Realpolitik with Burma

While I do not hold a naive and idealistic view of the Indian government, I was still saddened to recently hear about the extent to which the GOI has gotten into bed with the odious dictators of Burma. Is this really much different from US-Pakistani relations? Both are justified by realpolitik, national interest, and claims that the end justifies the means.

In this case, India is circumventing the EU arms embargo on Burma by selling them attack helicopters made from EU parts:

Last week, India sparked fresh cries of outrage from human rights groups when a report surfaced saying that it plans to sell an unknown number of sophisticated Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) to Burma (also known as Myanmar).

According to a report by Amnesty International and other international organizations, the helicopters should be covered by the embargo because they are made with components from at least six EU countries and the United States… the Advanced Light Helicopters include rocket launchers from Belgium, engines from France, brake systems from Italy, fuel tanks and gearboxes from Britain. [Link]

Nor is it the first time – India has made several weapons sales to Burma in the last few years. [Note - India has neither confirmed nor denied the helicopter sale] The Burmese government is the kind of government that is perfectly willing to attack and kill its own civilians to maintain its grip on power, so selling weapons to the Burmese junta is serious business.

What does India get from this? Just like the USA, India arms and supports dictators so they can help India with its security problems:

India says it needs Burma’s help. There are at least 20,000 guerrillas from five major militant groups in India’s northeast – all fighting the Indian government for sovereignty or independence – who have training camps in the dense jungles of Sagaing in northern Burma. New Delhi has been deliberating with Yangon over plans for a military offensive against such groups.

Counterinsurgency operations in India’s northeast, says an official from India’s Ministry of Defense under conditions of anonymity, cannot succeed unless neighboring countries refrain from supporting the separatist groups based on their territories. [Link]

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p>And of course, trade in general between India and Burma is increasing, as is Indian investment in Burmese gas even though the Burmese government is notorious for using forced labor when building pipelines and other infrastructure.

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p>The problem with getting into bed with dictators to improve security is, as we’ve seen in Pakistan, the dictator has every incentive to let the security problems continue so as to extract future concessions:

in a bid to continue extracting favors from India, the Burmese junta might want to keep the insurgency alive in the northeast. [Link]

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p>It might also lead to pressure within the EU not to export the parts to India that India is then selling to Burma, in violation of the EU embargo. Lastly, of course, it leads to a loss of the moral high ground vis-a-vis other countries making similar dirty deals that India dislikes.

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p>I don’t know much about the security situation in the NorthEast of India, but I would like to think that there is a better way to deal with the situation than this. The costs to innocents are high, and the security payoff seems dubious.

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p>Related sources: State Department report on human rights in Burma, Human Rights Watch on Burma, Amnesty International Report on the helicopter sale, Saferworld

51 thoughts on “Realpolitik with Burma

  1. You are forgetting the China factor. China has been investing huge amounts of money in Myanmar along with military & diplimatic aid (see Wikipedia entry for more details). I don’t think GOI can let China have all the influence on its neighbor. I think GOI has been very restrained until recently. I have read some reports that India let some of the Burmese rebels to use NE as bases and this wouldn’t have gone easy with Burmese Junta.

  2. You’re right – China is another aspect of this, which I should have mentioned, but I was cutting things from the post to shorten it, rather than adding to it.

    It’s all classic realpolitik, but doing business with the SPDC just seems like a very bad idea.

  3. doing business with the SPDC just seems like a very bad idea.

    But I don’t see a better solution either. EU & US have bigger fish to fry (Middle East & North Korea) and will not do much more than the ineffective embargoes (Ineffective because China will supply any needed stuff). India alone doesn’t have enough capacity to force SPDC out of power. GOI expects SPDC to be in power for foreseeable future so it has to find a way to deal with it rather than just ignore it.

  4. India could support the pro-democracy movement, or it could simply trade, without giving the SPDC rpecisely the sorts of arms that they will use to massacre their citizens with. It’s odious, and it’s not clear to me that it will get India much in either the short or long terms.

