What Webb Neglects to Say About Burma

by Suzy Khimm | August 26, 2009

In his New York Times op-ed today, Senator Jim Webb argues that the U.S. should push for engagement with Burma, singling out China as a key conduit to the military regime. Sanctions from the U.S. and other European nations don't work, Webb says, because China has conducted billions of dollars of business with the regime over the past few years. Thus, the U.S. must not only "talk to Myanmar's leaders," but also "call on China to end its silence about the situation in Myanmar, and to act responsibly."

What Webb completely leaves out of his op-ed is another ascendant superpower with the same questionable ties to the junta: India. Over the past two decades, India--which also borders Burma--has been just as eager as China to exploit the vast natural resources that Burma's regime has been peddling to the global market. India is now directly competing with China to secure the country's oil and natural gas pipelines-Burma is now the country's fourth largest trading partner, generating $995 million in trade from 2007-08, and India has become just as complicit in propping up the regime and legitimizing its authority.

Once upon a time, India took a brazen stand against Burma's authoritarian regime, openly supporting its opposition party in the 1980s and accepting refugees who fled the country after the brutal crackdown on student protestors in 1988. But when trade and foreign investment in the country started taking off in the 1990s, the Indian government became wholly conciliatory toward the junta. By 2007, when the regime violently cracked down on the monk-led protests in the country, India refused to criticize the junta's response, declaring that it had "no desire to interfere in the internal affairs of Burma." In the midst of the violent crackdown, India sent its oil minister to sign contracts for natural gas exploration.

If the U.S. needs to rely on other countries to bring change to Burma, we will arguably have more leverage with India than with China. After all, as a one-party state that does its own share of locking up political prisoners, China is unlikely to take the lead on pressuring Burma to democratize; China deals with brutal, unsavory regimes around the world without flinching. But we could-and should-expect more from a country like India. It's deeply shameful for the world's largest democracy to be propping up the Burmese regime, and India needs to be reminded of that fact. That being said, simply condemning India won't be enough: We need to enlist India to help us determine the most effective ways to engage with Burma without condoning its authority. The U.S. could strengthen its case by pointing out that it's in India's long-term interest-economically and otherwise-for Burma to become a more open society, given the country's potential threat to regional stability and rumors of its nuclear ambitions. The same holds true for China, of course. But if the U.S. "must focus on what is possible" in taking action on Burma, as Webb writes, we should first lean on the players that will actually bend an ear.

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