Manipal, India — Over the past weeks, there has been a rising drumbeat of criticism from both sides of the Atlantic about the generals in Myanmar. After considerable behind-the-scenes U.S.-EU pressure, there have been bleats from the two biggest neighbors of that country, India and China, about the need for the generals to rein themselves in. However, neither they nor ASEAN is likely to adopt the U.S.-EU policy of isolation and sanctions.
While China and ASEAN each have their own special reasons for restraint, they also share several in common with India, including the belief that the Gordon Brown style of moral declamation has more than a trace of hypocrisy in it.
For starters, Myanmar is hardly the only military dictatorship in the vicinity. Both Bangladesh and Pakistan are ruled by generals who have assumed total power through coups against elected governments. Why the people of Myanmar alone should have freedom from military rule and not those of Pakistan and Bangladesh remains a mystery.
Few would fault the oft-expressed wish of Western capitals that the people of Myanmar should be given the government of their choice. Yet why such a preference is not made with equal emphasis -- or indeed any visible emphasis -- in the case of, for example, the 1.3 billion people of China or the Myanmar-sized population of Saudi Arabia, remains obscure, except to foreign policy experts in the NATO capitals.
The reality is that the engine driving Western protest is less a commitment to democracy than the desire to change a junta that -- unlike those installed in Islamabad, Dacca or elsewhere -- treats Chinese interests as a much higher priority than it does those of countries volubly seeking its overthrow. Were the generals in that country to follow Moammar Gadhafi in genuflecting before the United States and the European Union, the shrill tone of U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad's demands that the U.N. Security Council take strong action may fall by several decibels, and would most likely be replaced by praise of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar's military.
Why such a transparent focus on national self-interest is morally repugnant when practiced by New Delhi -- as numerous op-ed contributors in the United States and Europe have been pointing out -- but not in the case of India's fellow democracies farther to the west, needs more explanation than such writers seem willing or able to give.
Unlike the NATO powers, India shares a border with Myanmar of over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), and that country is moreover New Delhi's only land bridge to the rest of the ASEAN region. In order to enhance the volume of regional cooperation -- still low enough to be derided by the same op-ed writers -- such road-rail access is critical. This is why India is pursuing toward Myanmar the same policy it is carrying out toward Pakistan and Bangladesh and working with the regime in office, preferable though a democratic replacement would be.
For both the United States and the European Union, there are clearly generals and there are generals -- just as there are people hungering for democracy in Myanmar but apparently not yet in China or in other authoritarian regimes, a fact that is perhaps not obvious to those formulating and commenting on policy in the NATO states.
Indeed, the generals in Myanmar have been far more accommodating of Indian interests than those ensconced in Dacca and Islamabad, both capitals of countries that provide safe haven to hundreds of extremists waging a low-intensity war against the world's most populous democracy. The Pakistan army, in particular, has long nurtured Wahabbi fanatics, and continues to do so, while the Bangladesh army is unwilling to admit that their country has become infested with "al-Qaida" elements.
By contrast, after the earlier policy of isolation was replaced by vigorous engagement nine years ago, the Tatmadaw has blocked Indian-born extremists from using their territory to launch attacks against their home country, and has sought to check the abundant flow of armaments from China's Yunnan province to the hands of anti-India extremists.
And yes, access to the country's oil and gas resources is another reason for New Delhi's refusal to take seriously the advice of the NATO powers, to stop all contact with the regime in Myanmar. At present, and unusually for any part of the world, Chinese companies are far ahead of Western entities such as Chevron and Total in gaining control of hydrocarbon reserves, a factor that some suspect may be influencing U.S.-EU policy.
New Delhi would like to carve for itself a larger slice of the pie, even while continuing to maintain close links with the democracy movement, several thousand of whose activists have made India their home for decades. Unlike the West, which is selective about which countries it sees as ready for democracy, Indian policy recognizes both the desirability of that system as well as the double standard involved in a Churchillian application of Jeffersonian ideals.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)