  5. Since China is involved with Burma in a big way right now, India seems to have two choices. Either try to compete with the Chinese in supporting the junta, or throw its full weight into overthrowing the government. India CANNOT allow China to be the sole influence on its neighbor. If India chooses to support the overthrow of the government, it would still have to make unpopular choices which would perhaps hurt its image abroad. These would have to include supporting insurgent groups and possible military/strategic intervention. Simple moral support of the ‘pro-democracy’ movement will not suffice.

  6. I think if India can continue dealing with Pakistan even after all the terrorism emanating from there in India and with a dictator to boot there, it would be silly to shoot itself in the foot by not dealing with Burma, with which India has no real issues. The power struggle between the Burmese military and civilian political outfits is not something that India has very much power to do much about and so empty moral posturing will be useless.

    The EU and US have an embargo against Burma becuase they don’t have any relationship or influence in Burma and so nothing to lose. The EU is not going to stop defense exports to India just because some EU parts are in Indian defense equipment in exports to Burma. The cost benefit does not work there. Most Asian countries deal with Burma and it would be foolish for India to stay out. Most countries use the moral high ground only when it can be subsumed to realpolitik and in ti sinstance it does not make sense for India.

  7. Realist said:

    The power struggle between the Burmese military and civilian political outfits is not something that India has very much power to do much about and so empty moral posturing will be useless.

    It’s more than just the struggle between urban elites and the military. The SPDC also uses forced labor and has no problems with killing innocent civilians while pursuing its counter insurgency campaigns. Heck, it even attacks refugee camps in neighboring countries. Are you saying there is no choice other than full and uncompromising support of a country that literally enslaves its people?

    Think back to the anti-apartheid struggle. It would have been advantageous for India to deal with the Apartheid government, and it had very little ability to displace it, yet it chose not to. Do you think that was a mistake too?

  8. India has enough to deal with in two uberjihadi states on its borders along with Missionary-funded LTTE and NE cadres. There is no need for additional Nehruvian fantasies over isolationist Burma.

    Sepiamutiny please stay out of Indian affairs. Don’t you have Shamita Shetty’s triangle to discuss or something?

  9. Thanks for this post. I had written about it earlier on my own blog. India has already lost the battle to contain Chinese influence in Burma. Port deals, access to natural gas fields — all went to China, and by the way, take a look at how many Chinese are already operating businesses in Burma. Oh, and the attacks by insurgents haven’t decreased so far. And what about the continuing problem of Burma’s ethnic minorities like the Chins and Rohingyas who are now living in India?

    If India wants to be a player on the world stage (or even in its region), at some point it will have to enunciate the principles and values it stands for. Simply telling everyone “don’t meddle in India’s affairs” is the whine of those not ready to go to the next level and accept the responsibility that entails.

    At least people on SM are still calling it Burma and not Myanmar, though…

  10. The Burmese military uses strong arm tactics like any military rule, but the western-media inspired demonisation falls flat here. There is no comparison to the apartheid regime in South Africa. If anything, it is like Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Philippines and such countries when they were under military rule, before their makeover to democracies. Burma is numerically dominated by the Burmese with the other ethnic groups being small and closely related, very unlike a tiny minority white population ruling over the majority Blacks, Indians and Coloreds. The whites were supported by all western governments before the tide turned and India identified with the majority in South Africa as part of the anti-colonial struggle right from it’s independence. Gandhi’s role in South Africa and Indian migrants there played a role even earlier in setting the terms of our engagement with apartheid South Africa. No comparison with Burma.

  11. Sepiamutiny please stay out of Indian affairs. Don’t you have Shamita Shetty’s triangle to discuss or something?

    Are you a representative of the Indian government? Even if you were, tough barfi. We have the right to discuss whatever we wish; you are welcome to not read us if our posts bother you so much.

  12. I think Realist said it well, I don’t see any serious consequences of this. Sure there may be some noise if it becomes a little more media fashionable but when it comes down to solid numbers, EU and US have too much to gain from India, both in terms of defense sales and other economic and diplomatic reasons. Thus I doubt it will amount to anything. Regarding moral ground – I am not sure how much it matters anyways especially when the whole pool is muddied.

    The most important consideration is indeed China. India definitely needs influence in Burma and the chances of the regime changing are very less. Thus I am not sure if India has a better alternative to handle the situation. Plus the need of Burma to tackle the insurgencies (some of which are actually Chinese supported) is quite high.

