G Parthasarathy: 'India can't pick neighours'

Gopalapuram Parthasarathy was India’s ambassador to Burma from 1992 to 1995, the period when New Delhi’s policy towards Burma took a dramatic u-turn and it began developing close ties with the military regime. Parthasarathy has also served his country as ambassador to Pakistan, a diplomat in Washington and Moscow and as foreign affairs spokesperson. Now a well known author, he speaks to DVB about where India now stands with Naypyidaw, historic shifts in relations, and how India is steeling itself against the rise of China.

What can India’s democracy teach Burma?

I think Myanmar [Burma] is a neighbour – we seek friendly relations with all our neighbours irrespective of whether they are communist, military dictatorships or democracy. We can’t choose other people’s governments.

How important is Burma to India, both strategically and economically?

As I said, every neighbour of ours has strategic implications because it shares a border with us and when you share a border you have problems to deal with, everything from trade to smuggling to terrorism. Therefore we have a 1,600 kilometre land border with which you face problems [such as] the problem of drug smuggling. So yes it [Burma] is important to us as much as Bangladesh or Pakistan is.

Some analysts have said that India has made repeated overtures towards the military to co-operate against cross border drugs and insurgents, but without much success.

Those observers should get their heads examined – they don’t know the reality. The reality is that on occasions in the past Myanmar soldiers have shed their lives fighting Indian terrorists. Secondly the fact is that on drug smuggling there has been a noticeable decline on the border with Manipur and with Nagaland.

Many allege that the military profit from the drug business and that separatist group the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) receive supplies through Burma, and a safe haven there.

There has been no occasion when the Burmese have provided assistance to ULFA. In fact in 1995, in joint operations the military cracked down on the ULFA. ULFA chief, Paresh Baruha, is in Kachin state, bordering China – its an area over which the Myanmar army has no control; it is controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation, so we have a right to find fault with Myanmar for that.

Do you think that the Burmese military has sided with China or China has won in the race for resources and political influence?

I don’t think the Myanmar government has discriminated against us vis a vis China on this. There was an issue of gas from a field exploited by India’s oil companies, but the gas went to China because China offered a better price. And secondly we had not made any arrangements for the gas to be taken from the offshore gas fields.

There was concern expressed in one of the Wikileaks cables that India’s hydropower projects, such as the Tamanthi dam, had not come to fruition because of an anti-India bias in the Burmese government.

Here again, the slowness has been on our side because the NHPC [India’s state-owned hydropower company] to my mind has not delivered fast enough. I think we went about it in the wrong way – we should have got the private sector in.

Is hydropower an important venture for India?

Yes certainly, that project was worth 1,300 MW – the [Indian] northeastern states need the electricity.

You also served in Pakistan, a massive job. Were you ever concerned about the military relations between Burma and Pakistan, especially in light of allegations surrounding Burma’s nuclear program?

I don’t think Pakistan is in a position to do that [supply Burma with weapons’ technology]. The allegations are primarily with North Korea, and those allegations are unsubstantiated.

There is proximity of both countries to China. Is that not a cause for concern?

I have no doubt in my mind that the single greatest proliferator in the world is China. The sad part of it is that the Western world, led by the United States and the member states of the European Union, are too scared of China to take note of it. They claim to ignore it.

Would you say that Western policy towards Burma has been a failure?

Yes, I do. I don’t think you can impose democracy or regime change on anybody in this day and age. Myanmar has good relations with all its neighbours and the Western policies cannot fail in absence with working with its neighbours.

So you don’t think sanctions or pressure pushed the government towards the elections last year?

No. On the contrary, the Western sanctions are totally misguided. They have not hurt the regime, they have hurt ordinary people. By sanctions on garments exports they have hurt hundreds of thousands of ordinary Myanmar people, who are making their living from these exports.

But the government is ardently seeking legitimacy and the removal of sanctions.

Many countries have thrived in the face of Western sanctions. No Asian nation has sanctioned Myanmar. I think the Western world should realise the days of domination are over – you have to work in cooperation and collaboration with the countries of Asia.

