UN as India, Myanmar matchmaker
NEW DELHI - India has quietly undertaken a charm offensive with Myanmar's ruling junta, just months after New Delhi had publicly joined hands with Western governments to chastise the military regime for cracking down brutally against protesting monks and pro-democracy agitators in the old capital of Yangon.
Despite widespread criticism of its diplomatic and commercial gambit, India's conciliatory approach now has the backing of the United Nations, which is leading so far unsuccessful mediation efforts between the junta and the pro-democracy opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
As the world watched in horror, saffron-robed monks, dressed in the color of sacrifice, marched through the streets with their begging bowls turned downwards. That gesture of self-denial and abnegation, on par with the fasts Mahatma Gandhi often undertook to purify himself, as well as the enemy, sent a collective shudder across major world capitals.
The September protests and the government's crackdown have now faded from international headlines. And in the coming days, the Indian government is set to send a high-level team to meet the top military establishment in Naypidaw, Myanmar's new secluded capital city.
Meanwhile, General Maung Aye, the number two ranking officer in the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), seems all set to visit India in April. So what accounts for Delhi's newfound diplomatic derring-do?
Indian officials confirm that the junta's decision in early January to allow India to develop the strategically-located port of Sittwe in Myanmar's western Arakan province, at a cool cost of US$120 million, has much to do with the turnaround.
To India, the Sittwe award comes at a time when New Delhi has been particularly rattled by China's so-called "string of pearls" strategy, that envisages a series of ports and bases built in friendly countries - such as Pakistan and Myanmar - to safeguard the country's energy shipments from the Middle East.
Towards that end, the Chinese in recent months completed the Gwadar warm water port off the Balochistan coast in Pakistan. In Myanmar, the Chinese have leveraged their friendly status with the ruling generals to variously build radar, refit and refueling facilities in the Coco Islands, Hianggyi and Khaukphyu.
As such, Myanmar's decision to allow New Delhi to develop Sittwe comes as a huge relief to India's strategic planners. In a recently revealed twist, New Delhi compromised with the junta by agreeing to change the terms of the project from "build, operate and transfer" to "build, operate and use".
What a world of difference one word can make. Once India agreed that control of the facility would remain solely with Myanmar and that it would only be able to "use" the port it developed - which includes making the Kaladan river in Myanmar navigable all the way up to adjoining the northeastern state of Mizoram, as well upgrading highways within the remote territory to connect with the rest of India's national network.
The deal was even sweeter for India because it took immediate pressure off New Delhi to succeed in negotiations with Bangladesh for transport rights of passage to India's insurgency-hit northeastern states. New Delhi's own diplomatic problems with Dhaka have meant that Bangladesh has consistently refused to provide India the trade and transit rights it has sought.
More significantly, perhaps, India's re-engagement with Myanmar seems to have been sanctioned by none other than UN special envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari, and thereby, presumably, also by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon's chief benefactor, the US.
Last week in New Delhi, Gambari said he hoped that "India would do more than what it had been doing so far. [India] should work on Myanmar to make the diplomatic process more inclusive and dialogue with the opposition parties more dialogue-oriented." Adding that he was impressed with India's "growing influence" on Myanmar, Gambari said India should use its leverage to become a trustworthy and effective conduit to both source information as well as send messages to the Myanmar government.
Clearly, Gambari was telling New Delhi that although the Western world - namely, the US and the European Union - was in favor of taking a tougher line on Myanmar, including the imposition of new financial sanctions, it was also amenable to India taking a softer approach. It is apparently believed that India's influence could help to check and balance Myanmar's key ally China, which last year used its veto power to bar the UN Security Council from putting Myanmar's abysmal rights record on its agenda.
For the time being, India seems to have taken the bait. It rankled deeply in New Delhi in August last year when the Myanmar junta withdrew India's state-owned Gas Authority's "preferential buyer" status on certain offshore gas field blocks and declared it would instead sell them to rival PetroChina.
With China waiting to grab control of more of Myanmar's untapped natural gas resources and extend its sphere of strategic influence into the Bay of Bengal, India realizes it can hardly afford to play with a straight bat. And so a new great game, this time with Myanmar as the lucrative prize, is unfolding on South Asia's strategic chessboard.
For India, of course, the key question is how to strike the fine balance between close ties with Myanmar's military regime, the ever-circling Chinese, and its own domestic opinion, which favors a much greater political role for Myanmar's harassed democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still being held under house arrest.
Few in New Delhi can forget that Suu Kyi studied at a local college here in the 1950s, when her mother was Myanmar's, then known as Burma, ambassador to India. When General Maung Aye arrives to India in April, a formal signature on Sittwe is expected and a new chapter in bilateral relations will have opened. Whether India is able or willing to leverage those ties into pushing for democratic change in Myanmar is a wildcard.
By then the UN's Gambari will have hopefully made a third visit to Myanmar, to press the regime to implement democratic reforms and move the country towards national reconciliation.
If the geostrategic map suddenly seems blurred and hardline Western positions not necessarily what they are advocating behind closed doors, then there could be more surprises ahead as India becomes more engaged in Myanmar's future.
Jyoti Malhotra is a political analyst based in New Delhi, India.