    TeamJesus in #10 – Ennis has raised very valid points, no one is asking you to be a part of this.

  13. Realist – you’re right that there isn’t a racial dictatorship, but being dictated to by somebody of the same color hardly makes it any better. My point was about the tactics used and the amount of repression within the country. None of the countries you’ve mentioned make use of forced labor. Furthermore, in the countryside it is my impression (and I haven’t gathered the data here) that the Burmese government is far more repressive than Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines were. For example:

    There is clear, reliable evidence that civilians are being punished as a military strategy. Since the start of 2006 alone, 232 villages have been destroyed in Burma as part of the army’s campaign against ethnic insurgents, and 82,000 people have been forced to flee as a direct result of armed conflict. [Link]

    As for this:

    Sepiamutiny please stay out of Indian affairs. Don’t you have Shamita Shetty’s triangle to discuss or something?

    It’s an odd thing to say. Certainly Indians have every right to speak up about the behavior of America, right? Then why can’t Americans speak up about India? Fair is fair.

  14. I was still saddened to recently hear about the extent to which the GOI has gotten into bed with the odious dictators of Burma. Is this really much different from US-Pakistani relations? Both are justified by realpolitik, national interest, and claims that the end justifies the means…. Lastly, of course, it leads to a loss of the moral high ground vis-a-vis other countries making similar dirty deals that India dislikes. ….. I don’t know much about the security situation in the NorthEast of India, but I would like to think that there is a better way to deal with the situation than this. The costs to innocents are high, and the security payoff seems dubious.

    Ennis, I think it is not the job of Ministry of Defence ( of any country ) to worry about Human rights and moral high ground. And it is not the job of human right organizations to worry about security. Ones priority depends on what your are fighting for. When you mix both these cast of characters thats when “realpolitik” emerges. Diplomacy is how to mix both of this effectively. Western countries succeed in realpolitik because on both the military/economic and the human right front they are very strong and have effective organizations. But the bane of this “unholy” alliance is that sometimes you can land up in such situations -

  15. Ennis#9,

    I think it is different than dealing with the apartheid government as Burma unlinke South Africa shares a border with India.

  16. Brij – so foreign policy should not concern itself with the nature of the country it is dealing with? Morality has no role? Indian foreign policy should not stand for or embrace certain values that at the least constrain it from dealing with odious governments?

  17. Nor is it the first time – India has made several weapons sales to Burma in the last few years. [Note - India has neither confirmed nor denied the helicopter sale] The Burmese government is the kind of government that is perfectly willing to attack and kill its own civilians to maintain its grip on power, so selling weapons to the Burmese junta is serious business.

    Umm.. never heard of a government launching anti-tank missile from a helicopter over its civilians.

    And does anyone knows why I have been banned? alright my name is “Mr. To be banned and deleted”, but that’s not a valid reason to ban someone, or is it?

  18. Umm.. never heard of a government launching anti-tank missile from a helicopter over its civilians.

    Bogus argument. It’s an attack helicopter. It has a variety of armaments on it. If you’ve seen Apocalypse Now, you know what attack helicopters can do to civilians.

  19. I’ve agreed with other unpalatable things that India had to do, e.g. recognize China’s claim to Tibet, but this is hard to take. That being said, being on the morally right side of an argument has never benefited India. Forget about policy makers, even US academic “South Asia specialists” view India as super villain #1 in the region. Contrast with China scholars who always urge nuance when someone takes them to task over human rights etc.

  20. All things are subject to interpretation, whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth. – Friedrich Nietzsche

  21. louiecypher – do you think India will benefit from this at all? That Burma will keep its word and remove rebels from its territory more than Pakistan has done so for the USA? Do you think that Burma will give India gas that China wants? I don’t see Burma has being a trustworthy ally, and if it’s not, why get blood on your hands for nothing?

  22. Would this would be a better world if bleeding heart liberals sitting in the comfort of their sitting rooms, having not the erudition to know the difference between an attack helicopter and a utility/transport helicopter, would spare us their grandstanding and moral posturing borrowed from those folks at HRW? Undoubtedly. Is it likely ? No. Perhaps that’s too much to expect from people who’s claim to knowledge is “Apocalypse Now”. Proof if it was needed that India and the US are natural allies and share many commonalities: We both have more than our fair share of morons.

