India’s influence anxiety in Burma – The Irrawaddy


India is losing out to China in Burma, but New Delhi could still be downplaying military assistance to Burma amid rumours of a new bilateral arms deal

BANGKOK – In his 1973 The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, Harold Bloom explains how poetic creativity is inevitably constrained by precursors and predecessors, whom would-be writers – subconsciously at least – emulate after reading. The outcome is that artist anxiously tries – unsuccessfully for the most part, save for a few stellar exceptions – to overcome this influence and forge an original vision.

Save for the licence sometimes deployed to spin the self-interest involved, there is little that is poetic about the commercial and strategic bidding war taking place in Burma, as neighbouring countries vie for influence in the one-time “breadbasket of southeast Asia”, these days more the region’s mine for oil, gas, gemstones, hydropower and timber.

Eager to acquire some of these resources to bolster its growing economy, India is consciously anxious about the influence wielded by China in Burma, according to newly-released U.S diplomatic cables. The country routinely-described as “the world’s largest democracy” seems to be copying the world’s second largest economy with military and strategic inducements of its own. China recently overtook Thailand to become the largest investor in Burma, and though exact numbers are not available, China’s investment in and military sales to Burma seem to far outweigh India’s.

Nonetheless, U.S embassy staff are described in some of the leaked cables as questioning Indian officials about arms sales to Burma. In one document, dated 30 May 2007 and released yesterday, the Director of India’s Ministry of External Affairs claimed that military assistance to the junta was of the “non-lethal” variety, and that bilateral military relations revolved around attacking a variety of Indian insurgent groups who have long been using remote ethnic minority regions of Burma as a retreat.

According to another cable, dated February 20 2007, one of India’s main officials working on the Burma portfolio told the Americans that Burma’s junta was needed to help quell the insurgencies, partly-due to apparent wilful indifference on the part of Bangladesh, whose geographic location makes it pivotal to India’s counter-insurgency planning. “The ULFA (United Liberation Front for Assam) guys hiding in Burma are screwing the hell out of us!” the official said, adding that “Burma is the only one helping us” to tackle the group. “Tell Bangladesh to co-operate and I am happy to say bye bye Myanmar.”

In the cable accounts, the U.S seems dubious about explanations provided by Indian officials, and, most likely referring to its own intelligence gathering, said that “numerous sources continued to report ongoing sales of military equipment”.

Siemon Wezeman is a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which produces a highly-regarded annual survey of global arms deals. He said that “in October 2006 75mm guns had already been delivered and 105mm guns were being delivered, while also T-55 tanks, armoured vehicles, mortars, helicopters were being delivered or were to be delivered.”

However – as is often the case with arms deals in general and with commercial dealings involving the Burmese Government – precise details of what was eventually transferred remain elusive. Mr Wezeman told The Irrawaddy that “he only delivery we know for sure happened was 2 BN-2 light transport aircraft (with a possible 2 more)”. The SIPRI database estimates that the Burmese army received 10 T-55 tanks, 10 105mm guns and 10 MPV light armoured vehicles, from India, but SIPRI acknowledges that the details cannot be verified as certain.

SIPRI’s latest arms survey ,released earlier this week, ranked India as the world’s leading arms importer – ahead of China, which has a growing domestic arms industry. India gets most of its weapons from Russia, and it is thoght that these constitute the bulk of the transfers onward to Burma. The US remains the world’s largest arms exporter, accounting for 30% of the world’s sales, followed by Russia anf Germany.

The transition to an elected parliament in Burma has been widely criticised by many countries, mostly in the West. However, the election and formation of a new national parliament has been welcomed by the Indian Government, as well as Indian strategic analysts at various military- linked think-tanks, a number of whom were contacted for their assessment of the India-Burma military relationship – but had not responded to The Irrawaddy at time of writing. The transition, deemed as a mere legitimisation of continued army rule in Burma in some quarters, has possibly oiled the wheels of more military transfers from India to Burma, or at least spurred a revival of dormant older arrangements. According to Mr Wezeman, “In late-2010 it seems another India-Myanmarese agreement was signed on Indian military equipment as assistance, including rifles, armoured vehicles and patrol craft.”

