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A relationship of difference

Joseph Allchin

Dec 9, 2009 (DVB), A detained Indian rebel's confession has opened a window into a fetid, ambiguous relationship between Burma and its western neighbour, as a senior Indian delegation heads to Naypyidaw.

Indian minister of external affairs, S.M. Krishna, will arrive in Burma this week for a BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation) ministerial conference, with speculation that he will address problems on the troubled shared border.

The trip comes in the wake of a confession by a member of the banned separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) that the group holds bases across the border in Burmese territory. The claim is not new, but his assurance that the group sought refuge in Burma has lead to a painful confirmation: while the Indian government is chasing alliances with their counterparts in Naypyidaw on macro issues, the cross-border trickle of contraband and nuisances has not been stemmed after years of similar, now-clichéd, agreements.

The macro voice boomed last week that trade between the two nations could reach $US1 billion per year, with machines going one way and raw produce the other. These will no doubt be echoed by Mr. Krishna in public, but India's relationship with her neighbour has been tempered by ambiguity from the generals in Burma. The Indian position is born, it seems, from a no-nonsense sense of commercial and strategic pragmatism; countering China's hegemony and squabbling for gas.

The open arms that India has extended have not necessarily been matched by Burma. The generals famously have rejected Indian bids for oil in favour of lesser Chinese bids. For Nava Thakuria, a senior journalist based in Assam, "New Delhi has achieved success in convincing Bhutan and Bangladesh to take actions against the ULFA militants. But the [Burmese government] remains clever, as they got almost everything from India with doing little."

In effect, the two other countries in the neighbourhood have been able to combat India's thorn, yet Burma's massive military has not been able to. India it seems is willing to forgive a lot in this race, and it may at some point wonder quite what a superpower in the making was doing kowtowing to what history will no doubt dub a 'gaspot' despotism.

The problems, one must suspect, run deeper than the depth of gas bids. The story of these two peoples drawn together inexorably by the colonial administration in India is often one of resentment and racism that persist to this day. "It's something to do with the colonial legacy" says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst. It is an at times bitter, hypocritical resentment, which in the political climate of Burma for the last 50 or 60 years has pervaded the top echelons of power. "The presence of the Indians in the country was considered by the Burmese as the second occupation," he contends. "That animosity has continued."

Whilst much of Burmese culture springs from India, not least Buddhism, the country's rulers and military seem enthralled by a racial superiority complex that has seen ethnic purges, everyday persecution and public racial outbursts. Like anti-Semite Christians, they are purporting to represent Lord Buddha, yet persecute those of his kin.

It is no surprise that by the busy bridge linking Mae Sai in Thailand to Tachilek in Burma, a 42-year-old physics graduate of Indian origin told DVB that he touts for business and commission from tourists now because he receives no favour and is unable to get work from the Burmese authorities. He said that it is because of his skin colour. Kicked out of Thailand a number of times, he skillfully uses four to five different languages in skimming a small living from the trickle of tourists who cross the bridge. In Arakan state in western Burma, the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya population by the military takes it to another level.

India made an about turn in regards to their Burma policy in the early nineties, when they inaugurated a 'Look East' policy. In short, it was an attempt to increase trade with the other powerful Asian economies in the face of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and probably a correct reading of the future of the global economy. But prior to this the Indian government had been staunchly pro-democracy in Burma, with Indian intelligence supporting rebel groups. What is more, the nation awarded opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi one of its highest honours, the Jawarhalal Nehru award. It is named after one of India's great freedom fighters, a man whom Daw Aung San Suu Kyi no doubt took inspiration from, particularly in her days studying in India.

Aung Naing Oo believes this too is partly why the military government could have propagated an anti-Indian stance. "The Indian support for the prodemocracy movement; that memory has not been lost on the part of the military," he says.

The nature of the military in Burma means it has a monopoly on political life. It defines itself by its unifying power; its raison d'être is unity. In the post-socialist era the notion of nationalism has become even more entrenched. So whilst there is only one voice, and that voice's sole political or philosophical position is nationalism for the sake of unity, this doesn't accommodate sensitivity to other peoples. "There has not been any proper education as to how to treat someone who is different from you, which is the crux of the problem in Burma," says Aung Naing Oo.

For the military, 'difference' is and always has been the big 'threat'. The Burmese government's annexation of power came as Karen and Communist forces in the 1960s neared Rangoon, and since then there has been no real appraisal of the diversity that is Burma. Racial or communal divisions are common throughout the world, and Burma is by no means the worst place for the treatment of 'different' people. But any society run by the military is likely to represent some regimented, idealised vision of the more conservative end of society. An "imagined notion" as the revered thinker Benedict Anderson would have it.

Whether a small degree of plurality of thought is allowed in the coming years is yet to be seen. Many have speculated that the increase of foreign business would somehow engender progress in Burma, but this has ultimately been proven fallacious.

The fact that the sole voice, the military, preaches unity, means it is not possible to teach diversity due to fear of retaliation. Because the notion of unity, according to a nationalistic definition, is exclusive, the military needs to keep fighting to keep this promised dream alive. This, in turn, will keep that slippery downward slide wet with xenophobia and nationalism. The seeds of thinking about a country from an official perspective, about its peoples and what they mean, need to start somewhere. It could come like lambs dressed as wolves, but ultimately it needs to come not from one sole voice, but from somewhere DIFFERENT.


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