December 7, 2000


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Rajeev Srinivasan

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: December 2000 edition

I have been alternatively encouraged, saddened, and entertained by the goings-on in India recently. I am encouraged that the Indian government is, at long last, taking baby steps towards engaging ASEAN, including Myanmar. I am saddened by the massacres of Hindus and Sikhs taking place in Jammu and Kashmir. I am entertained by the classically Stalinist/Fascist 'election' of Madame Gandhi the Younger to the presidency of the Indian National Congress.

The Good

It has been a long time in coming, but the overtures towards Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar etc as contained in the Mekong-Ganga Initiative are exactly the right sort of signal to send out. India, in her obsession with Pakistan, and her policy of kowtowing to West Asians, has omitted to build on the civilisational, millennia-old ties with South-east Asia, almost all of which was the cultural hinterland of India.

India has far more in common with South-east Asians than with Arabs. Furthermore, for these largely Buddhist peoples, India is the Holy Land. Many of them would like to come and visit the places where the Sakyamuni once lived and taught. This is in marked contrast to the Arab disdain towards India, which is also based on religion, because both major semitic religions, because of their exclusivity dogmas, abhor both Buddhism and Hinduism.

Even a casual visitor to Southeast Asia is impressed by the Indian cultural impact, which is ubiquitous. I have not been to any of the Mekong-basin nations, but I have been to Indonesia several times, and I am reminded of what Rabindranath Tagore said about that country: 'I see India all around me.' This struck me most while visiting the stupendous Buddhist monument at Borobudur in Java, the largest structure in the entire southern hemisphere, and also the slender and ethereal Hindu temples at nearby Prambanan, both sites almost a thousand years old.

It is my life-long ambition to go one day to Cambodia to see the great temples at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Bayon. The temple at Angkor Wat is the largest Hindu temple in the world, and my friend Subhash Kak tells me that the proportions used in the plan of the temple are precise astronomical numbers related to the elliptical orbit of the Earth. Of course, the overall plan is based on the Hindu model of the Universe.

In Thailand and Indonesia, Hindu or Sanskrit names are common. I was once intrigued to meet a Chinese Indonesian named Iravan. And those long, euphonious Thai names do make sense to us via Sanskrit: King Bhumibol Adulyatej, for instance. I do like their names even when they are indecipherable: former prime minister Thanom Kittikachorn, who, incidentally, acted in the movie The Ugly American based on Graham Greene's novel.

Indian cultural influence was felt as far east as Vietnam. There was the kingdom of the Chams, with its capital, if I am not mistaken, at Indrapuri, in southern Vietnam. A few centuries ago, the Annamese, northern and Mongoloid, subjugated the ethnically Malay, brown-skinned and, I think, at the time Hindu, Champa.

Even the languages of Southeast Asia are Indian-derived. I believe children still learn their scripts with the traditional "a-aa, e-ee, u-oo, etc" rote so familiar to Indian school children.

All this to say that the "Look East" policy should pay rich dividends as there is an existing undercurrent of goodwill for India. And of course, there remains, unspoken, the ASEAN fear of China. For the history of Southeast Asia has been partially that of a contest between India and China to influence them. India has done it purely by cultural exports; China by grabbing land and dumping their excess population on them.

Nobody in Southeast Asia, even the ethnic Chinese, I suspect, wants to be under the thumb of the violent and imperialistic Chinese Communists. Their strong-arm tactics in the South China Sea, the Spratlys, the appropriately-named Mischief Reef, and so forth, make people look a little askance at them.

In terms of their return on investment the Southeast Asians have been disappointed in China, as they have failed to make any money. Even the Singaporeans have beaten a hasty retreat after entering the Chinese market with much hoopla. They have all realised that India is an alternative destination for their capital and their skills that they should not ignore.

Thus, there is a fortunate congruence of interests between the Indians and the Southeast Asians, on the economic and strategic fronts. As India flexes its muscles in the South China Sea with its naval exercises, and forms its alliances with Vietnam and Japan to police the Straits of Malacca and other pirate-ridden waters in the region, the good folks at ASEAN will naturally view India as a counterweight to China.

