TODAY -

Unmasking the politics of India's Look East Policy
- Part 1 -

Sanatomba Kangujam *

ASEAN-INDIA Car Rally 2012 passing through Indo-Myanmar Friendship Bridge at Moreh :: Pix - Deepak Oinam
ASEAN-INDIA Car Rally 2012 passing through Indo-Myanmar Friendship Bridge at Moreh :: Pix - Deepak Oinam



The Northeast region is set to witness large-scale violation of Human Rights in the backdrop of India's Look East Policy as the policy is predominantly guided by militaristic concern to subdue the armed struggles in the region

The hype generated over India's Look East Policy did not come as a dramatic surprise to the people of Manipur since the opening of the "Eastern Gate" as a belief was rooted in their consciousness. It has been predicted in the ancient Manipuri sacred text called Puya that "Nongpok Thong" or the "Eastern Gate" would eventually open after a long period of "enforced closure". The general belief went parallel with India's announcement of a policy of looking eastward which marked a major shift in its economic and foreign policies.

Even as the news of India's Look East Policy spread rapidly, people remained optimistic about the possible economic advantages that could be derived from such an initiative. Ironically, however, the logic of impending militarization of the Northeast region made many informed quarters skeptical about the Look East Policy despite India's grand design to project it as a viable development alternative. This write-up is an attempt to scrutinize India's security and strategic concerns vis--vis its Look East Policy.

Constructive Engagement or Strategic U-turn

The enthusiasm recently exhibited by India towards Myanmar can be gauged from the unfolding security paradigm in the Eastern Front. Earlier, India had staunchly supported the movement for democracy in Myanmar prompting many pro-democracy activists and student leaders to take refuge in India following the military take-over of Myanmar in 1988. India had maintained an isolationist policy vis--vis Myanmar while simultaneously extending all sorts of logistic support to the dissident groups fighting for restoration of democracy.

India also joined the international community in criticising human rights violation by the military junta and endorsed all the United Nations resolutions demanding restoration of democracy in Myanmar. The conferment of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, the most prestigious international award conferred by India, to Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the dissident National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1995 marked the zenith of New Delhi's support for democracy movement in Myanmar. Such diplomatic postures adopted by India widened the gulf existing between the two countries. It gave impressions of mutually irreconcilable differences between the two Asian neighbours.

Of late, however, a reversal of policy could be witnessed with the gradual shift in the Indian attitude towards the military rulers in Yangon. Observation made by certain analysts indicates that the twin factors of Chinese expansion and containment of insurgency in North East India made it imperative for India to reassess its policy towards Myanmar.

In fact, the growing expansion of Chinese influence in Myanmar which eventually pose a strategic threat to India's national security coupled with series of armed resistance movements launched by various shades of insurgent groups taking shelter in Myanmar compelled India to review its foreign policy towards Myanmar. Therefore, India's Look East Policy, which finds its articulation partly in Indo-Myanmar Border Trade, is deeply intertwined with the existing as well as the emerging security and strategic development.

The political vacuum in Myanmar created by international isolation in the wake of the popular 1988 uprising provided China with an opportunity for economic and strategic penetration into Myanmar.

Intensive research indicates China's desperate search for markets for its cheap finished consumer goods even as it became more interested in the contracts for extracting Myanmar's rich natural resources. The reciprocal visits between Chinese and Myanmarese officials led to gradual opening of Myanmarese economy to China with the latter becoming the first country to establish formalised border trade with the former.

Separate trade agreements were signed between the two countries in 1989 and 1993 that ultimately resulted in increased trade volume. China extended possible economic assistance to Myanmar in the form of soft loans, technical knowledge and expertise thereby rendering Myanmar a Chinese satellite. Through its economic power China intends to exercise political influence over Myanmar in its bid to enhance its strategic interests in the region especially the Indian Ocean region. In turn, China provided Myanmar with all the diplomatic protection from international pressures against the junta apart from supplying military equipments to Yangon.

