Friday 3 September 2010

India cannot ignore Myanmar and Iran (PO)

M D Nalapat

As Asian allies of the US know, in making demands - sorry, requests –of them, Washington looks only at what it perceives to be its own short-term advantage. Even if the recommended measure has the potential to have very harmful effects on its ally, the US ignores such an impact, and insists on its advice being followed. Small wonder that except for countries that are host to large numbers of US troops, few Asian countries uncritically follow the line given to them by the US State Department or other branches of the administration. If India has somehow managed to get by in a challenging neighbourhood, the reason lies in the fact that public opinion often forces even pro-US governments to reject advice coming from Washington.

Myanmar was an example of India going along with US and European wishes. For more than ten years, Delhi toed the line taken by these two geopolitical giants, joining them in demanding that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi be released and enabled to take over the governance of the country. It needs to be admitted that this columnist is also an admirer of the charismatic Myanmarese leader, and has been since he was in his teens. At the time - and we are talking of the 1960s - he used to stay in a government residential colony in Delhi named “Maan Nagar”, and used to watch a graceful girl clad in multicoloured lungis visit the home of the Burmese diplomat staying opposite. Even in those days, Suu Kyi was the very expression of grace and poise, who was moreover polite enough to once in a way return the greetings of the scrawny boy who used to look up from his book whenever she visited the neighbour’s quarters. Of course, despite this bias towards Myanmar’s valiant democracy warrior, he is in agreement that India’s geopolitical needs mandate engagement with the regime now ruling that country,and that the adoption of a US-style policy of sanctions would help neither the people of Myanmar nor India’s interests.

Because Delhi followed US and European guidance on its Myanmar policy for so long, the country became a safe haven for insurgents active in the north-east. However, these days, relations between India and Myanmar are excellent, although this warmth has been met with severe disapproval from the diplomatic corps and press in countries that are in favour of sanctions on the SLORC dictatorship. Some weeks ago, General Than Shwe - the Head of Government - made a visit to India, one of the purposes of which seems to have been to get spiritual blessing from visiting Buddhist pilgrimage centres in the country. General Than has been very cooperative in ensuring that the territory he controls not get misused for activities designed to split up India, thereby distancing himself from countries that allow such activities on their territory.

Those demanding sanctions on Myanmar give as the reason that it is a military dictatorship, although they seem to have little trouble in forging close links with other countries that have military and other dictatorships. The reality is that if general Than were to reserve his country’s hydrocarbon reserves for US and EU companies, they would overnight switch their backing from Daw Aung san Suu Kyi to General Than Shwe. What annoys these chancelleries is the fact that the SLORC has given China almost an economic monopoly over Myanmar’s resources, a situation that sanctions have only helped to cause. Working in cooperation with the military regime does not in any way detract from the immense affection and respect that India has for Suu Kyi, who hopefully will head a future government in her country, perhaps after an ASEAN-negotiated reconciliation between herself and the present set f rulers, who need to accept that their country needs to join the mainstream rather than remain at the fringe.

Just as US and EU engagement with China or Saudi Arabia does not mean an empathy for the system of governance followed in either country, India’s deepening contacts with Myanmar cannot be taken as an index of Delhi’s commitment to democracy. Since 2005,another country has once again come into the US radar that focuses on ties between different countries and India, and this is Iran. The US has yet to forgive the regime in Tehran for the way in which its entire diplomatic mission was held hostage for substantially over a year, and when Washington is angry, it shows. Unlike India, which usually follows the Biblical commandment to turn the other cheek when trampled upon, US administrations deliver swift and disproportionate punishment for apparent or real transgressions, a policy that even the gentle President Barack Obama may be expected to follow. Iran has made matters worse for itself by several times demanding the destruction of the State of Israel, a country that may be Asian in geography but which is European in spirit, and which - together with Turkey - belongs in the EU, if only that grouping would admit countries that have non-Christian majorities.

There is a worry within a section of the Indian strategic establishment that the US sees India not the way it regards France or the UK, as allies, but as conveniences that are to be used and then discarded. The Obama administration’s backtracking on Bush-era promises of hi-tech cooperation and an equal nuclear partnership has given oxygen to those doubting US intentions. They have therefore been able to prevail over the (very powerful) US lobby in India over policy towards Iran. Rather than join the US and the EU in sanctioning a country that is the most important regional player in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia, the foreign policy establishment in India has sought to improve ties with Iran. In particular, External Affairs Minister Krishna has visited Tehran in order to identify ways by which India and Iran can work closely together. Although Washington, London, Paris and Berlin are very unhappy at such closeness, the fact remains that Iran is too important a player to be ignored. Unlike these countries, India is almost a neighbour of Iran, a country that is a land bridge to Central Asia and which has a civilisation that has greatly impacted India’s own. After a period of frost (caused by mistakes on both sides), once again ties are improving, with more Iranian students coming to India and trade expanding despite the numerous prohibitions and sanctions imposed by the US and the EU on the world’s pre-eminent Shia-majority country.

This columnist believes that there could eventually be a “Triple I” partnership that comprises of Iran, India and Indonesia. All three are large Asian countries and putative global powers,and each hosts a lively population with high potential for excellence. Of course,for such a triangle to form, Tehran would need to understand that neither Delhi nor Jakarta shares its antipathy for the US and the EU. Indeed, these two blocs are today’s friends who may become tomorrow’s partners. Indeed, Iran too would benefit greatly from better relations with countries that are now sanctioning it, although the day seems distant when a rapprochement will take place. Should it do so, it will only be when Tehran accepts the reality of Israel, something acknowledged even by that other regional giant, Saudi Arabia, whose wise Ruler King Abdullah’s commitment to his faith and to the region cannot be questioned. The international community needs to accept that discussions are better than silence, and engagement is far preferable to a policy of quarantine. Rather than India follow the example of the US and the EU, what is needed is for those countries to accept that Iranian society is far more complex than a single strand, and engage openly and vigorously with most of them. So far as India is concerned, Iran - like Myanmar - is far too important to ignore.

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