  23. Ennis,

    We can debate all day long about the degree of nastiness of any government to it’s own people, especially one involving insurgency and if it happens to be a military government. Look at Pakistan bombing the tribals in it’s North West or the umpteen reports on insurgencies in India. Look at the country reports from the same link you provided for many countries. Here is one for Turkey in the same vein as that you posted for Burma, involving the Kurds.

    Despite its compensation law, the Turkish government is failing to provide fair compensation for hundreds of thousands of mainly Kurdish villagers displaced by the military’s brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in the southeast, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

    [link

    Despite the brutal treatment of Kurds by the Turkish government, has any other government stopped dealing with it? In many cases engagement is better than the blunt instrument of embargoes and moral finger wagging. Of course each country will decide on the right mix of policies of engagement or isolation from a regime based on their interests and I think India has wisely decided to engage rather than isolate Burma, after having seen that isolating it did not help improve matters in Burma or help India. This change in policy in Burma was initiated during Mr. Narasimha Rao’s time as PM in the mid 90s and gained further strength now. The north-eastern rebels are just one point of engagement, but that is not all. Trade, road network and a general look east policy involving a much broader framework is at play here.

    Burma is not untrustworthy. It will use both China and India to further it’s own goals and that is understood. They will deal with India and China and it is not a zero sum game, given that India and China deal with each other as well. India cannot afford to not be a player at all in Burma for each other’s benefit.

  24. Prashant:

    The ALH is manufactured in India by HAL. According to the HAL website, the ALH has a wide range of military capabilities including anti-tank and anti-surface vessel combat, and providing close-air support. The army/air force ALH variant can carry the following systems: rockets, turret gun, air-to-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, landmines, radar and missile warning, flare and chaff dispenser.

    This is from the report that I cited. If you want to dispute my facts, you are welcome to do so, but ad-hom attacks are tiresome and discourage people with a thinner skin than I from speaking up. Consider yourself warned.

  25. Ennis,

    Sorry that was me realist in the post above. Would you correct that?

    To finish the sentence above.

    India cannot afford to not be a player at all in Burma for each other’s benefit, just because the US and EU deem it to be unworthy of engagement at the moment based on their cost benefit analysis. The US/EU want a more pliable government in Burma, that will explicitly work with them on their terms, so if the Burmese government were to turn friendly to the west, the fact that they are a military government with repressive measures will be ignored and the Burmese generals will become our ‘SOB’ just like of umpteen dictators before.

  26. Sorry that was me realist in the post above. Would you correct that?

    Handled. ;)

  27. louiecypher – do you think India will benefit from this at all? That Burma will keep its word and remove rebels from its territory more than Pakistan has done so for the USA? Do you think that Burma will give India gas that China wants? I don’t see Burma has being a trustworthy ally, and if it’s not, why get blood on your hands for nothing?

    Ennis- The rebels fighting in the NE of India (or the tribals causing trouble for Thailand) are not really the creation of the Burmese. It’s just a matter of money, whereas I believe that the Pakistanis really do have an affection for their boys in Afghanistan which makes financial incentives ineffective. But you are right, the Burmese junta sees China as the more powerful patron in the region and will side with them over India if it comes down to that. There used to be a significant Indian business population there that could advance India’s interests locally, but they’ve moved back to Tamil Nadu for the most part

  28. The word civillian is used too loosely in these posts. Because someone does not wear a uniform does not make them off-limits if they pose a threat.

  29. The word civillian is used too loosely in these posts. Because someone does not wear a uniform does not make them off-limits if they pose a threat.

    You think it’s OK to destroy villages and make people without guns in their hands refugees? Or do you think that everybody in all of those villages were a “threat”?

    It’s amazing, I can’t believe people are defending the Burmese government’s track record on human rights – I thought that was the one part of the post that there would be consensus on.

  30. It’s amazing, I can’t believe people are defending the Burmese government’s track record on human rights – I thought that was the one part of the post that there would be consensus on.

