September 26, 2007Foreign Affairs

Myanmar, Murli and Morality

Realpolitik is not synonymous with support for the junta

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

One of the sad consequences of India’s new hyphenation (or worse, the ugly portmanteau Chindia”), with China is that the names of the two countries cited in one breath over issues like climate change, energy supplies, Africa and now, Myanmar. Western countries—who have little leverage in Myanmar anyway—can announce more sanctions with ease. Sanctions that might not necessarily bite in Naypyidaw but would add pressure on China, and yes, on India. Sanctions won’t be effective, we are repeatedly told, without the support of Myanmar’s trading chief partners—China and India. And the Wall Street Journal had a piece by old Burma hands, that suggested that the nuclear deal with America somehow obliged India to exert a positive influence in the neighbourhood’.

Western hypocrisy is palpable—one has only to look at its attitude towards the struggle for democracy in Pakistan—but does it make sense? Murli Deora, India’s minister for petroleum, proceeded with his trip to Myanmar, despite the public protests. Calling off the trip would have sent a clear signal of India’s sympathy with the protestors’ cause. But does proceeding with the trip necessarily signal India’s support for the junta, based on the philosophy of doing business with whoever is in power? Not necessarily, but many think so.

As the satyagraha succeeds in Myanmar—-as it is bound to one day— and democracy is restored, India and its leaders would not be in their mind because they consistently avoided supporting them. India may have to pay a price for its moral cowardice, called Realpolitik. [B Raman/SAAG]

Realpolitik, like pragmatism, risks becoming yet another abused word in Indian political lexicon. Just like pragmatism was presented as a cover for surrender, lack of policy, lack of action and pusillanimity is being projected as realism. Realpolitik does not dictate putting up with the junta, but rather ensuring that the balance of power—in the region and over Myanmar—allows India to protect its long-term interests.

For all the engagement with the junta, apart from occasional tactical assistance in tackling insurgents in the North East, India has had little to show for its realist’ policy. On the other hand, Myanmar has allowed China to set-up listening posts in the Indian Ocean, given refuge to Pakistani nuclear scientists escaping American questioning and largely weighed in on China’s side in energy supply deals. Indeed, it can be argued that the junta have taken India for ride down the Irrawaddy. It is arguable whether the current approach is any more beneficial to Indian interests than a more muscular one—for instance, hot pursuit into Myanmarese territory during counter-insurgency operations. And perhaps, naval exercises off Myanmar’s coast to help the junta make the correct policy decisions…

So Raman is right—there’s cowardice in India’s policy towards Myanmar. It only passes under the name of realpolitik.

As to his other point—that India’s lack of support for democracy will work against it in future—the answer, again, is not necessarily. As he himself wrote in his memoirs, Bangladesh’s present-day leaders hardly factor in gratefulness for past assistance while taking present day policy positions. To see international relations through the prism of gratefulness is misleading.

Ossification is the biggest problem with Indian foreign policy—due to a lack of imaginative political stewardship, India’s positions do not change as fast as the circumstances demand. Murli Deora’s trip to Myanmar was perhaps a manifestation of that. India will need to signal its position on Myanmar very soon. Failure to do so will leave the field open for China to bolster its claims to regional leadership through initiatives that are little more than exercises in public relations.

From the archives: Sizing up Than Shwe; Hardliners gain strength

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