Burma’s rulers source weaponry from a variety of countries, including China, former Soviet states, and most controversially, North Korea. In context, India’s military assistance therefore comes across more like a strategic inducement or goodwill gesture, aimed at currying favour with the Burmese Government. That said, there are some in Burma who would prefer that India offer help of a different kind to Burma’s people. In a December 7 2010 interview with the Press Trust of India, Aung San Suu Kyi said that “We would like India to play a more active role in trying to help in the process of democratisation of Burma and I would like the Indian government to engage more with us…who are working more with democracy.”

However India’s zeal to invest in Burma memorably extended to deals being struck during Burma’s most recent uprising against military rule. In 2007, the country’s Oil Minister signing a deal with the Burmese military Government – on September 24 that year – allowing the state-run Overseas Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) to collaborate on gas exploration off the Rakhine State coast. The agreement was signed right in the middle of monk-led peaceful demonstrations against military rule in Burma, and came just days before the Burmese army attacked and dispersed the protestors, leading to an unknown death toll.

India has long-dismissed Suu Kyi as a viable or relevant player in Burma, dating back to a visit to India by Burma’s military dictator Sen-Gen Than Shwe in 2004. According to Indian accounts contained another leaked U.S diplomatic cable, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discussed democratic reform in Burma with Than Shwe, “in a much more intense way than could be expressed in the media,” despite the potential for a negative fallout on the bilateral relationship. The official added that New Delhi had battled for the inclusion of a paragraph in the joint statement that expressed India’s support for “national reconciliation and an early transition to democracy in Myanmar,” and described it as a “coup for India.”

However the same official said that the world had conflated democracy in Burma with Suu Kyi, a stance that could “backfire”, and described the Nobel laureate as someone whose “day has come and gone.” Perhaps a poor choice of words, given that in 2003, Suu Kyi narrowly survived an attack by a mob on her convoy at Depayin in Burma, which left scores of her supporters dead, in an incident widely believed to have been orchestrated by the Burmese military rulers.

Overall, the Americans seem dubious about India’s account of the bilateral relationship with Burma, with one cable remarking that “hesitance to be forthcoming on Burma is consistent with the GOI [Government of India] approach to discussing Burma”.

However the U.S credits India with playing a role in persuading Burma’s rulers to allow international emergency relief aid enter Burma after the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, which left an estimated 147,000 dead in the Irrawaddy Delta. In the days following the disaster, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee spoke to junta counterpart Nyan Win, saying that India was willing to transport aid from the international community to Burma, if this would be more acceptable to the Burmese than direct assistance from western Governments. Nyan Win replied that Burma was, by that stage, allowing countries to give aid directly, and that any country was welcome to provide disaster relief. However the Burmese foreign minister added that the junta was not willing to allow foreigners into the country to distribute aid.

How far the U.S is willing to push India on Burma issues is unclear, but seems likely to be constrained by the same China factor that drives New Delhi’s relationship with the Burmese Government. The U.S has made India a nuclear partner and sees India as a regional counterweight to a rising China, which recently announced a 12.7% hike in military spending. India, for its part, can point to the U.S-Pakistan relationship, with Washington, D.C. now providing around US$1.5billion per annum in civilian and military aid to a country that India sees as complicit in numerous recent terrorist attacks on Indian soil and on Indian representatives in Afghanistan. China too has growing interests in Pakistan, refurbishing the port of Gwadar as part of a so called ‘string of pearls’ strategy encompassing Burma and Sri Lanka, aimed at projecting its naval and commercial strength into the Indian Ocean, greatly alarming New Delhi and hardly going unnoticed in the U.S.

In a cable leaked in December, a U.S official wrote that India could act as a pull factor drawing Burma away from China’s growing regional sphere of influence, after being told by an Indian official that the junta “hates China” and welcomes India’s engagement as an alternative. In visiting India from July 25-29 2010 – before his official trip to China – Than Shwe hinted to China that he has an “India option”, should Beijing’s influence become overbearing to Burma’s rulers.

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