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Love Obama, Bunk His Lecture, Strategic Trio Force Delhi’s Yangon Hand

NEW DELHI, Nov 9: President Barack Obama has asked India not to ‘shy away’ from the Myanmar question but in New Delhi ‘” and in Calcutta, from where Fort William largely shapes the country’s Burma policy ‘” the security establishment is unwavering in continuing to engage Yangon.

Even as the US mounts pressure on India to be more vocal in its support of the democratic forces personified by Aung San Suu Kyi, military officials in Fort William and the defense ministry are preparing for another high-level exchange of delegations with Yangon.

If such determination in New Delhi, despite US and western sanctions on Myanmar that has an atrocious human rights record, is rare, it is because, as one official told an inquisitor today, ‘you have the luxury of asking questions but I have the compulsions of my neighborhood’.

At play are three huge compulsions:

India’s 1,643km-long porous border with its eastern neighbor that has often been used by northeastern militants to fuel insurgency;

China’s deep inroads into Myanmar where it is building not only roads, bridges and railways but also listening posts and military facilities; and

Energy-hungry India’s need for gas supplies from the Irrawaddy basin.

India practically affected a turnaround in its Myanmar policy ‘” for the record, it wants Suu Kyi to be released and democracy restored ‘” when George Fernandes was the defense minister in the NDA government.

Myanmarese pro-democracy activists were sheltered in his official quarters in Lutyens Delhi’s Krishna Menon Marg. Military officials convinced Fernandes that India could not afford to have hostile neighbors on either side of it and that China was taking advantage of the distance between New Delhi and Yangon since the junta took over.

That policy has continued since, first, Pranab Mukherjee and, then, A.K. Antony took over. India’s Myanmar policy, for practical purposes, has been executed largely through the defense ministry and not the external affairs ministry.

In March this year, India hosted a member of the junta, Lt Gen. Thar Aye, and followed it up in July by welcoming the military ruler, Gen. Than Shwe, to Calcutta and New Delhi.

In three years, there have been nearly a dozen high-level visits by either side ‘” by top Indian military and civil service officials and by members of Yangon’s State Peace and Development Council. India acceded to a Myanmarese request to supply inshore and offshore patrol vessels for its navy.

Earlier, India transferred two outdated British-made BN2 Islander maritime surveillance aircraft to Myanmar. The UK protested in writing because, it said, the aircraft were given to India on the understanding that they would not be transferred to a third country and certainly not one that was under military rule.

In New Delhi, the western sanctions on Myanmar have little meaning in the strategic mindset. Sources speaking on background on the Obama visit said India was not ‘prickly’ about the US President’s comments.

‘If we have to take our place at the high table we will have to deal with all the slings of arrows of fortune,’ a source said. Another added: ‘One has to be brain-dead or oblivious to the situation India has to face on the border with Myanmar.’

But even while Obama was in India, secretary of state Hillary Clinton issued a strongly worded statement from Washington on the ‘sham’ elections in Myanmar. Media across the world have today reported that thousands of refugees, presumably democracy supporters, were pouring into Thailand in the wake of the forced elections.

Indeed, Obama is not the first major leader to bring up the issue with India. The UK’s David Cameron also brought up the subject during his visit in July. But Obama said it in the Indian Parliament.

If the military appears to be at the forefront of shaping India’s Myanmar policy that is because New Delhi has found that the junta understands its language best. The Indian and Myanmarese militaries now co-operate not only at the top, but also at the sector level.

Fort William has briefed, and continues to brief, Myanmarese military officials who are commanders near the border to get information on Indian militant leaders. The junta member who came in March, Lt Gen. Thar Aye, for instance, was the commander of the Bureau of Special Operations and his responsibility covered the Sagaing division. India suspects Naga militant leader S.S. Khaplang, who heads his own National Socialist Council of Nagaland, is based there.

India has also supplied field guns and light artillery to Myanmar, overriding western protests, since 2004.

The BJP today said India should have responded to Obama’s ‘snub’ and ‘lecture’ over Myanmar.

New Delhi has just decided to let it pass. ‘After all, the US has a record of supporting military governments across the world even though they are not in its neighborhood,’ said one officer. ‘We do not want to bring that up,’ he said.

*The article is written by Sujan Dutta

(Courtesy: Telegraph India)

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