India Cuts a Deal with Burma’s Junta

Ignoring continued international pressure to boycott Burma’s ruling military junta, New Delhi on April 4 will sign an agreement to develop a port on the western Burmese coast for the benefit of India’s restive northeast, where a stubborn secessionist movement has continued its rebellion for decades.

Vice Senior General Maung Aye, second in command of the State Peace and Development Council, as the Burmese junta calls itself, is to arrive in New Delhi to finalize the US$100 million Kaladan project. This includes development of the Sittwe port on the Bay of Bengal, connecting it with landlocked northeastern India through the Kaladan River and road transport system and providing India with a crucial alternative route for transport of goods to the northeastern states, bypassing Bangladesh.

Maung Aye’s arrival is the highest-profile visit to India for a Burmese leader since Senior General Than Shwe, the junta leader, was in New Delhi four years ago. Last August and September, the junta earned worldwide opprobrium with a brutal crackdown on the country’s restive population, beating and shooting at peaceful protesters led by tens of thousands of Buddhist monks. Although the junta put total deaths at 10, unofficial tallies go much higher.

“The Kaladan project will include shipping, riverine and road transport,” Jairam Ramesh, the Indian junior commerce minister, said in a press briefing during a recent visit to the region. “New Delhi wants to connect the northeast with commercial sea routes. Moreover, with the development of the Sittwe port and the Kaladan River to make it efficient for navigation, the region is expected to have another viable access to Southeast Asian countries.”

India’s northeast, which is almost cut off geographically from the rest of the country by Bangladesh, comprises eight states surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh. The region’s cumulative population of about 50 million enjoy more affinity toward China and Burma than with India because of its predominantly East Asian origin. The area is connected to mainland India through only 2 percent of its territorial boundary.

The Burmese junta, though providing free land for the Kaladan project, has been reluctant to invest, which finally compelled New Delhi to extend a US$10 million soft loan to the SPDC leaders, which critics characterized as a bribe. The project is anticipated to be completed within four years and will be executed by the public-sector Rail India Technical Economic Services organization.

India is already under fire across the globe after a visit to Burma by its petroleum minister, Murli Deora, in September at a time when the world’s media were delivering pictures of massive protests against the junta and the crackdown. Although Deora witnessed as many as 100,000 demonstrators on the streets of Rangoon, he made no statements. Instead, during his visit, he signed three bilateral agreements for deep exploration in oil blocks. India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) Videsh pledged to invest nearly US$150 million for gas exploration in Burma’s Rakhaine coastal region.

New Delhi strongly supported the pro-democracy movement in Burma until 1993 but has become increasingly concerned over growing Chinese influence in the country. That has forced India to change its Burma policy to one of greater economic cooperation. Another major concern remains the relentless insurgencies in India’s northeast. Armed groups based in the trouble-torn region use the jungles of northern Burma as their hideouts and training camps. India cannot afford to ignore the junta’s support in dealing with the situation along the porous 1,600-kilometer Indo-Burmese border.

New Delhi’s move to invest in the Burmese port assumes additional significance in view of Bangladesh’s reluctance to give India access to its Chittagong port, which is nearer to the northeast, and which is less than 200 km from Agartala, capital of the Indian state of Tripura.

“It is unfortunate that we have not been able to develop our relationship with Bangladesh to the level of making it our gateway to Southeast Asia,” Ramesh said, although he pointed out that New Delhi is working on enhancing ties with Bangladesh. (As Asia Sentinel reported on March 12, Bangladesh’s army chief of staff, General Moeen U Ahmed, recently spent a week in India in arguably the closest example of cooperation between the two countries since Bangladesh’s independence in 1971.)

Burmese exiles have come out against New Delhi for initiating the project, saying any money invested in Burma will not reach the common people, but will go into the pockets of the generals.

“This is not a right time and [the junta leaders] are not the right persons to build a long-term relationship, while human-rights abuses have been claiming many lives every year in Burma,” said M Kim, the coordinator of the Shwe Gas Pipeline Campaign Committee (India).

In an interview, Kim said: “India must not bury alive its extraordinary democratic values and inspiration of promotion of peace and human rights by dealing in business and building relations with this barbaric Burmese military junta, which recently not only killed, tortured and imprisoned its own innocent people and monks but also violated religious rights by sealing off monasteries and restricting the basic rights of prayers at pagodas.”

Forced labor, Kim said, is still rampant in Arakan state, where the Kaladan project is to be built, with villagers forced to dig and dam fisheries and prawn ponds for the interest of the authorities. The only thing they receive from the authorities is mistreatment, he said.

“It is inevitable that if [Kaladan] is carried out under the present regime, gross human-rights violations will follow,” Kim said. “No development project will be done without committing human-rights abuses, so India must hold off on the Kaladan project until the military dictatorship is replaced by a democratic regime, and local communities have a say in how their natural resources are used.”

The Mizoram Committee for Democracy in Burma and the Campaign for Democratic Movement in Burma in January appealed vainly to New Delhi to cut ties with the junta as “economic cooperation with them [will] never benefit the people unless democracy is restored in Burma.”

But Deepak Parvatiyar, a former journalist turned Indian government communication officer now based in Kuala Lumpur, said the mounting pressure on the military rulers of Burma “should be maintained at a diplomatic level but not at the cost of development.”

Speaking to Asia Sentinel from the Malaysian capital, Parvatiyar said: “Contribution to development is always welcome, even after taking into consideration the recent happenings in Burma and the continued regressive policies by its military rulers.

“By participating in the development of the port in Burma, India has shown maturity in dealing with her troublesome neighbors,” Parvatiyar said. “Opening bilateral trade with Pakistan was the beginning that considerably helped smooth the relationship between the two countries. By participating in the development of Burma, it will enhance the reputation of India as a country that cares for its neighbors irrespective of political differences. Moreover, the Kaladan project will give the backward northeast region access to commercial sea routes.”

However, Tayza Thuria, a Burmese exile based in London, answered that “India’s doing business with Burma and engaging with Burma’s de facto military government is not wrong in itself. But the Indian government needs to be careful to maintain a balanced and ethical approach towards Burma; ie, while engaging with them in business and security affairs, New Delhi must also try to persuade, advise and guide the junta to make systematic democratic reforms in due course.”