Benedict Rogers: Delhi risks finding itself on the wrong side of history

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That General Than Shwe, one of the world's most brutal dictators, is visiting the world's largest democracy, India, is ironic but unsurprising. Over the past two decades, Than Shwe has carefully developed relations with his neighbour.

Than Shwe is a master of manipulation, playing rivals off each other and ensuring he doesn't place all his eggs in one basket. While China is his big protector, providing an economic lifeline, arms supplies and diplomatic cover, Than Shwe is avoiding becoming solely dependent on Beijing.

In 2004, after deposing his Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, favoured by China, Than Shwe immediately visited Delhi, sending both India and China the message that he would broaden his alliances. The same year, Burma agreed to sell India 80 per cent of the power generated from a dam in Sagaing Division in return for Indian construction assistance.

India's policy on Burma has changed completely. When democracy protests were crushed in 1988 and Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as Burma's democracy leader, Rajiv Gandhi's government was one of her movement's most active supporters. In recent years, however, India has provided arms and military training to Burma's regime, and stayed shamefully silent at the UN. In November 2009, India joined Belarus, China, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe in opposing a resolution on Burma's human rights violations at the General Assembly.

India has three reasons for befriending Than Shwe's regime. First, economic, as part of its "Look East" policy. Second, a desire for Burma's help in crushing India's own insurgencies. Third, to counterbalance China's influence.

Yet, ultimately, India's policy is short-sighted. Despite kow-towing to the junta, India cannot compete with China's influence. China's annual bilateral trade is already one-and-a-half times India's, and as a permanent member of the Security Council, China can offer Burma more diplomatic protection. Burma's assistance in helping India deal with insurgencies has been negligible, and the regime has instead used India's arms to crush its own people.

Than Shwe's plan to begin his visit meditating in the Buddhist centre of Bodhgaya is designed to depict himself as a devout Buddhist. Yet this is the man who three years ago ordered a crackdown on peaceful protests which resulted in the beating, torture, imprisonment and murder of Buddhist monks. He presides over a regime accused of crimes against humanity.

India should reconsider its strategy, because it is not making the short-term gains it had hoped for: if it continues to side with Than Shwe, it may lose out when Burma is free. Burma's democrats will remember their friends, and India could find itself on the wrong side of history.

Benedict Rogers works for the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and is author of 'Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant'