Ethical Compromises in India’s Burma Policy

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s non-violent supporter of democracy and human rights and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has brought India’s policy on Burma under the scanner once again. India, which was once a vocal supporter of The Lady, did a volte-face in pledging support for Gen. Than Shwe, Burma’s military leader. This policy greatly diminishes our image as an ethical nation. We must immediately reform the policy and the unethical mindset which drives it, since it has not just external but internal implications as well.

With the whole world waiting for India’s reaction, external affairs minister S.M. Krishna sent out a message which necessarily implied that it’s a non-event for India. Former ambassador to Burma, G. Parthasarathy, argued that it is in India’s national interest to maintain trade relations with Burma irrespective of the type of government there.

The basic claim to sanctity of a free-market transaction is the supposed absence of coercion; that is, the claim that that the two parties exchange their wares voluntarily, leading to a win-win result. Since the military government of Burma does not truly represent the Burmese people, the people of Burma cannot be said to be voluntarily engaging in business with the Indian nation. Therefore, the acclaimed sanctity of the voluntary free-market transaction simply doesn’t apply here.

As a matter of fact, the degree of voluntariness with which Indian people take part in such a transaction is itself limited to the degree to which the government of India truly represents them. However, it's at least theoretically better than the case of the Burmese people, because India is a democracy at least theoretically.

In doing business with totalitarian Burma, India is necessarily taking undue advantage of the lack of freedom of the Burmese people. We are basically using the sorry condition of the Burmese people to unfairly relieve them of their natural resources without their explicit and voluntary consent. What India gives in the market exchange is guaranteed to be not what the Burmese people would voluntarily settle for.

Would anybody voluntarily settle for weapons that kill them? India has actually sold weapons to the Burmese military Junta, knowing fully well that they are intended for use on native Burmese people. India has transferred BN-2 defender islander maritime surveillance aircraft, 105-mm light artillery guns and T-55 tanks to Burma, as part of the sacraments of business with that country. It should be amply clear to even the most casual observer that India is party to the murder of innocent Burmese people. The more Burmese get killed, the less the demand for Burma’s natural resources inside Burma, and the more we can get of it per rupee.

Those who quote India's 'national interest' as a two-word justification for India’s Burma policy, believe that simply taking the name of that abstract entity—the nation—can compensate for all the sins its citizens, and more so its governments, commit. Some believe we’re doing the right thing because India needs to achieve "double-digit growth". Some think it is a sacred duty of the Indian government to relieve Burma of its natural resources (basically oil and gas) irrespective of the ethical footprint on the people of Burma, especially since China is also in the resource-race.

Unfortunately, all the above arguments are ethically hollow, and unnecessary for India’s progress. What is stated as 'national interest' is basically glorified greed and lack of respect for others’ life and liberty. This is exactly what Albert Einstein called as an “infantile disease”, a “measles of mankind”. This is exactly what Rabindranath Tagore described as the “organized greed of material wealth of a whole people”.

India's target of economic growth cannot, must not, and need not be met by way of exploiting the life, liberty and happiness of the Burmese people. To maintain that we will do business with the Burmese government irrespective of whether it's democratic or totalitarian, is to simply say that we don’t care whether the Burmese go to hell as long as we can reap material benefits from them. Is this the creed of India? Is this the example that India, that great beacon of spiritual knowledge for the world, ought to set for other nations?

There is another grave and internal danger of encouraging the Indian State to engage in such unethical behaviour. It is, in short, that once it becomes intoxicated with the material gains from such behaviour, the Indian State will find it absolutely justified to prey on its own people. It will continue to justify compromising the life and liberty of those Indians who are in similar sorry states as the Burmese people today. This, of course, is a basic problem ailing India already, whether it’s the case of disadvantaged indigenous tribes or of subordinated linguistic peoples, where the presence of a so-called democracy makes it all the more difficult to recognize the State’s ethical compromises.


Santosh Chachadi said...

Kiran, unfortunately trade embargoes sometimes prove counter productive - they help fan extreme nationalist feelings and help the people in power fan the propoganda that the citizens need to stand up and survive without the support of a big neighbour. It also helps the government divert attention from internal strife just to support their cause ( I was checking if trade was limited to munitions supplied to the ruling Junta, but that does not seem to be the case ( Let us just assume for a moment that we decide just on the fly to stop supplying munitions - what would prevent the Junta from applying a reverse embargo on civilian trade - China being always ready to jump in to fill the hole. The ethical argument is all fine, but I think there are bigger diplomatic complexities.

Kiran Rao Batni said...

I limit my concern to ethics.

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