The Poverty of Imagination- Indian Foreign Policy in Myanmar
NEW DELHI: Unlike the Hindu Brahminical oral tradition where one does not know where myth ends and history begins, thanks to the Buddhist Pali tradition of reducing everything to writing, the Burmese have a more realistic appreciation of themselves on the difficult terrain of being where Indian and Chinese aspirations meet.
The Qing invasions of Burma while not forgotten are behind them. Modern China has found that power flows through cheque book diplomacy.
The Burmese have a better measure of New Delhi. They are aware that they almost made Assam part of Burma in 1819. If it was not for British intervention, the Indian map of the Northeast would have looked very different.
In Manipur, the Meitei, learning their lessons from their internecine warfare, were able to expel the Burmese in 1826 with a little bit of help from their new found English friends. Independent India gifted away the Kabaw valley to the Burmese in 1953 much against Manipur opposition.
The Burmese with the exception of the brief spell of the U Nu government have been suspicious of New Delhi. All of India’s neighbours are wary of the elephant trampling upon them – the creature for its part not understanding that its size and its bumbling gait are a concern for smaller countries.
The Government of India seems to have outsourced links with the Indian community in Myanmar to the Sanatan Dharm Swayamsevak Sangh (SDSS,) as the local chapter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is coyly named there, and the Hindu Dharm Shiksha Samiti. This was done long before RSS acolytes took over Raisina Hill.
Take a stroll in Zayawaddy town and the surrounding villages on the outskirts of Yangon and the control becomes apparent. The khaki, now in trousers is masked under the ubiquitous Burmese longyi that all Indians wear in Myanmar in an ineffectual attempt to blend. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) activity in Myanmar as everywhere else is at its unimaginative best.
The Burmese Indian here is mainly descended from farm labour brought during the colonial period by the British. Principally from Arrah in Bihar, with a sprinkling from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, they live in a time warp, retaining the worst of Indian rural life. The descendants of the Indian Muslim here are a mere 2000 odd residents amongst the 100,000 Mynamerese citizens of Indian origin.
None of them has equal rights in Myanmar. Their democratic participation, restricted to village elections. Indians are called Kala Lumyo by the ethnic Burman whose attitude towards all ethnic communities, with perhaps the exception of the Shan, is overtly racist.
The Indian governement’s treatment of the diaspora in Myanmar is not too different. No offer dangled of dual citizenship. Descendants of farm labour cannot be put in par with the Wabenzi and Dukkawallah who went to Europe and North America via East Africa. Or the new millennial Indian in the west who wants to wear Dior but reads new Puppi pulp, much like Chetan Bhagat fiction masquerading as contemporary Indian writing. He exorcises the West and everything that it is associated with it in private and then lives off the fat of the western hemisphere!
The Burmese Intelligence is one of the finest in South East Asia. With very close relations with Israel’s Mossad, this constantly upgrades its skills. Israel is now training their special forces. India has also now chipped in on the training of Mynamerese Special Forces. Providing spares for all Russian armament that are difficult to source from the former Soviet republics is another area of interest to the Burmese. The British are also there, both with training and eyeing a new lucrative arms market.
The Indian offer of arms from Indian ordinance factories is being looked at with great suspicion. The Nepalese army’s discomfort with Indian INSAS rifles is too well known to reiterate here. The Indian army itself is none too happy with the sloppy arms provided by the Indian ordinance factories.
Military and security cooperation really began with Operation Bajrang and Operation Rhino to flush out ULFA cadres on both sides of the Assam-Myanmar border in 1991 and 1992. This was followed by General B.C. Joshi’s visit to Myanmar in 1994. Some arms transfers took place from New Delhi to Myanmar at that point. General V.P. Malik’s visit in early 2000 solidified the army to army relationship. General Maung Aye visited India in 2008. Then followed the 2012 visit of the COAS and chief of Eastern Command to Myanmar and the Defence Minister’s visit of 2013 to Myanmar.
Security cooperation almost derailed with South Block thinking that the right of hot pursuit included disregarding the international border with Myanmar. It took a hurried visit by the Indian National Security Advisor to assuage hurt feelings in Myanmar.in 2015. The new Burmese NSA was in India in February this year.
Burmese Intelligence is all too aware of Indian ham-handed meddling in Burma. The surreptitious encouragement to the Burmese students during the Rajiv Gandhi Prime Minister-ship. The withdrawal of cases against the Burmese student hijackers who had hijacked a plane to Calcutta. The provision of an Indian passport to one of the student hijackers to travel across the world to campaign against the Burmese junta. Making available sizable Indian funds to the same student hijacker to set up a publishing concern which is still active. Playing games earlier with the Arakan Buddhist rebels. All India Radio’s Burmese Radio broadcasts during the Rajiv Gandhi tenure. The list could go on and on.
Nepal or Sri Lanka is to India what Myanmar is to China. Jostling for space and occasionally jousting for it is fine. Replacement therapies will not work in Myanmar. Historical memories are too deep to allow for lobotomies.
Our Spook and Security (SS) establishment must do better than offer the Rohingya refugees as a sacrificial goat to the marauding Myanmar tiger. The Generals are not new kids on the block.
The harebrained idea of deportation of a handful of Rohingya refugees has already cost us much ill will in Bangladesh, moderate Islamic countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and much further afield. Liberal and democratic public opinion is getting the best measure of what a new Hindutva India portends.
Whom the Gods want to destroy, they make mad first.Or in a language that the Nagpur boys understand: Vinash Kale, Viprit Buddhi.
(Ravi Nair is with the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre)