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Burmese leader plays his cards right

Originally appeared in The Straits Times

July 31, 2010

With stability in mind, India, China and Asean have to engage the junta

By Nirmal Ghosh

The visit to India this week by Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe underscored his skill in realpolitik and showed again why Burma’s large neighbours – and Asean as well – have no alternative but to remain engaged with the country.

The trip abroad is itself significant, belying constant rumours of his ill health. The 77-year-old leader remains the undisputed supremo of Burma’s military regime and chairs the State Peace and Development Council.

The timing is especially interesting for Burma watchers. For one thing, Burma is expected to hold elections this year, possibly in December. Already, the expectation is that this election will fall short of democratic ideals, but it is likely to be accepted as a fait accompli nevertheless, a flawed election being better than none.

For another, Burma has recently created a buzz over its alleged intent to develop nuclear weapons. Burma has assured Asean that its small nuclear programme is entirely geared towards producing energy. Many security analysts also feel Burma’s ballistic missiles are a greater threat than its nuclear intent, with some saying the country does not have the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon any time soon.

Still, talk of nuclear weapons has given pro-democracy groups in the West, especially in the United States, another stick to wield against the military junta and to press for sanctions. The issue may cast a new shadow over US policy on Burma.

Against such a backdrop, Senior Gen Than Shwe’s visit was closely watched, although in the end few details were forthcoming on his discussions in India. A joint statement said Burma briefed India on groundwork for the elections, and the latter ’emphasised the importance of comprehensively broad-basing the national reconciliation process and democratic changes being introduced in Burma’.

Whatever the true intent, the visit did serve to send a very strong signal that Senior Gen Than Shwe is a strategist capable of pursuing Burma’s own agenda – one major plank of which is co-existence with India and China.

Burma has opened itself up to major investments from China. China’s development of roads, dams, pipelines and ports enables it to tap into Burma’s vast natural resources.

The same projects also offer the Chinese a route to the Indian Ocean. China’s investments will soon let it open up a trade route through Burma to the Bay of Bengal and from there to the oilfields of the Gulf and also to its own vast investments in Africa. The route through Burma could reduce reliance on sea transport via the Strait of Malacca.

Beijing’s main competitor over this strategic and economic space is India. New Delhi, which already has access to the Indian Ocean, simply needs to ensure that China does not dominate the space.

Burma has made good use of its position vis-a-vis its two large neighbours.

New Delhi woke up to the need for a pragmatic policy towards Burma in the early 1990s. Despite its own democratic credentials, India has stopped bad-gering Burma on democracy and human rights. National security concerns trump ideology.

Now Burma’s fourth-largest trading partner, India is helping to build a port at Sittwe, and has interests in energy there. During the senior general’s visit, more agreements were signed which will boost economic ties significantly.

To the outrage of Indian human rights activists, the senior general was given the red carpet treatment by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil.

Border issues compel both India and China to value stability with Burma.

One critical issue for India is security along its 1,680km border, where distant New Delhi has been grappling with an array of ethnic separatist insurgents. Burma too has to contend with armed ethnic groups on its borders. Both countries want stability.

China’s main concern in Burma – as it is at home – is also stability. In August last year, Burma’s army attacked Kokang fighters in the North. Kokang refugees fled over the border into China – and China found itself with well over 20,000 Kokang refugees in Yunnan. That is a scenario Beijing wants to avoid.

When even big neighbours consider it necessary to engage Burma rather than ostracise it for its human rights records, Asean has no other choice.

“It’s quite clear that Burma’s two most important neighbours, biggest neighbours – China and India – will continue engaging. We in Asean will have to do so,” Singapore foreign minister George Yeo told reporters between a series of Asean and Asean Regional Forum meetings in Hanoi last week.

At Ha Noi, Burma was variously criticised or cautioned by some foreign ministers present, especially US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, over political prisoners, the elections, and to a lesser extent its alleged nuclear programme. But it ended there.

“Asean foreign ministers criticise but fail to act on Burma” summed up the sentiment of the non-government, pro-democracy Burma Partnership, which like many other activist organisations wants to see more meaningful pressure brought to bear on the junta.

Even US policy towards Burma shifted to one of “pragmatic engagement”, in the words of Undersecretary of State Kurt Campbell. But sanctions were renewed this month. The pro-democracy, pro-sanctions lobby is sure of its numbers in Congress and the Senate, where it has broad bipartisan support.

There is a move in Washington for more sanctions, but that is likely to remain on hold till the elections, which at the earliest may be in December. There is likely to be a vigorous debate in the international community on what would constitute a ‘free, fair and inclusive’ election in Burma.

Domestic and congressional sentiments may constrain US policy towards Burma. But Burma’s neighbours will continue to engage with it, free or fair elections – or not – notwithstanding.

So as Senior Gen Than Shwe wraps up his India visit, he emerges as a leader confident in the calculation that so long as he remains in power, it is his neighbours and the international community who will have to adapt to developments in Burma, not the other way around.

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