India's prime minister Manmohan Singh once despaired out loud that India was surrounded by failed states. The rest of the sub-continent, concerned about the military and economic might of India, was outraged. Yet, the neighbourhood is in more trouble than ever. Pakistan is in crisis, Sri Lanka is at war with itself, Bangladesh remains in a state of emergency under de facto army rule, the peace process in Nepal has stumbled and Burma's generals used abusive and at times lethal force to put down a peaceful campaign to demand democracy.
At the same time, India's claims that its standing in the region and growing economic power should give it more clout in global diplomacy are under the microscope. India often calls for peace, negotiations, or early elections. Oddly, though proud of its standing as the "world's largest democracy", when it comes to human-rights violations in neighbouring countries, officials in New Delhi describe the situations as "internal affairs" of those countries. India does not want to be seen as the regional bully, they explain.
When it is pushed to do more, New Delhi retreats into belligerence. Its officials, told of widespread "disappearances" in Sri Lanka, respond by pointing to the secret renditions that have been carried out by the United States during its global war on terror. Allegations of torture in Bangladesh are compared to the practices at Abu Ghraib. The ill-advised support to the Burmese junta draws comparisons to US support of dictatorships in Pakistan and the middle east.
While these are satisfying debating points, they do not make good or sensible policy. As with every government that tries to hide behind the faults of others, the Indian government should certainly not emulate what it criticises. Instead, India should show that it can take the lead.
This is particularly crucial when it comes to the repressive junta in Burma. Although Burma has dropped off from network news-cycles and newspaper editorials since the protests of August-September 2007, the global community is largely united on this issue, saying that human-rights abuses are no longer acceptable. But unless China, India and Thailand take a strong stand, the regime will simply ride out the storm, stuffing dissidents in jail and getting away with the killings of unarmed protestors.
Little was ever expected of China and Thailand, but India is celebrated as a democracy, one that accommodates religious and ethnic diversity, boasts of its active civil society and free media. So it has come as a great shock for many around the world to see India continue with a business as usual approach. Burmese foreign minister U Nyan Win visited New Delhi on 2 January 2008, and Manmohan Singh apparently urged political reform in a process that included detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and all the various ethnic groups. However, a $100 million project to provide a transit route to India's northeastern states was also discussed.
In December 2007, Human Rights Watch called upon members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), China, India, the European Union, the United States and other countries that have economic ties to Burma to suspend any further development of Burma's oil and gas sector and for targeted financial sanctions on companies owned and controlled by the Burmese military or whose revenues substantially benefit the military. It is lucrative revenues from gas sales that help allow the regime to ignore demands to return to civilian rule and improve the country's human-rights record. India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) is among the twenty-seven companies based in thirteen countries as having investment interests in Burma's oil and gas fields.
Do the right thing
This is an opportunity for India to show leadership. Under pressure from the international community, India has suspended military assistance to Burma. India should insist to the generals that they show flexibility and begin serious negotiations for a return to civilian rule. The regime has allowed the United Nations special envoy Ibrahim Gambari and human-rights envoy Paulo Pinheiro to visit Burma. But these tightly controlled visits will mean little for a regime that is determined to consolidate its repressive rule.
India can no longer afford embarrassing friendships. It should say that without tangible progress on democracy, release of political prisoners and accountability for violations in recent crackdown, all business deals (and not just military sales) will be put on hold. Given the massive poverty in Burma - remember, the spark for the protests was a sharp rise in fuel prices that meant that many were paying more than half of their daily wage just to take the bus to work - and the plundering of the country's wealth by the country's leaders, it should be clear that doing business with Burma is not helping average Burmese. Instead, it is lining the pockets of the elite.
The protests have been silenced for now. But the clamour for freedom in Burma will re-emerge. This is the fifth time in nineteen years that major protests have erupted. Ultimately, the will of the people will be heard.
Doing the right thing in Burma could be the beginning for India to take a leadership role in global politics. It will also send a message that India will not support human-rights abuses, whether in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Nepal. It will put India on the right side of history.
Meenakshi Ganguly is senior South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.