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A Double Game: India Suffering Fallout from Burma Crisis

By David Gordon Smith

The ongoing political crisis in Burma is putting India in a difficult position. Delhi wants to cozy up to the junta to counter China's influence in the country. But the world's biggest democracy cannot be seen to support a crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

A Burmese pro-democracy activist protests in front of India's Parliament House in New Delhi Thursday. The Burmese crisis is putting India in a difficult position.
AFP

A Burmese pro-democracy activist protests in front of India's Parliament House in New Delhi Thursday. The Burmese crisis is putting India in a difficult position.

When the ongoing confrontation between the military junta and pro-democracy protestors began in Burma, the international community was quick to appeal to the country's rulers to exercise restraint and carry out political reforms. But conspicuously missing from the voices supporting the democracy movement was that of the world's biggest democracy: India.

Delhi, in fact, didn't get around to reacting until Wednesday, when it made a cautious official statement calling for political reform in Burma and expressing the hope that "all sides will resolve their issues peacefully through dialogue." India was responding to pressure from the European Union and the United States, who had issued a statement at the United Nations earlier on Wednesday calling on China and India -- Burma's two most important economic partners -- to use their influence to force the junta to open talks with opponents.

The reason for India's tardy reaction is clear: The crisis in Burma puts its neighbor to the west in a very difficult position. "India is proud of being the biggest democracy in the world," says Gerhard Will, Southeast Asia expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "But at the same time they have an international partner who is repressing democratic movements."

India's interest in Burma is largely motivated by the country's importance to its main economic and political rival. "India is afraid of China's influence in Burma," says Will.

For China, Burma offers manufacturers in China's southwest access to the Indian Ocean -- and hence to world markets -- obviating the need to ship goods via Shanghai. China also wants access to Burma's oil and gas reserves and is a privileged partner to the regime: Most of the firms boring for oil off Burma's coast are Chinese.

Burma is also attractive to China militarily. Beijing already has a listening post on the Coco Islands, which belong to Burma, and is rumored to have other military installations there. And naturally China's military ambitions in the Indian Ocean are making India nervous. It's no coincidence that India, in a show of strength, recently conducted naval maneuvers in the Indian Ocean together with the US, Japan and Australia.

Indeed, Burma's growing geo-political importance has prompted an about-turn in India's relations with the country. Delhi originally supported the Burmese pro-democracy movement but cut ties with the opposition in the early 1990s amid a new wave of realpolitik. And in the last few years, India has been building ties with the junta -- an approach which has been criticized by many in the international community.

India, too, is eager to get its hands on Burma's oil and gas reserves and has, like China, invested in developing the country's infrastructure. It also wants to counter Chinese political and military influence in the country, which forms a buffer between the two Asian giants. And the junta also benefits from closer ties to India. "Burma is looking for a counterweight to the superpower China," says Will.

India is also looking for military help from Burma to control its unruly minorities in its remote north-east corner, who have bases in the Burmese jungle across the border. In 2004, Burmese troops closed part of its border to India while India launched a crackdown on insurgent groups. The operation came shortly after the head of Burma's junta, Than Shwe, had visited the Indian capital New Delhi.

But even if India did want to put pressure on Yangon to stop the crackdown, it is not necessarily in a position to do so. Unlike China, which according to Will is "deeply anchored" in all levels of Burmese society, "India doesn't have the instruments to exert influence in Burma." Many observers believe that only China can wield enough power to force the regime, which is economically heavily reliant on Burma's northern neighbor, to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

But some in India will no doubt feel a certain schadenfreude if the Burmese crackdown on protestors cast a shadow over the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which China is hoping will be a publicity coup.

"If China's image is damaged then India benefits," says Will. "But naturally India's image is being damaged too."

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