I am especially pleased because this has the not-so-hidden agenda of containing China. I have been crying myself hoarse about this for a long time. Just as China has attempted to throw a cordon sanitaire around India through its nurturing of ties with Pakistan and Myanmar. Most egregious of all has been the illicit transfer of nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan (apparently the Americans suddenly noticed this and imposed sanctions; it's about time, their own CIA has been telling them about it for, oh, ten or so years!).

What's good for the goose is good for the gander; no doubt you can think of other such clichés. So let us engage Russia, the Central Asian states, Myanmar and others in ASEAN, Japan, Taiwan and Korea and thereby encircle and contain China. This the Americans will also no doubt be interested in: I believe they are now worried about the menace of Chinese jingoism in Asia.

I am especially pleased with India's rapproachment with Myanmar. It is all well and good for the US to sit far away and chant the mantra "Democracy is good". Meanwhile, of course, they support plenty of dictators, and this is always justified in the 'national interest' of the US. It is true that Madame Aung San Suu Kyi is a great democrat; but there is no reason to get sentimental about her, especially as the ruling SLORC in Myanmar does not seem to be in any danger of being up-ended any time soon.

And the Myanmarese are right in our neighborhood, and we have plenty of issues with Naga and Mizo rebels taking refuge across the border; as do they with their Karens. (Oddly enough, all these secessionist rebels are Christian fundamentalists, having been converted by those lovely American missionaries in the last few years.)

Meanwhile, the Chinese have been getting their claws into Myanmar well and good, and they have thereby gained access to the Bay of Bengal, where they are engaged in surveillance activities targeting the Indian Eastern naval command. It is believed the Chinese have sold the Myanmarese generals several billion dollars worth of arms as well.

But the Myanmarese have become wary -- an Asiaweek article in 1999 stated that there are a million illegal Chinese immigrants in northern Myanmar, effectively turning the place into a Han Chinese majority area. Having seen Chinese designs in Tibet, it is by no means inconceivable that they will soon claim sovereignty over parts of Myanmar. Perceiving this, the generals have decided to diversify a little. This gives India an opportunity to engage them. Let us not let Aung San Suu Kyi divert us: the savvy ASEAN members didn't get diverted. They have admitted Myanmar, despite the military dictatorship, into their valuable club.

It is a good thing for India to do this with due thought. The national interest comes first. Nobody is going to remember those who stood for foolish principles (remember Non-Alignment, that which caused us to stand around like idiots mumbling slogans about Palestine and South Africa as the world raced ahead?): it is results that count.

{Author's note: I have been overtaken by events. Since I wrote this, ASEAN has rebuffed India by refusing to upgrade India's relationship with the group to the level enjoyed by Japan, Korea and China. ASEAN apparently has decided on a pan-East-Asian character for itself. My suspicion is that the Singaporeans, many of whom are racially arrogant ethnic Chinese who despise Indians (and are very skin-color-conscious), are behind this, but I admit I have no particular evidence to support that contention.

In the long run, it is clear to any student of history that China is a dangerously imperialistic country; whereas India has throughout its history been more into butter than guns, producing nothing but ideas and goods, very seldom involved in military conquests and land-grabs. ASEAN will figure this out, too, racists or not, eventually.

This, I suggest, is another challenge for India to market and package herself better. For instance, using IT as the rallying cry. Economics is key: an India growing at 7 to 9 per cent will naturally gain attention. We also need a Needham Project: the Briton Joseph Needham wrote a monumental 30-volume history of Chinese science, which has been one of the major reasons the West has given so much credence to the alleged superiority of Chinese civilisation.

Needham generously 'awarded' many Indian ideas and innovations to China. For instance, it is likely that the entire science behind acupuncture and acupressure came from India, in the form of the knowledge of pressure points in kalari payat that the Indian originator of the Zen Buddhist school, Bodhidharma, took from Kerala to China in the 4th or 5th century CE.

Why aren't Indian academics taking on a Needham Project of their own, deciphering the old palm-leaf manuscripts and so forth instead? Only expatriate Indian academics seem to be even thinking of this. This project is an idea that Subhash Kak, of Louisiana state, told me about. I had never heard of the Briton until then. Why aren't wealthy Indian businessmen sponsoring this kind of research? Improving India's image is certainly good for business.}

Part II: Brutes only understand brute force

Rajeev Srinivasan

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