Who says Delhi doesn’t like dictators?
Watching the Indian government romance the president of Myanmar U Thein Sein over the last few days has been fascinating. To be sure, Mr Sein is now the head of an elected, civilian government, even if the electoral process itself was suspect because of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s celebrated refusal to participate in the vote.
Be that as it may, as the cliché goes. Mr Sein is here to stay for a few years and as Delhi’s eastern-most neighbour, the Myanmarese chief got a red-carpet welcome that began with the perambulation in Bodh Gaya on full moon night, considered by Buddhists to be inordinately auspicious. This was followed by a $500 million credit bouquet in the capital.
Of course, this is tied aid. Meaning, Myanmar will get $500 million to spend, but all the goods have to be bought in India. It’s unclear, so far, how the money will be spent, because Myanmar is still under US-European Union-led sanctions, which means that Singapore makes a killing (in dollars, of course). That tiny city-country behaves like a clearinghouse, you see, much like Dubai does for Pakistan.
That’s what the economic reform has enabled India to do, loosen its purse strings. Never mind how things are falling apart at home right now, and how everyone is in election mode already (state elections in Uttar Pradesh are expected anytime in the next six months, and with 80 seats, UP is widely believed to be a dry run for Delhi).
For the moment, though, Myanmar is the flavour. Last week Delhi feted Hamid Karzai — this, after India signed a cheque for another $500 million when Manmohan Singh went to Kabul a couple of months ago. Last year, when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to town, she was handed over another $1 billion.
Clearly, this isn’t about dictatorship or democracy, but about India’s national interest. After all, when General Pervez Musharraf was coming to Delhi-Agra in July 2001 and then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee called to invite him, he began his telephone conversation with what was then considered both obsequious and controversial: “President sahib…”
Vajpayee had dearly hoped that he could get Musharraf to promise the end of terrorism against India, so nothing was too big, including flattery. Musharraf’s conceit, of course, got the better of him in Agra and he proceeded to wreck the summit with his grandiose statements.
The same applies to Myanmar. An exciting concatenation of circumstance is underway : In the wake of the elections, Suu Kyi has been allowed to get out of her house, even though her visits are tightly controlled (she has even come to the Indian embassy once); and Myanmar has announced that it will slowly move towards a market economy.
Over the last few years, the Myanmarese have also been especially sensitive to shutting down insurgent camps that use Myanmar’s territory to target Indian civilian and military installations in India’s northeastern states.
Get the drift? Stop the insurgency and watch India open its heart and its wallet. There’s a growing constituency inside India for greater linkages with its neighbourhood, but peace is a pre-requisite.
Perhaps Pakistan’s generals could learn from their Myanmarese counterparts — who are also great friends of China — in giving peace a chance.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2011.