India quizzed on Burma arms sales

Newly leaked US cables reveal Washington’s fears over Indian relations with Burma, with US embassy staff questioning Delhi’s policy on arms and energy.

The cables, dating from 30 May 2007, allege that a “hesitance to be forthcoming on Burma is consistent with the GOI [Government of India] approach to discussing Burma”.

They also claim that the director of India’s Ministry of External Affairs denied selling arms to Burma, despite an assertion by a US embassy official that “numerous sources continued to report ongoing sales of military equipment”, including the Soviet-designed T-55 tank, 155mm howitzers, assault rifles and munitions.

The Indians “denied that the GOI had sold any lethal equipment to the Burmese.”

Several months after the May 2007 cable date, Burma erupted in the monk-led uprising known as the Saffron Revolution, when there was intense pressure on India not to sell arms to its eastern neighbour.

Despite this, on 11 December 2008, Jane’s Information Group quoted an unnamed “senior” Indian official as saying that “It would be incorrect to assume that military supplies to Myanmar [Burma] have been summarily halted for all time.”

The 2007 cable also spoke of Indian satisfaction with Burma’s co-operation in anti-insurgency activities, unlike their Bangladeshi counterparts, whilst denying that any joint military operations had occurred.

The US followed this by saying that the Indian government “should consider that any arms transferred to the Burmese junta could be used against innocent civilians”

Meanwhile a second cable, dated 30 January 2006, cheers the axing of Indian Minister of Energy Mani Shankar Aiyar because “Aiyar’s Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MPNG) continued to interfere with MEA attempts to craft policy”. His dismissal, the cable said, would “put MEA back in charge of policy toward these energy suppliers, including the ‘problem children’ of Sudan, BURMA and Iran.”

Aiyar was India’s energy minister from May 2004 until January 2006. He was seen as an active proponent of India’s policy of engaging key fuel-rich nations who are opposed to the Washington consensus; in a sense, a man who personified India’s inferiority complex when compared to China’s voracious acquisition of foreign assets.

Amongst his more ambitious plans was a pipeline from Iran to India to tap that country’s vast oil reserves.

Most indications suggest that Indian military sales to Burma have indeed remained of a very limited scope. Regional analyst Bertil Lintner saw the sale of T-55 tanks as particularly impossible, but suspected that the lack of joint operations between the Indians and the Burmese along their troubled border was more down to Burmese than Indian reticence.

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