India & Burma: Playing Nice With Rogues

Human Rights Watch do not like the turn India has taken in its international affairs in recent years. The more ruthless pursuit of its interests, they argue, not only costs India moral authority but wins it few tangible advantages, particularly in its approach to Burma:

India has moved away from supporting the democracy movement and honouring detained Opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi to deciding that economic and security concerns take precedence.

… However, what remains baffling is what exactly India can claim to have gained from supporting one of the most abusive regimes in the world. India has not won significant access to Burma’s energy reserves  … The Burmese military has not cooperated consistently with efforts to contain rebels in India’s Northeast. Nor has India been able to undercut China’s influence with the junta.

She goes on to discuss the blind eye India is turning the blood diamond trade in Zimbabwe and the support it gave to Sri Lanka in its war against the Tamils.

All terrible things, to be sure. But the question is: what good did India’s moral stance against Burma achieve in the past? Its support for Aung San Su Kyi certainly did her few favours. As we have seen from America’s attempts to support opposition movements in Iran, nasty regimes love a bit of outside interference because it allows them to label all protesters as ‘foreign spies’ that can justifiably be shot in the throat.

As this excellent article from Nader Mousavizadeh at IISS argues, the whole idea of trying to bully rogue regimes into compliance has failed miserably. Harsh words and harsh actions from the US and its allies have only hardened attitudes and closed off channels of communication.

Countries that have been locked out by the west – Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Burma – are increasingly able to rely on each other for support. Moreover, they can turn to China, a country that considers sovereignty  and influence much more important than western conceptions of human rights.

It might not be pretty, but it is happening:

[The West’s] two-decade-old policy of isolating Burma now looks like a carefully constructed attempt to weaken Western influence and open the door to China, while devastating Burma’s legitimate economy and doing nothing to improve its people’s human rights. 

… Virtually no aspect of Western policy here has worked: the military junta is as firmly in control as ever; the democratic opposition is in disarray; and where Western policy toward Burma used to be primarily concerned with the regime’s domestic behavior, it now must contend with the generals’ suspected ties to North Korea, including in the area of nuclear cooperation.

He concludes that the best response would be to do what these regimes fear most: remove the sanctions, open up trade, allow unfettered travel for students and business people. Stop giving them excuses to be bastards. 

Obama might have been the man to do this, but his government seems incapable of thinking beyond the idea of more sanctions. And sadly, for large swathes of the American right, even Obama’s mildly more diplomatic approach to international relations is seen as proof that he is indeed a Satan-worshiping Communist agent sent to feast on the guts of small-time America, burn all its money and hand over the keys of the White House to the reanimated corpses of Karl Marx, Hitler and King George III. Things are so bad that the opposition in America has started taking on the character of an insurgency, with a beaming monstrosity as its figurehead.

So perhaps India has it right. Perhaps the job of publicly decrying human rights violations needs to be left to private organisations like Human Rights Watch, and governments should rely on quiet diplomacy, building influence through mutual benefit and only levelling their criticisms behind closed doors.

Despite what HRW says, there are signs that the quiet approach is getting some results from Burma: a recent meeting between their home ministers led Burma to agree that it would help track down Paresh Barua, leader of one of the most violent insurgencies in northeastern India. In return, India agreed to continue training Burma’s fighter pilots for the planes it sold them. It’s all a bit unsavoury, but hopefully India are also using these meetings to pressure the junta about its human rights violations ahead of elections later this year. It probably won’t do much good, but they will certainly get a better hearing than the Americans.

P.S. I almost had a really good headline for this – something to do with joshing with rogues – Rogue and Josh, something like that, but it didn’t quite work. Damn shame.


One response to “India & Burma: Playing Nice With Rogues

  1. I think Rogue and Josh would have worked just fine!

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