(New York) - The Indian government is offering a package of military assistance to the Burmese army, which is likely to use such arms and training to attack against civilians in its war against ethnic insurgents, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on the Indian government to cease its support for the Burmese military, halt arms sales and press the government to stop its attacks on civilians.
India’s air force chief, S. P. Tyagi, offered a multimillion dollar aid package to Burma’s military when he visited Burma’s new administrative capitol at Nay Pyi Taw on November 22 to meet the leaders of the military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). This aid package includes counterinsurgency helicopters, avionics upgrades of Burma’s Russian- and Chinese-made fighter planes, and naval surveillance aircraft. This followed recent pledges in early November by Indian army chief of staff, J. J. Singh, to help train Burmese troops in special warfare tactics.
“It is shocking that a democracy like India would offer military assistance to Burma’s brutal military dictatorship, which is likely to use that assistance against the civilian population,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “India may think it has to compete with China to cultivate good relations in the region, but this is going too far.”
Last year, India halted military aid to Nepal after a coup by King Gyanendra. Yet India has shown no such restraint in Burma, a country with an appalling human rights record and no semblance of democracy. Human Rights Watch is particularly alarmed that such assistance has been offered while the Burmese army is mounting its largest operation in more than 10 years, with well over 50 military battalions moving through northern Karen State.
Early this year, India sold Burma two BN-2 Islander maritime surveillance aircraft that it had brought from the United Kingdom in the 1980s. The aircraft were delivered in August despite the British government’s objections that they were being supplied to a country under an EU arms embargo. The EU Common Position on Burma, renewed this year, states that the European Union prohibits the sale of military equipment to Burma. Although there was no specific end-user provision in the original sale, Britain’s High Commissioner to India in January warned the Indian government that such a sale could affect further military transfers to India. Britain has refused to continue to supply spare parts and maintenance to India’s remaining Islander aircraft as a result.
Later this year, India sold T-55 tanks and 105mm artillery pieces to the SPDC. The Burmese military routinely uses weapons such as artillery and mortars in conflict areas to destroy villages and exact retributions against civilian settlements as it wages war against ethnic insurgents.
Burma rarely uses air power against anti-government insurgents, and has not directly done so since the offensives of the early 1990s. In the 1980s it abused the aid provisions attached to US-supplied aircraft to attack villages in Shan State. Currently, the Burmese military uses air power mainly to transport troops and supplies to combat areas. India’s offer of assistance, however, consists of counterinsurgency aircraft and tactics, including the Dhruv and Lancer light-attack helicopters manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL). This would augment the Burmese army’s ability to attack insurgents in difficult terrain, out of view of international observers. Helicopters such as these are designed to attack targets on the ground, and civilians often suffer as a result.
India’s offer to train Burmese special forces in counterinsurgency tactics also risks contributing to further serious human rights abuses. Burma uses small mobile death squads in Karen State, called “guerrilla retaliation” units, which attack civilian settlements suspected of harboring Karen soldiers. In other parts of the country, including Shan and Karenni States, counterinsurgency tactics by the Burmese army routinely include abuses against civilians. The army uses a longstanding strategy called the “Four Cuts,” to cut off insurgents’ access to food, finance and information and, in the last “cut,” recruits and civilians.
Given the Indian army’s own brutal record in counterinsurgency operations in places like Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the role of the Indian army in offering training to the Burmese army.
“The Burmese government’s record shows that these weapons and special training are used as tools of repression, not of defense,” said Adams. “They are likely again to be used to attack and mistreat civilians. It is impossible to understand how the Indian government can justify this.”
For the past 10 years India has increased military cooperation with the military government in Burma, which took power after nullifying 1990 elections won by the opposition National League for Democracy. In return, New Delhi hopes that the regime will help contain antigovernment insurgents that operate from bases in Burma’s Chin State and Sagaing Division into North East India along the shared 1,664-kilometer border.
India has also financed infrastructure projects in Burma, such as the Asian Highway project, the extension of which in Sagaing Division has sparked numerous reports of forced labor. India is a major investor in natural gas projects in Arakan State, which will include a pipeline route along the border with India. The Islander aircraft sales may be used to provide security for this project. India is now Burma’s fourth-largest investor.
“India must not endanger the lives of civilians in Burma for commercial and strategic aims,” said Adams. “India’s interest lies in the emergence of a peaceful and stable government in Burma, not in the strengthening of a dictatorship.”