    Clearly some people haven’t read or heard detailed accounts of the horrors done and find it more comfortable to be apologists for the junta. How many instances of forced labor, rape, and scorched earth tactics does it take? And for this lauding India’s foreign policy in this sense, please look at its UN statements and commitments and arguments regarding Burma and human rights generally.

    Realist:

    Burma is not untrustworthy.

    How then to explain the endemic spying on each other, and Orwellian nature of Burmese society? But forget about human rights for a sec. Borders have always mattered to India in the NE. So what to make of this recent occurrence? All about trust, I suppose.

  31. Perhaps this is an ignorant question, but if insurgents are located across the border, why doesn’t India attack across the border itself, rather than relying on Burma to do it? Sure, Burma will complain, but it can’t fight back, it does the same with Karen rebels in Thailand, and it is a pariah state anyway. Why is that any less feasible than bribing the Burmese government with weapons laden helicopters?

    Of course an attack might mean that India wont get natural gas from Burma, but if that’s the main reason, then how can people complain about the way that energy policy shapes the US’s foreign policy while accepting the way it does the same for India?

  32. Ennis: I did not mean un-armed civillians. From India’s perspective, national self interest and security takes precedence over the human rights abuses in another country. This is how it is with all other countries and their foreign policy.
    Jimmy Carter (the Jew hater) tried to do things differently and we got the terrorist state of Iran.

  33. Ennis, one reason among many is that the terrain in the border with Burma is extremely difficult. In fact, that’s why many insurgent groups have set up in the area (ULFA, NSCN-K, for example). The Indians do not want to get involved in that type of quagmire.

    Rajesh — I suggest you lay off the ad hominem attacks and read history prior to 1976 about Iran (and the world). And a question for you, do you think India’s self-interest and security takes precedence over the human rights abuses occurring in the NE states by the Assam Rifles and other Indian security forces? And if so, what does that signify for the nature of India’s democracy?

  34. fsowalla – how much of this is about natural gas?

    terrain is more of an issue for an infantry incursion, and less of an issue for an aerial one. It is an important consideration though, and one I had overlooked since I know little about that neck of the woods.

  35. With China trying to encircle India with port deals in Burma (Myanmar) and Gwadar, Pakistan. India had to play ball, years of supporting the democracy movements in Burma got it nowhere. What India gets is leverage with the junta in Burma.

    Also Indian president (he is till mid day today) Kalam visited Burma and that shows it has made some gains diplomatically.

  36. 34 fsowalla,

    These border issues are minor, compared to the skirmishes that BSF has with Bangladeshi forces. Have we cut diplomatic ties with Bangladesh? As you have mentioned the terrain at the border is not quite conducive to holding strict lines. In fact Nagas and other tribals have free access to territory within 20kms of the border on both sides.

    I am not an apologist or condone the SPDC’s human rights or other records. All I am saying is that it is better for India to engage with whatever regime is in power in Burma rather than boycott them.

    Here is some background on INDIA-CHINA-MYANMAR RELATIONS and MYANMAR: ETHICAL & STRATEGIC DIMENSIONS. One more historical backgounder.

    A couple of more articles from Mizzima news service. One and two.

  37. I find it funny that the EU is bitching about India selling helicopters considering the EU:

    • sits by and watches as Tibet is being completely ethnically cleansed by China
    • sat by and watched as Mao killed over 15 million in the “cultural revolution”
    • sits by and watches as China threatens a peace-loving democracy (Taiwan)
    • sits by and watches as China gives diplomatic cover to those responsible for the genocide in Darfur
    • sits by and watched as China helps the US prop up a military dictatorship in Pakistan
    • actively trades with China as one of China’s biggest trading partners despite all of the above

    EU is the scum of scum. It did the same thing with the USA. The EU is useless unless it has big brother US come save their ass from communism/russians/nazis/terrorists for about a century, then first chance they get they insult everything the US does. Ungrateful hypocrites…

  38. Ennis, I know about Iran before 1979. Jimmy Carter commited high treason by not supporting American interests and betraying the Shah, our friend and ally.

    Tell me that the Ayatollahs and Mullahs are beter for us or for Iran. The prime supporter of terror since 1979 has been Iran.

