Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Jul 14, 2004
External powers in the neighbourhood New challenges to Indian diplomacy
Recently, Mr Bloomfield suggested that while the UK and its partners in the European Union have the right to advise the Kingdom of Nepal on how it should deal with its problems of Maoist violence, India should not interfere in this matter. He forgot that while his country was not going to suffer any adverse effects if things got out of hand in Nepal, India would face serious consequences if the Maoist menace spread to the adjoining States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, and his Mr Jack Straw, however, understand Indian imperatives better than their opinionated envoy to Nepal. They realise that India and the UK share a common interest in peace and stability in the Indian Ocean Region and that British interests are not served by antagonising India.
Mr Bloomfield's comments came when India and China were going through the rituals of reaffirming their commitment to the Panch Sheel or the "five principles on peaceful coexistence" enunciated in 1954. These so-called "five principles" include "non-interference in internal affairs" and "equality" among nation-states.
China violated these principles soon thereafter by arming and training insurgent groups in our North-East. Jawaharlal Nehru swore allegiance to "non-interference" after Indian intervention ensured that the tyrannical rule of the Ranas in Nepal was effectively ended. Oddly enough, the reaffirmation of the five principles of 1954 took place just after a visit to Nepal by the External Affairs Minister, Mr Natwar Singh, which largely dwelt with measures that Nepal and India could take to deal with Maoist violence in Nepal.
India has been advising Nepal that Maoist violence can be effectively countered only by a judicious mix of military force and political accommodation.
The EU, however, advocates a virtual appeasement of the Maoists. The Americans, who like New Delhi have provided military assistance to Nepal, initially placed excessive emphasis on military means. Detailed consultations between Washington and New Delhi have, however, led to broad agreement in their approach to developments in Nepal.
We have avoided publicly commenting on the internal affairs of our neighbours, unless developments in these countries spill into our soil. We intervened militarily in Bangladesh only after the influx of over 10 million refugees posed an intolerable burden. Our intervention in Sri Lanka arose only after the effects of ethnic violence there were felt in Tamil Nadu.
And despite the fact that both Gen Zia ul Haq then and Gen Pervez Musharraf now sponsored terrorism within India, we did not comment on military takeovers and the suppression of democratic rights in Pakistan. The role of the US and its Western allies in cozying up to military dictatorships in Pakistan has only established the fact that their approach to developments across the world is motivated exclusively by their perceived strategic interests and not by any great moral or ethical considerations.
We did, however, digress from this approach towards our neighbours in the immediate aftermath of the military crackdown in Myanmar in 1988. We condemned the military takeover and extended support to pro-democracy forces in that country. We soon found that this approach had disastrous consequences as we shared a 1600-km border with Myanmar, across which smuggling, narcotics trade and the movement of insurgents became rampant.
Myanmar consequently decided to seek integration with Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) and virtually cut off its links with its South Asian neighbours, as India was adopting a hostile posture and Bangladesh was fomenting an Islamic insurgency in its Rakhine (Arakan) province. More ominously, China stepped in to fill the vacuum created by Indian and Western hostility. It commenced an extensive programme of economic and military assistance, while evidently preparing the ground to acquire bases and military facilities in Myanmar.
Concerned by the violence and drug smuggling in our North-Eastern States and by the growing support that Indian insurgents from groups such as the ULFA, the NSCN (IM) and the PLA of Manipur were receiving from the Bangladesh Government, the then Prime Minister, Mr P. V. Narasimha Rao, undertook a review of policies towards Myanmar. It was decided that we would join Myanmar's Asean partners in a policy of "constructive engagement".
This policy involved greater coordination and cooperation in stabilising Myanmar's borders with Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram and dealing jointly with such issues as cross-border terrorism and narcotics smuggling. Those involved in its implementation included the then External affairs Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, and Mr J. N. Dixit. It was a meeting that Mr Dixit had with Myanmar's present Prime Minister, Gen Khin Nyunt, that led to the transformation our relations with Myanmar into one of mutually beneficial cooperation.
India's relations with Myanmar improved immensely with the policies adopted since 1993. Myanmar soldiers laid down their lives fighting Indian insurgent groups such as the ULFA, the PLA and the NSCN in May 1995. More recently, the peace process in Nagaland was strengthened when the Myanmar army took scores of casualties in clamping down on the NSCN (Khaplang).
Even today the assistance of the Myanmar army is important to deal with terrorists who have fled from Bhutan. This is especially because Bangladesh continues to provide shelter and support to anti-Indian terrorist groups. It was, therefore, surprising to hear Mr Natwar Singh publicly express support and sympathy for the Myanmar Opposition leader in his first press conference after assuming office.
Since there is no advocacy of a need for such a policy change in the CMP and the Cabinet Committee on Security had not even been constituted when he made this statement, one wonders whether Mr Natwar Singh had consulted his senior colleagues such as the Defence Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, or the National Security Adviser, Mr J. N. Dixit, or others concerned with internal security, before his press conference.
Reports from Myanmar indicate that after recent exchanges with the new Government, there is now serious concern in Yangon about India's policies. Myanmar's support for dealing with cross-border terrorism can no thus longer be taken for granted. This could jeopardise the lives of our security forces in the North-East.
New Delhi should consider whether our national security interests are better served by joining the Americans and British in selectively targeting the military regime in Myanmar, or by coordinating our policies with those of friends in Asean such as Singapore. One cannot see how Indian national interests are served by joining Western powers that criticise Myanmar's alleged violation of democratic rights, while condoning and tacitly supporting such violations in Gen Musharraf's Pakistan.
The involvement of distant foreign powers in developments in our neighbourhood is inevitable. We need not take all such presences as being inimical to our interests. Recent developments in Afghanistan and Iraq confirm that while the Americans may have the will and capability for military involvement in distant lands, their NATO partners do not share their enthusiasm for such ventures.
While our interests have been well served by the American ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan, will this remain the case if the Americans find it expedient to make deals with anti-Indian elements like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, or the so called "moderate" Taliban forces?
While Indian and American interests coincide on many issues in the Persian Gulf, we obviously do not agree on relations with Iran. We will have to calibrate our diplomatic efforts to cooperate with others in shaping events in our neighbourhood whenever feasible, but have the courage to go our own way on occasions when our perceptions and approaches differ.
(The author is former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)
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