Rather than betting on the generals’ survival for much longer, it is time for India to take a long-term view, draw lessons from its isolation on Myanmar, and rethink its Myanmar policy. It is in a good position to take the leadership in a global initiative to bring about a political transition in Myanmar. That would enable India to side with the forces of Myanmar’s future. In another era, when Burma was a province of India and the separation of Burma from British colonial India was debated, the Buddhist monks of Burma took a strong pro-India position. Writing from Calcutta in 1931, Ottama Bhikkhu of Burma supported a federal scheme tying India with Burma that had Gandhi’s blessings. None of Burma’s traditions, he said, “hark back to China, all hark back to India”. He pointed to Burma’s historical connection with India by sea and land dating back to “the earliest times”. Madras and Bengal, he said, “supplied dynasties of Burmese kings, priests and peasants”. The Buddha gave Burma its religion and “Indian architects their style of architecture.” Contrasting this with the relative absence of cultural influence from China, he said, even though China is near Burma, its “interest in Burma seems to have been limited to these trade-routes, for traces of her influence are hard to find”.

No other country has more of a reservoir of soft power assets in Myanmar than India. Today, the democracy movement there is led by a woman who once lived in India, and is the author of a book called Burma and India: Some Aspects of Intellectual Life under Colonialism.

We should not squander these soft power resources by letting our obsession with economic growth and energy security and our security establishment’s inclination to put counter-insurgency ahead of conflict resolution stand in the way of a more imaginative Myanmar policy.

– Extracted from Sanjib Barua, “East with bits left out: A more imaginative Myanmar policy would do India good”, The Telegraph, 15 October 2007. New Mandala readers who are not familiar with Professor Barua’s extensive research on northeast India will find this interview and this profile are a good place to start. Thanks to Mandy Sadan for drawing this important opinion piece to my attention.