift to this new capital overnight or lose their jobs. Much of the city is still under construction. It was one more regressive policy similar to the one that had led the generals to rename Burma Myanmar. Post-Burma’s last elections, all of this is now official according to the ground rules of democracy.
So the Indian delegation of civil servants and ministers calibrated their visit in accordance with what the government of the day in Myanmar wanted. It was a practical embrace and an effort to build new and independent bridges with that country. Union foreign minister SM Krishna came out with tailored statements that made it clear India would not engage with Myanmar’s internal democracy problems. India meant business and wanted business, and still does. Yet the numbers are against India.

India is Myanmar’s 13th largest trading partner. The trading amount is $1.4 billion, an amount India plans to double by 2015. China remains at the forefront in the trade game and 70 per cent of the Foreign Direct Investment is by them. The amount is at a staggering $20 billion. After decades of isolation, the Americans and the European Union have lifted trade sanctions.
From the moment we landed in Nay Pi Taw to the moment we flew out of Yangon, India and Myanmar were engaged in signing Memoranda of Understanding, almost as if someone had whispered into the ears of the Indian delegation, “Seize the moment”. None of the chief ministers from the North-eastern states were part of the “look East”-chanting Indian delegation.

So, when India signed an agreement on the development of border haats, it seemed that our officers should have done well to spend some more time than the customary visit to Mizoram or to Manipur before floating such an idea. The much talked about Imphal-Mandalay bus service looked lovely on paper. But the embarrassing reality of zero roads beyond some kilometres in Manipur seemed to have escaped the mandarins in Delhi.

By the time the Indian delegation reached Yangong, it was drizzling. To the surprise and horror of many, Dr Manmohan Singh met pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi at a hotel and not at her residence, which had come to signify the idea of democracy in Myanmar. It almost looked like India was waiting to rewrite history with only its MoUs and the business delegation. Not one person questioned that the idea of democracy was being reduced to tokenism.

A day before the Indian delegation met Suu Kyi, local English daily The New Light of Myanmar came out with an editorial that said “be happy with what you’ve got”. People love India and yet expectations from India aren’t much.
By the time Dr Singh had returned to Delhi, he had already spoken about Anna Hazare and other domestic issues. Reporters were happy. From mid-air, officials had faxed copies of the Prime Minister’s statement. The Myanmar business was over. 

The writer is the North-east correspondent for CNN-IBN 

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