    I support how the Indian forces operate against terrorists on its frontiers, whether it be Kashmir, or Assam.

    I know well my history of the world. It does not subscribe to the re-written leftist version presently taught in most American colleges.

  39. fsowallah, My last post addressed to Ennis was really a response to you. re#37

  40. Ennis, the natural gas issue is secondary to the Indian desire to somehow contain China. Even if there were a gas deal made, there remain immense logistical challenges in getting the gas back to “mainland” India.

    The articles spell out the issues fairly well. Let’s look at it this way — given the SPDC’s track record and China’s overwhelming advantage already in Burma, increasing military cooperation is an odd way of improving relations. Why not spend real money developing real roads and infrastructure to increase trade with Burma rather than simple lip-service and habitually closed border posts?

    Rajesh — I don’t know how I can make my questions to you any clearer. Thanks for your nationalism and overbroad generalizations, though.

  41. that is the case) then I my opinion they are free to do that. Lets see what the father figures of democracy are doing ,French and its EU friends were itching cell to more sophisticated arms to china, USA is doing the same with Pakistan(F-16 etc), UK’s has the worst record and its recent sale of advance fighter training aircrafts to Saudi Arabia(and the corruption involved in that deal with Saudi royals).what is India’s role in thye world affirs?

    India is not a permanent member of UN security council, it lost the election of its nominee for UN general secretary’s post, not a member of G-8, not a member of IMF’s elite panel(India lost its election here), it is still struggling to get a fair deal to its farmers in WTO fighting USA and EU against their brutal farm subsidies, its not a member of OPEC, its not a member of OIC(Organization of Islamic countries).India has every right to try to gain influence in its self interests. India requires energy from Myanmar, India has its interests with them in the fight against north-east terrorists and countering Chain’s vested interests in this country. Why and on what basis India should show this unnecessary responsibility towards ‘Myanmar’ at the cost of its own self interests.

  42. India is not and shouldn’t be the global police of democracy. If India intends to sell arms (if that is the case) then I my opinion they are free to do that. Lets see what the father figures of democracy are doing ,French and its EU friends were itching cell to more sophisticated arms to china, USA is doing the same with Pakistan(F-16 etc), UK’s has the worst record and its recent sale of advance fighter training aircrafts to Saudi Arabia(and the corruption involved in that deal with Saudi royals).what is India in this context?

    India is not a permanent member of UN security council, it lost the election of its nominee for UN general secretary’s post, not a member of G-8, not a member of IMF’s elite panel(India lost its election here), it is still struggling to get a fair deal to its farmers in WTO fighting USA and EU against their brutal farm subsidies, its not a member of OPEC, its not a member of OIC(Organization of Islamic countries).India has every right to try to gain influence in its self interests. India requires energy from Myanmar, India has its interests with them in the fight against north-east terrorists and countering Chain’s vested interests in this country. Why and on what basis India should show this unnecessary responsibility towards ‘Myanmar’ at the cost of its own self interests.

  43. India is right to engage with Myanmar. India needs gas (which it does not have, Myanmar has gas). Plus Myanmar has not taken an antagonistic attitude towards India yet, unlike neighbours like Pakistan, Bangladesh. So if India can engage with Musharaff (the person behind Kargil) then it can certainly talk to Myanmar junta. I, for one, firmly believe that democracy can never be imposed from outside. It should come from within Myanmar in due time. In the meantime, India should play footsie with Myanmar for 1) gas 2) myanmar’s help in controlling terrorism in North east 3) to slowly wean away Myanmar from being a virtual satellite of Beijing 4) make better road connections through Myanmar so as to connect India’s remote North east to Thailand, Malaysia,Singapore so that economy of North east get better linked with these strong South East Asian economies. Economic growth/development will in turn slowly reduce terrorism and alienation of people in India’s North East.

  44. India has lost the chance for a gas deal with Burma. The bureaucratic bickering has already started. This is what casting a blind eye towards human rights gets India?

    There’s a difference between imposing democracy and supporting a junta that has and will abuse its populace.

    Even if you think India writ large is not responsible, then what values do individual Indian citizens, quick to claim the title of “world’s largest democracy”, stand for?