India's Burma Policy Is Not Pragmatism, It's Realism

India graciously hosted the Burmese Dictator Than Shwe this week, raising the question as to why the world's largest democracy would welcome one of the world's worst dictators, a man associated with crimes against humanity.
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India graciously hosted the Burmese Dictator Than Shwe this week, raising the question as to why the world's largest democracy would welcome one of the world's worst dictators, a man associated with alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Indian officials and analysts explain New Delhi's foreign policy toward Burma (Myanmar) as "pragmatic," noting that India doesn't have the luxury of ignoring or isolating its neighbor. But the real problem is less about India welcoming Than Shwe, and more about the way India has engaged this entrenched military regime.

New Delhi's principal interests in Burma are access to natural resources, trade routes, and dealing with non-state armed groups from northeast India, a remote area that shares a long border with Burma. This approach dates back to the 1990s, when the administration of Narasimha Rao abandoned India's short-lived but explicit support for democracy and human rights in Burma. The policy is now marked by a near complete silence on human rights. To call this pragmatism is a misnomer.

Primarily a method of inquiry, pragmatism generally maintains that practical efficacy is a standard guide to what is true and right; pragmatists are guided by what works. India's foreign policy toward Burma is more akin to political realism, an approach that prioritizes shoring up power and resources against other states, often to the detriment of the human beings on the other end of the policy. Realists narrowly prioritize national interests, security, and the accumulation of power over all else (commonly failing to understand that human rights protection and promotion would serve all three).

However, even on its own terms, India's foreign policy toward Burma has been ineffective.

Consider the state-owned oil and gas firms ONGC Videsh and the Gas Authority of India, both implementing India's foreign policy goals in Burma since 2004. The companies are part of a consortium mining the controversial "Shwe" natural gas deposits in Burma's Bay of Bengal. While the Burmese regime accepted these Indian companies in the consortium to extract the gas, it denied India the rights to purchase the gas. Instead, a massive transport pipeline is currently under construction to Yunnan Province, China, financed in part by India. Last February, India's Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, chaired by Prime Minister Singh, approved a $1.35 billion investment in gas projects in Burma, including financing for the construction of the Shwe pipeline.

The irony here is that India's Burma policy is explained as a "pragmatic" response to China's unarguably growing influence in Burma. But in this case, the policy literally plays into China's hands: Indian companies mine the gas, China takes it.

Moreover, the onshore part of the project is already linked to land confiscation, torture, and arbitrary detention. This opens up Indian companies to significant reputation damage and potential legal liability for complicity in human rights violations, aspects that can only damage the very tools of diplomacy, like soft power, that India will need in its long term engagement with Burma.

India's interests in Burma's gas will also generate multi-billion dollar profits for the Burmese regime. This comes at the same time as increasing disquiet about Burma's nuclear ambitions. In Hanoi last week, US Secretary of State Clinton expressed concern over reports of Burma's illegal nuclear program and weapons trade with Pyongyang, both of which are activities enabled by multi-billion dollar natural gas profits, the Burmese regime's single largest source of income. India's uncritical generation of even more revenue for the regime at this time could finance nuclear proliferation, which would clearly work against Indian interests.

India should engage Burma more pragmatically. New Delhi should support an international arms embargo against the generals, and it should support a UN commission of inquiry into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma, as recommended by UN Special Rapporteur Tomas Ojea Quintana. This will not only benefit Burma, but also its neighbors. Opening up contested areas to a commission of inquiry could deter human rights abuses by the Burmese Army and non-state armed groups under scrutiny. In turn, this could improve the prospects for responsible Indian investment in Burma far more than uncritical financial support for the current military regime.

India should also join ASEAN, the EU, and the US in applying multilateral pressure on the banks doing business with the regime and its cronies. This strategy could be used as leverage for meaningful democratic changes in Nyapidaw. It could start with banks in Singapore, well-known repositories of the generals' ill gotten gains.

With regard to acquiring Burma's natural resources, Indian companies should prioritize transparent and objective human rights and environmental impact assessments before investment decisions are made, and thereafter: if there's an unreasonably high risk that a project will contribute to abuses, then it should be postponed or abandoned until the preconditions for responsible investment are in place, whenever that may be. And as ever, the projects should have the free, prior, and informed consent of local communities.

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