India's Myanmar Policy and the Mizoram Connection

India's evolving political approach to events in Myanmar (Burma) is moving fairly rapidly: it now appears in conformity with a large section of international opinion, advocating internal dialogue, national reconciliation and accommodation as led by the United Nations in its effort through Ibrahim Gambari, the special envoy of the UN secretary general. 

Of course, New Delhi has not and cannot be in favor of the silly old sanctions pushed by the United States and its allies which hurt only the common man and women and not the generals who run that impoverished and tragic land.

This evolving approach is fairly dramatic in the speed with which it has changed, although India still is perhaps more comfortable with the generals than a uncertain alliance of various political power interests as represented by Aung Sang Su Kyi's National League for Democracy and the various ethnic minorities. That there is now a liaison minister who will talk to Gambari and Aung Sang Su Kyi, the latter regarded by millions across the world as one of the most celebrated prisoners of conscience and icon of democratic struggle against oppressive odds and a brutal regime, although the junta has rejected efforts at direct tripartite negotiations, shows that even an isolated group as the men who run Burma cannot but be affected by international opinion - but especially when it is being facilitated by none other than their oldest ally, China.

India has been playing catch up and that too not very effectively because its clout by no means matches the influence that China has over Burma.

But that is not to say that we cannot have a role because of our cultural, historic and ethnic affinities with our large neighbor, far closer than that with almost any other country on our borders, barring Nepal. In addition, India must strengthen the UN process instead of tossing out caveats every time it signs a statement on Burma; it should not give the impression that it is being dragged unwillingly, like a petulant child for a bath, as happened with the statement in Geneva where the Indian envoy, after signing the note, said his government disagreed with its strong tenor (the statement demanded the release of Aung Sang Su Kyi).

The close connection with Burma was visible a few days ago when I visited Mizoram, on the India-Burma border. Unknown to most Indians, it is host to one of the largest migrant populations in the country - the state, one of India's smallest and shaped like a dagger leaping south, has a population of about 10 lakh or one million. Of that figure, some 70,000-to-80,000 are migrants from Burma, largely Chins from the neighboring Chin State and Sagaing Division. Most of these have fled the unsettled economic conditions in their country in a desperate search for work over the past two decades and more. There are a handful of political refugees; refugee leaders in Mizaoram and Delhi say that this figure in unlikely to be more than 70 i.e. political figures who cannot return home because of threats they face.

There are occasional campaigns against the Chins, at times spearheaded by Mizo groups, citing alleged "criminal" activities etc., and by a state government that appears keen to give in, at least publicly. Yet, barring a few cases, many of those who are picked up and transported to the border for "deportation" are actually allowed to return.

While this tension does exist among some groups in Mizoram and the Chins and erupts in occasional incidents, yet, for the main, the Chins seem to have merged reasonably well with Mizo society, as household help, laborers, running small businesses and handicraft and handloom workers. Some work with Indian government departments.

Mizoram has felt the direct impact of the economic disaster and humanitarian crisis that is sweeping across Burma and its border regions. There has seen a sharp change in attitudes here towards the Chins - ranging from welcoming in the mid-1990s to outright condemnation and hostility more recently - but one cannot move away from the reality that the state has hosted a migrant population which is nearly one-eighth of its own size for nearly 20 years. 

By any means this is a remarkable achievement and the people and governments of Mizoram as well as the centre - that has tacitly assisted the process - need to be commended despite the occasional hiccups.

The impact of militarization, lack of peace and underdevelopment in Burma are the reasons for this flight across borders. If conditions at home were as attractive as conditions here, people would not move. This is one of the cardinal principles of out-migration, especially of refugees - people move away from unstable situations where they feel under threat, from harsh political, environmental and economic situations. 

While many among us find flaws in the practice of democracy here, often we do not see the enormous benefits we have reaped over the years - but which our neighbors, lacking as they do, access to basic infrastructure, education and health facilities as well as the freedom to speak out, can.

Indeed, the Mizo example is a good one of the seamless ways in which identities transpose and migrate over centuries, borders and boundaries: the Mizos are linked to the Kuki-Chins who reside in Manipur and in the Chin Hills and Sagaing Division of Myanmar. They are among the 220 distinct ethnic groups in this part of the world who have moved over the centuries. Thus, the Lisus are in Yunnan, Myanmar and Arunachal Pradesh. The Khasis of Meghalaya talk of descent from Cambodia and speak Mon-Khmer. 

These days, engineers and planners are actively planning to resurrect some of those links and forge new ones - by connecting Burma to Mizoram, and the northeast by extension, via the Kaladyne river, which flows along our eastern border to Burma's main port - Sittwe or Akaib in the Arakan, the source of one of the richest oil and gas fields in Asia. Part of this strategy is aimed at bypassing Bangladesh, which Delhi regards as a difficult customer in the neighborhood and of little help.

India's vision does not merely embrace access to Southeast Asian markets but seeks to send a muted but clear message to China that its influence in Burma cannot go unchallenged.

This is as much part of the Look East policy that is so extensively and passionately argued by our political leaders and mandarins in New Delhi as the soft diplomacy involving cultural exchanges, seminars, tourism and investments that are being promoted. Economic muscle is crucial to this push and Myanmar's association is seen by Delhi as critical to this effort. And to a great degree, this dependence on Myanmar and its generals who have ruled for 45 years, grows upon the hope that they will deliver to us the fuel to help meet our energy hunger and also tackle the insurgent groups based there which we have not been ourselves able to militarily neutralize.

This has been as much at the heart of India's unwillingness to directly come out against the military junta.

However, we need to realize that the refugees who live in Thailand and India, in Washington and Europe and elsewhere could well be among those who shape a new Burma, in collaboration with the military, which cannot be shut out of the process because it is too powerful and enduring to ignore. A representative government and constitution would have to give a face-saving role for the generals. 

It is in India's interest to quietly begin a process of officially consulting the refugee groups on its soil; civil society organizations should meet with them and organize public discussions. As a practical step, the government could offer scholarships and financial backing for groups, monasteries and institutions that were harmed in the recent crackdown.

(Sanjoy Hazarika is a specialist on India's northeast. He can be contacted atsanjoyha@gmail.com)


More by :  Sanjoy Hazarika

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