China's help to the Myanmarese government with telecommunication network in Northern Myanmar and also the Chinese plan to construct a 1,350 kilometres-railway tract through Laos, Myanmar and China (Kunming) going up to Thailand (Bangkok) is seen by India with suspicion. The emerging strategic configuration in Southeast Asia has rendered Myanmar an important component of Chinese strategy to prevent its encirclement by the United States and its allies as well as to secure vital naval routes to oil supplies from the Middle East.

The Chinese maritime expansion in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea with the logistic support of Myanmar and Pakistan respectively has created a situation of perceived Chinese encirclement of India. In fact, Chinese maritime expansion and inroads into the Indian Ocean through Myanmar is a cause of serious concern for India mainly in the light of Chinese assertion that the Indian Ocean is not India's Ocean.

In the strategic perception of India, Chinese dominance in the Bay of Bengal is an obstacle to its aspiration for economic and strategic influence in Southeast Asia. India finds it hard to tolerate the installation of Chinese monitoring centre in the Coco Island, close to Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is an overt strategic incursion into the Indian maritime zone. Besides, the Chinese presence all along the Myanmar's border is perceived as a direct threat to India's security.

As such, the strategic concern caused by Myanmar-Pakistan-China nexus in an attempt to encircle India in the long run entails the need on the part of India to reverse its foreign policy in dealing with the military regime of Myanmar.

Another significant factor accounting for India's strategic shift towards Myanmar is the security threat to India's territorial integrity posed by numerous armed resistance groups of the North East with sanctuaries in Myanmar. Constant Myanmarese encouragement to the insurgent groups in India's North East was largely responsible for the Indian government to reverse its earlier isolationist stand.

It became indispensable for India to elicit the support of the Myanmar military regime in flushing out the insurgent groups, some of which are of Myanmarese origin or having connections with Myanmar insurgents. India had to seek the military junta's co-operation due to growing realisation of Myanmar's geo-strategic importance to counter insurgency.

Consequently, as revealed by certain informed sources, a number of officials from the foreign office, defence and intelligence establishment had opposed Indian Government support extended to the pro- democracy movement and the "limited support" extended to the Myanmarese rebels. The logic behind their argument was that if India did not improve relations with the junta, Myanmar would become a Chinese satellite.

This argument received due weightage chiefly on account of the understanding which was generally held in certain quarters that the junta is there to stay as transition from military rule to democracy in Myanmar is a distant dream. As a matter of policy based on real politick, India refrained from lodging a formal protest to the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) regime against its policy of dishonouring the electoral verdict of the Myanmarese people in 1990 thus paving way for normalising diplomatic relations with Yangon.

In this context, India's security anxiety - getting Myanmar to act against North East Indian insurgent groups taking shelter in Myanmar - rather than a desire to give the Look East Policy a continental orientation explains India's U-turn vis--vis Myanmar. It is pertinent to note that India had all along maintained a maritime outlook towards Southeast Asia.

It was against this backdrop that U Ba Swe, Vice Foreign Minister of Myanmar paid a visit to India in 1992 on the invitation of the Indian Government. His visit resulted in identification of concrete areas for bilateral co-operation including border trade, prevention of narcotics trafficking and contact between the civilian and military authorities in the border regions of the two countries to prevent illegal activities (Ministry of External Affair Annual Report 1992-1993).

Later, the Indian side intensified diplomatic offensives against Myanmar marking an era of "Constructive Engagement", a policy which implies active co-operation with that country in the economic sphere without interference or intervention in its domestic political affairs. Such a policy adopted by India towards the military rulers in Yangon was much to the displeasure of the Myanmarese pro-democracy groups.

Thus, India virtually deviated from its cherished principles of supporting democracy movement in Myanmar as it found its own interests increasingly paramount in the backdrop of various considerations like the emerging strategic equation in Southeast Asia. In spite of being the largest democracy in the world, India could hardly stand the trial of circumstances mainly when it comes to questions involving its interest. By aligning itself with the junta, India had laid a bad precedent for extending recognition and conferring legitimacy to the military regime of Myanmar.

To be continued...


* Sanatomba Kangujam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Post Doctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science, Manipur University. He is currently working on "Peace Initiatives and Conflict Transformation in Manipur". He can be reached at sanatombak(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was posted on December 23, 2013.


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