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The Rediff Special/Mohan Guruswamy

June 27, 2003

Yesterday, Mohan Guruswamy explained why Burma matters to India. Today, he discusses India's inconsistent Burma policy in a fascinating news special.

Aung San Suu Kyi's mother Daw Khin Kyi was made Burma's ambassador to India in 1960.

Suu Kyi, then 15, continued her education in New Delhi where her circle of friends included Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi and many others at Lady Sriram College. She went on to Oxford University where she took a PPE. Here she met her future husband Michael Aris, an Oxford don.

Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 to visit her critically ill mother, but the events sparked off by Ne Win's obsession with the number 9 swept her up. Soon she was leading the struggle for democracy in Burma. On August 26, 1988 she told a cheering audience of thousands of students, office workers and monks in Rangoon: 'I could not, as my father's daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on. This is Burma's second struggle for independence!'

Bowing to the pressure the generals agreed to elections in May 1990. The National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi won 392 of the 495 seats it contested while the military-backed National Unity Party won just 10. The military refused to hand over power and she continues to fight for democracy with a little help from her friends. It helps to have gone to Oxford.

Then there is George Fernandes whose official residence hosts people like Tint Swe, a former Burmese MP who recently said: ' I would like everyone to know that political problems cannot be solved by military operations, whether it be in Kashmir, Burma and India's northeast!'  This ambivalence manifests itself in other ways as well.

On February 11, 1998 a joint mission of the Indian Army and Navy codenamed Operation Leech captured 36 insurgent fighters belonging to the Karen National Army and the Arakan Army. Our defense minister, who is intellectually, morally and otherwise committed to the Burmese freedom fighters, wanted them released and ordered that no such operations can be conducted in the future without the clearance from a Committee of Secretaries.

The then Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, refused to heed this arguing that choice of interdiction was determined by operational considerations, and that once the government had tasked the armed forces it could not subject it to micro management by the bureaucracy. George Fernandes complained to the press that '73 people are in jail, 37 are fisherfolk,' and hence this was unacceptable. The only problem is it takes time to sift ordinary fisherfolk from insurgents, just as it does in Kashmir and the Naga hills where his friend Tint Swe ominously reminded us that political problems couldn't be solved by military means.

The easy sanctuary available to the insurgents compounds our problems in the Naga hills across the Burmese border. For many years the Indian Army had the tacit permission of the Burmese military authorities to pursue insurgents deep inside Burma. Ever since the Burmese authorities detected a bias or sympathy for Suu Kyi they have denied the Indian Army entry into Burmese territory.

Some years ago I crossed over into the Burmese town of Tamu from Moreh in Manipur. Tamil traders dominate the business in Tamu, but the really big business is in the hands of Chinese businessmen. Tamu is like a Wild West town with more guns in it than people. It may mostly be a shantytown but it has some really good Chinese restaurants where the fiery fare can de dowsed down by plenty of Heineken beer.

The trade across Tamu/Moreh now exceeds Rs 1,000 crores and the exports from India, by head loads, consists of light engineering goods and machinery, durables like pressure cookers, suitcases, pharmaceuticals, garments and lots of acetic anhydride needed to process heroin. Most of the goods go into southern China. On the reverse side there is a flow of Scotch whiskey and other fine liquors, silks from China, teak logs and lots of drugs on their way to Kolkata and Chittagong for export to the US, to feed the unending appetite of the American underclass.

But this is not without collateral damage in India. According to Manchen Hangzou, originally from Manipur and an AIDS researcher now working in New Delhi, over 40% of Manipuri youth are addicted to heroin and other drugs, and because of indiscriminate needle usage over 50% of addicts are HIV positive. This is no longer a time bomb. The bomb has exploded in northeastern India and the fallout is traveling westward.

This has not even left the security forces untouched. A few years ago a CRPF convoy was intercepted by the Bihar police to find that it was carrying over seven truckloads of drugs. Investigations revealed that an IGP of the CRPF was the mastermind, but the matter has got lost in judicial processes and lethargic prosecution and the officer runs about Delhi, quite freely.

The problems of Burma are not going to go away with the replacement of the military junta by a democracy led by the still popular Aung San Suu Kyi. On the contrary, a government headed by a decent soul like Suu Kyi could just be what will trigger off a break-up of that country. Suu Kyi might just end up like Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, guarded day and night by foreign troops. In either case these troubles are going to spillover into India in larger doses. The drugs will not stop flowing just as it has not done in Afghanistan, even after the Taliban was routed. Our tragedy is we face enormous problems but our options are very limited. They are only made worse by an indecisive government. Who cares who is number one, when the result is still going to be the same?

In 1978 Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then foreign minister, visited Burma. In Rangoon he promised that the body of King Thibaw lying in an obscure grave in Ratnagiri would be returned to Burma where it could be interred with honors befitting a king. Likewise, the body of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, who was buried in Rangoon, would be returned to India for similarly befitting interment. He also promised a pension to King Thibaw's granddaughter Tu Tu. A princely sum of Rs 250 per mensem was sanctioned, but the Burmese royalty in India is yet to see a paisa of it! Our failure to do even this much tells a great deal about our Burma policy.

Photographs: AFP Photo/Stephen Shaver and Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images


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