The news item was buried deep in the inside pages of a Delhi newspaper. It said that security forces on India's side of the border had been instructed to stop any inflow of refugees or people fleeing the military junta's crackdown in Burma (also known as Myanmar). A couple of days later, another report spoke of people who had been caught trying to come into Manipur from the Burmese side.
More recently, UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari visited India to discuss the crisis in Burma. Gambari came this week as part of a six-nation tour including visits to Thailand and China to push the military regime in Burma to yield some political space to the legal opposition led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi, end the brutal repression of civil society, including the monks - who have been leading the demonstrations against the junta despite the oppression, the beatings, the jailings and the killings.
Gambari's visit and meetings with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon are significant because they indicate again that India is not a marginal player in this situation. It became one by taking a policy of abnegation that has wrapped its security concerns for the northeast, where armed gangs and terrorists thrive under the guise of militancy and "insurgency", with its economic needs for the whole of India, not just the NE region.
India has consistently thought that by engaging with the generals, supplying them weaponry and economic assistance, Yangon would play ball. First by hacking at the northeastern insurgent roots which are deeply entrenched on its side of the border and thinking that the Burmese Army, known for its toughness (as we have seen in recent weeks by the assaults on civilian protesters), would actually crack down on the militants who have links with major insurgent groups on the Burmese side as well as members of the military on the official front.
There have been a few sporadic attacks on the bases of S.S. Khaplang, the rival of the faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, which is negotiating with the government of India, but these have been, on the whole, cursory. There was a near-joint operation in 1993, which hurt several insurgent groups and their arms routes, but it collapsed once India again spoke of the need to support Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Since then, India has switched sides, thinking it could counter-balance China's enormous influence in Burma by siding with the generals and giving them some of the things they wanted - especially a place of honor by rolling out the red carpet for Gen. Than Shwe, the chief of the junta.
The second key decision is based on what Delhi regards as further practical reasoning: if it is to get into the Big League and maintain, if not increase, its much vaunted growth rate of nine percent (while tens of millions subsist on one meal a day), then it needs access to the vast oil and gas reserves of Burma.
There are a few fallacies here, which I wish to deal with, in sequential form. The first is that the Burmese junta is prepared to help India by tackling its armed rebels based there. This does not appear to be the case: groups from Manipur and even the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) as well as Khaplang's group of the NSCN remain located on the borders with Burma. They move to conduct attacks and ambushes as well as extort and intimidate before moving back.
This border is a tricky place; swamped with forests and swathed in hills, it is one of the most difficult terrains on earth to patrol and control. The Burmese Army does not do much active military campaigning there. On the Indian side last year, however, to send another signal of India's supportive intentions, there was a quiet clearing of the Chin National Army (CNA) camps at the Mizoram tri-junction of India, Burma and Bangladesh.
Of course, the CNA was also quietly tipped off about the operation and when the Mizoram police arrived, they found a deserted camp. The CNA is among those Burmese insurgent groups which are semi-active in the Sagaigang Division of Burma on the other side of the border. But Burmese exiles, migrants and refugee groups remain useful eyes and ears for Indian security agencies; many are located in the states along the border as well as in New Delhi. They are assets, not liabilities, for the days of the generals cannot continue without number as they have done for these past decades.
On the economic front, India has much at stake with connectivity to the Bay of Bengal through the Kaladyne river which flows along Mizoram's border with Burma, as well as its active involvement in gas and oil exploration there. Again, this route has to be a multi-modal route, not merely river-based. Many also forget that China has far greater economic stakes and is well ahead of India in the energy hunt. It is setting up a 1,000 km Kumning-Sitwe Economic Development Corridor for gas, oil and highways between Yunnan Province and the Arakan of Burma.
It is not that we should not negotiate for oil and gas, as Petroleum Minister Murli Deora has done or his predecessor Mani Shankar Aiyar had. But Burmese officials say that we took so long to take decisions in the past year that they virtually handed over what could have gone to India to its giant neighbor and economic rival.
Under a democratic, open regime in Burma our security and economic interests would be better protected and served. That is why we should throw our weight behind the UN process, which even China and Russia, normally Burma's Big Boy friends who block every effort to castigate it at the Security Council, have accepted. In addition, once the internal process improves - although recent statements out of Yangon and pro-junta demonstrations indicate that it is again trying to thumb its nose at the international community -- India could consider initiating an effort to call an international Burma conference, as has been done for other countries, bringing the conflicting sides and their neighbors to sit together at one table and hammer a way forward.
Both sides would have to give up rigid positions. We can no longer say that Burma's turmoil is that country's internal politics. It directly impacts our security and economic interests in the northeast, not to speak of larger national concerns, as well as its social fabric.
India cannot take a contradictory position on democracy in the region by advocating it for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Bhutan and not least for Nepal - and stay silent on its other large neighbor, Burma. For a start, the instructions to the security forces referred to earlier need to be changed: refugees from Burma must be allowed to enter this country and India needs to press forward with the Gambari opportunity - if we are even a Regional Power (and an aspiring Big Power), then we have to behave like one, not back off when the crunch comes.
(Sanjoy Hazarika, a specialist on India's northeast, is author, filmmaker and columnist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)