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India: Mum's the word on Burma

Analysis: Behind closed doors, India may be pushing for reform, but publicly its lips are sealed.

Myanmar Gen. Than Shwe and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Burma's military ruler Gen. Than Shwe (left) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on July 27, 2010. (Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images)

MUMBAI, India — While human rights groups and much of the international community has criticized Burma (renamed Myanmar by its ruling junta) over its upcoming election, its neighbor to the west — the world’s largest democracy — has remained noticeably silent.

India will not comment publicly on what others call a sham election because it is in the process of courting the Burmese junta and trying to lure it away from China’s influence, according to foreign policy specialists. It may privately try to persuade the Burmese government to make political reforms like the release of its national democracy icon, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest, but publicly India’s lips are sealed.

“One of the goals of India is to wean Burma away from China. You don’t wean a neighboring country from the influence of a potential enemy by keeping on criticizing the country for this reason or that reason,” said Delhi-based journalist and strategic analyst Rajeev Sharma.

India views China as a regional rival and considers its efforts to build closer ties with India’s neighbors such as Burma and Pakistan a threat to the democracy’s sovereignty and security.

In addition to wanting to offset China’s influence, India sees Burma as an important partner in its counterterrorism efforts and economic growth. In July, India welcomed with open arms Burma’s Senior Gen. Than Shwe — known as one of the world’s most oppressive dictators — for a five-day visit that included the signing of security and economic pacts.

“Against the backdrop of China's growing clout in Myanmar, India has rolled out the red carpet to welcome Than Shwe,” read a Times of India article during the visit.

Under Than Shwe, Burma has been accused of gross human rights violations, including using systematic rape as a weapon of war, forced labor and kidnapping children to serve as child soldiers in its battles with ethnic groups.

The two nations share a 990-mile border along India’s northeastern states, where India has long faced problems of insurgency. India hopes to rely on Burma’s help in tackling these insurgents who in the past used Burma as a sanctuary from which to conduct cross-border raids.

As India’s economy grows at a rate of 8 percent a year, it also looks to Burma as a source for energy and mineral resources. Indian companies hope to benefit from the exploration of oil and other natural resources in Burma, which despite its deep poverty boasts great natural wealth.

Burma, positioned directly between India and Southeast Asia, also poses an important link in India’s Look East policy. India hopes to use Burma as a land bridge to other nations.

“This is nothing but pragmatism,” said Sharma, describing India’s policy. “Democracy is one thing, but national interest and foreign policy and strategy is another.”

All countries must focus on their national interest first, he said, including the United States.

“The U.S. is the most powerful democracy in the world, and yet the U.S. has traditionally been supportive of dictators across the globe particularly Pakistan,” he said.

Burmese journalists and human rights activists disagree and argue that India’s policy towards its rogue neighbor should be broad-based and include support for the democracy movement and the building of a civil society there.