Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Nuclear Myanmar and Implications for India

The world is not even half way through the promises made at the recently-concluded nuclear summit at Washington and the very first slap has come from Myanmar.

An investigation by an anti-government Myanmar broadcaster has found evidence that shows the country's military regime has begun a programme to develop nuclear weapons.

Even though there is no fresh angle to the claims, but a nuclear Myanmar, formerly Burma, threatens to upset the geo-politics of South Asia, and has profound implications for India as well.

After getting independence in 1948, Myanmar has claimed that it has only acquired weapons for internal security and defense against external enemies. But reports of Myanmar's interest in developing a nuclear research capability started circulating after the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan in May 1998.

The military junta introduced an Atomic Energy Law on June 8, 1998, within a fortnight of Pakistan's Chagai nuclear tests. The interest of the Myanmar military junta in acquiring civil nuclear expertise with Russian assistance came to be known in February, 2001.

Also, two Pakistani nuclear scientists (Suleiman Asad and Mohamed Ali Mukhtar) had moved over to Myanmar in 2001, when US intelligence agencies were investigating the involvement of Pak nuclear scientists with the Al Qaeda network.

The Union of Myanmar is the largest country by geographical area (678,500 sq kms) in mainland Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China on the northeast (with the Hengduan Shan mountains as the boundary), Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west, India on the northwest and the Bay of Bengal to the southwest. Myanmar and India share a border of over 1,600 kilometers.

It more or less serves as a buffer between four nuclear power states in Asia: China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The Junta has good ties with North Korea, China as well as Pakistan.

That puts New Delhi in a bind. In the early years of the military regime, India pushed hard for democracy. Myanmar thus gradually moved to embrace China, posing a strategic challenge to Indian policymakers.

India-Myanmar Relations

Burma is situated to the south of the states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India.

The New Delhi-Naypyidaw relations were mostly cordial in the early years after independence. Prime Ministers U Nu and Jawaharlal Nehru were both prominent figures in Non-Aligned Movement. India helped Myanmar survive its first difficult years as an independent state, especially when political and ethnic insurgent groups threatened to break the new country apart.

The bonhomie however took a backseat after the military junta's bloody repression of pro-democracy agitations in 1988, which led to an influx of Burmese refugees into India.

However, since 1993 the governments of the Indian Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee changed course and began cultivating ties with Myanmar, as part of a wider foreign policy approach aimed to increase India's participation and influence in Southeast Asia and to counteract the growing influence of China.

India has tried to develop friendly relationship with Burma but it cannot be compared to Chinese influence. Since 1988, China has been extending economic and military help to Myanmar. In the same year, China signed an agreement establishing trade across the border. Myanmar was isolated at that time due to domestic turmoil in the country and China opened up a trading outlet in the Indian Ocean.

“China has the advantage of being able to work comfortably with authoritarian and quasi-democratic regimes, without any schizophrenic (ideological) commitment to democracy… Combined with China's "no strings attached" approach to aid, this is making China a more attractive partner to regimes with questionable records in human-rights and democracy,“ says R Swaminathan, an expert with the Chennai Centre for China Studies.

Security Implications for India

Dealing with a nuclear Myanmar would put India in a tight spot along with an ever squabbling nuclear Pakistan on one side and a hawkish China on the other. India fears China is using Myanmar to expand its influence in the Southeast Asian waters and the Indian Ocean

With Myanmar taking N-strides, Bangladesh might also desire a nuclear weapons programme. Bangladesh would definitely not want to be squeezed in between two nuclear weapons countries without a deterrent of its own, thus setting in motion a nuclear arms race in South Asia.

According to experts, a nuclear arms race in a region of unfriendly neighbours could make the South/South East Asia Asian region as volatile as the Middle East.

Last but not the least; it would also lead to the failure of the US nuclear proliferation regime. In such a scenario, India will have to deal prudently with Myanmar’s ambitions and also by keeping the neighbours in check.

Because India is encircled by hostile nations that are friendly with China, the need for improvement of relations with Myanmar has therefore gained more importance.

Energy-starved India has been courting Myanmar, which is rich in natural gas. India has been trying to look after its own practical interests by maintaining good relations with the military junta in Myanmar.

According to Rajiv Sikri, former secretary in the Ministry of External affairs, “Decision-makers in New Delhi are not bestowing serious and sustained attention to Myanmar, since the bordering North-East states are themselves political lightweights in the eyes of geographically distant New Delhi. This is in sharp contrast to the attention that, for example, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan gets. If Myanmar were to get even half of the grant assistance and the attention that India has given Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, India would considerably improve her position there. There is no time for India to lose in giving much higher priority to relations with Myanmar.”

There is still no definitive proof of nuclear related activities in Myanmar and in that case Indian must keep mum. An impulsive reaction could rub junta the wrong way. India, and the world at large, will have to ensure that Myanmar sticks to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; else there is another North Korea in the making.


TVK said...

Quite an interesting and crisp read.

R. R. Sangma said...

The problem is not so much with Myanmar going nuclear. The problem is with dragon's increasing interference in South Asia and its attempts now and then to encircle India. This time it's via Myanmar.