A lot of people have been critical of Burma’s political transition, and in particular its parliament. What do you think of such a position?

Parliament has not yet started functioning properly. When a military takes over it never sheds power. Today in Pakistan the military still runs foreign and security policy, and takes major decisions. So what is sauce for the Pakistani goose, has to be a sauce for the Myanmar gander. No military gives up power in one shot. So I find it strange that the very same votaries of eternal friendship to General Musharaff in Pakistan are the same people who are criticising the generals in Myanmar. There’s no consistency.

Is that a strategic stance?

I will not pass a value judgement on that, because I can’t choose my neighbours. If I say that I want to introduce democracy everywhere, can I do it with our largest neighbour, China? Why don’t countries insist on the same conditions in improving relations with China as they have done with Myanmar?

Could it not be said that the West is trying to influence Burmese politics to counter China, with closeness to the likes of Khin Nyunt an attempt to steer things there?

Let me tell you, I know Khin Nyunt personally. Tactically he differed from Than Shwe and the others. But he was as much a military man as others.

But he seemingly had quite close ties with the CIA for instance.

The CIA has contacts with everyone. I knew Khin Nyunt very well in the days that I was there. He is as much a votary of the rights and privileges of the military and its role in national life as any other general was at that point in time. Yes, he differed because he seemed to be able to keep a dialogue open and going with the West. And that was that.

Why was he purged?

Can you tell me a military junta that has not purged some of their generals? If you were under the impression that Khin Nyunt would have been very accommodating and would make Aung San Suu Kyi the leader of Myanmar tomorrow, I am afraid that is a totally wrong impression. I know the man.

Even in Stalin’s regime there were people who used to talk about engaging the West, so what’s new?

But the West likes to engage dictators as well when it suits them. As I said, the fact of the matter is I would love to see Myanmar as a thriving parliamentary democracy, and the best way I can do that is by showing that democracy works in my country. I can’t turn around and impose democracy on someone else – it’s beyond India’s power and capacity and it’s beyond India’s interests to do so. We would be fighting with half the world.

Is it implicitly undemocratic to impose democracy?

I don’t think it’s undemocratic, I am merely saying it’s not in our country’s interests and we don’t have the power to do it, and it’s not realistic. But certainly in discussions with Myanmar’s leaders we have invariably told them that it would be in their own interests to move towards greater democratisation and democratic freedoms. That has been done at every level, including when the Indian president visited Myanmar.

What was Khin Nyunt like as a man?

He was like all the other Burmese generals I knew. He was a major general, at that time he hadn’t got a third star. He got it during the course of that time. There were always differences, like in any military between the intelligence apparatus and the other wings of the military – that is a fact of life.

Can you elaborate on those differences?

Whenever you have any ruling elite, you have struggles for power and turf, and that is a reality there as it is anywhere else.

Does Suu Kyi have a future in Burmese politics?

One would be very stupid to predict this sort of thing. There is no doubt that Suu Kyi enjoys an immense measure of respect in the country and predicting her political developments is hazardous. Ultimately that’s for the people of Myanmar to decide. We will as I said deal with whichever government is in power, as we would with any neighbour, and quietly encourage it to open up more and more. I think cutting across party lines in India, what I have said represents national policy – it’s not my policy or anybody else’s. Its like saying we should impose democracy on Libya but turn a blind eye to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. How can you do it?

Well, they’re too powerful?

The miscalculation made in Western policy is that traditionally people in Myanmar are inward-looking – there is no starvation in the country. They have ample natural resources and food, and you don’t have an active middle class to challenge institutions, so one has to be realistic. The middle classes are the harbinger of change.

When you were ambassador, Indian policy was different. Why did that change?

1992 was when things started to change. I think we realised that no Indian interest or Burmese interest was served by the policy we had until 1992.

And what was this policy?

Stability along the borders, interactions with people inside Myanmar. Look at the number of people from Myanmar who come as pilgrims to India – it’s huge. You can go to China for bridges, but they have to come to India for salvation!

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