How India missed the Burma bus
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 free walk. Once they knew where to look, they posed with victory signs.
Yet, most were too tired to flash a smile or even realise that 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 backstabbed by the Indian Army. It was a vicious 180-degree turn on India's part that had falsely turned these men engaged in a freedom struggle into a group of international gun-runners.
The rebels were members of the National Unity Party of Arakan and the Karen National Union. They had worked closely with the Indian Army Intelligence since 1995. They supplied information on training camps of north-eastern Indian insurgents inside Burma. In return they had the assurance of support from the Indian Intelligence for their struggle against the Burmese military junta.
It was with this promise and invite, in 1998, that these men set sail from Thai waters on two boats for Andaman's Landfall Island. The idea was to set up a base for their struggle. India, however, had a bigger game plan. It wanted them to monitor Chinese movements in the region. India had reason enough to believe that there was Chinese presence in the area. The Chinese were being helped by the Burmese junta.
For the Burmese rebels, it was an unexpected welcome at the little, uninhabited island. They were arrested as soon as they reached and their leader Gen Khaing Raza and five others, allegedly, were dragged inside the jungle on the island and shot dead. In a press briefing, the Indian Army informed the media that international gun-runners who were trying to supply arms to north-eastern Indian rebels had been caught in the operation codenamed Operation Leech.
There were no doubts that the Arakanese and Karen men had been used and dumped. Some Indians blamed the incident on a 'rogue agent'. But it was unlikely that an operation of this level was driven without the knowledge of others. It was one of many examples of India's recent Burma engagement that has been one of false promises, false starts, myopic engagements 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 Burma. But the army generals in Burma had other plans. They would not let go of power so easily. So NLD workers were jailed, students shot and Daw Suu Kyi, daughter of the legendary General Aung San, the founder of independent Burma, was put under a 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, year before Yangon's democracy wave, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had visited Burma. It was a time when a lot was happening in this corner of the world. Mr 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 kilometre long border it shared with Burma was knowingly and unknowingly gathering pace and evolving. In 1988, as Bertil Lintner pointed out at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library talk (in 1992), "Daring anti-military broadcasts over All India Radio's Burmese language service became extremely popular and many Burmese undoubtedly saw India as an ideal once again, as it had been in the fifties."
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 Indian Parliament in 2010.
And yet, to outdo and erase it all, India would soon put on blinkers and start its turnarounds on Burma.
How did it suddenly happen? By 1990, the Indian Army had moved into the plains of Assam leading counter-insurgency operations against the United Liberation Front of Assam. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M) faction was reframing its strategies for the Naga cause. Militancy in Manipur was at its peak. Most of these groups had set up their bases in the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh and inside Burma. This was also a time when militancy in Kashmir was taking violent turns.
India decided to abandon its pro-democracy moves and court the military regime in Burma to its advantage. Tacit support was extended to the junta which would many years later, allegedly, lead to hardware help extended to the Burmese army by the Indians.
The 'look east' policy, a buzzword for engagement with this region also came up during this time when Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister. It still hangs around Indian policymakers' neck. By the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the Prime Minister, military diplomacy was the key driving focus of India's Burma policy. The belief was that it would reap dividends when it came to controlling insurgents in North-East India. That belief stayed on and so did militancy in the North-East. Burma, even now, remains a safe haven for militants. Later, India would also force itself to believe that its thumbs up to the Burmese army would help India get investments in Burma. Ironically, when India was changing its Burma tracks, India would honour Aung San Suu Kyi with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1992.
This month, twenty-five years after Rajiv Gandhi's Burma visit, Dr Manmohan Singh and his band of tweeting and ipad carrying new age Indian Foreign Service and Indian Administrative service officers decided it's time to hop on to the Burma bus. In November 2010, Burma had witnessed a heavily rigged election that had allowed the military regime to embrace democracy. General Thin Sein and his military men, who are remembered for their brutal repression of pro-democracy movements by Buddhist monks in Burma in 2007, are now 'elected' ministers. For India and the rest of the world, Burma's Berlin Wall Moment had happened with its elections. Subsequent by-elections that elected Suu Kyi as the leader of the opposition had given a green signal to the diplomats across the world. For all of them, Burma's papers are certainly now in order. It was all okay to engage with Burma's new democratic avatar. In that all-okay-with-Burma euphoria, on the morning of the PM's visit, one Foreign Ministry officer started pulling out nuggets from history and tweeting about it.
Almost all that could be put in various instalments of 140 characters except India's volte-face on the democracy movement in Burma.
When we landed with Dr Singh and his team in Burma, 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 city 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 as 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 to what the government of the day in Burma wants. It was a practical embrace and an effort to build new and independent bridges with the country. Foreign Minister SM Krishna came out with tailored statements that made it clear that India will not engage with Burma's internal democracy problems. India meant business and wanted business, and still does. Yet the numbers are against India.
India is Burma'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. Seventy per cent of the Foreign Direct Investment in Burma is by the Chinese. The amount is a staggering $20 billion. After decades of isolation, the Americans and the European Union have lifted trade sanctions.
The western democracies and their trading corporations are desperate to get a toehold in the Burma market. And India also wants a share of that pie. So, the Indian business delegation had heavyweights like Sunil Bharti Mittal and Navin Jindal as part of the team.
Going by a 2004 secret report prepared by the Burmese junta, there has been a conscious effort to come out of the Chinese influence in the country. In September 2011, Burma suspended the controversial Myitsone Dam project. It was a clear snub to the Chinese arrogance in Burma. And yet Chinese influence seems all pervasive from 16-lane highways that take us to the Presidential Palace to roads built out of nowhere in a ghost capital city.
From the moment we landed in Nay Pi Taw to the moment we flew out of Yangon, India and Burma were engaged in signing Memoranda of Understanding. Almost as if someone had whispered in the ears of the Indian delegation, "seize the moment". The MoU flurry extended, on various fronts, from education to technical cooperation and even cultural exchange. Yet there seemed to be a lack of clarity on specifics. For one, 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 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, the Indian Prime Minister met pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi in a hotel and not at her residence, which had come to signify the idea of democracy in Burma. 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.
India in 2012 had indeed woken up and smelt the coffee. Though, it might have woken up a bit too late. So, when we reached the hotel, the journalists were led into a room, a makeshift press area, and Dr Singh met Suu Kyi in the other half of that long room split into two rooms by an ingenious partition. The partition was not sound-proof though. So as an excited press contingent waited for Suu Kyi, anxious Indian officials kept signalling to the press to keep quiet.
Suu Kyi was all grace and dignity. It was an honour to be in a room with her. It was an honour to be part of a media waiting to catch a glimpse of her. She came, spoke to the media and accepted an invitation to come to India, and left. A rival media reporter got the soundbite of her life before Suu Kyi left the hotel. I was stuck in another corner waiting for her. Suu Kyi's magnetism overshadowed everything and bared in front of me the reason why the present government was scared of her and her ideals. If only India could have taken the lead before it decided to wear its 'practical' Burma jacket.
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 come back 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 PM's statement. The Burma business was over.