An Indian Intervention

The monks have gone, transported to northern prisons or shot dead, and “normalcy” has returned to the streets of Burma, in the word of the country’s United Nations ambassador. But is there more the international community, in particular its neighbour’s, could have done to force the hand of the military junta and bring democracy to Burma? Yes, there is, and the answer lies in India.

During the protests in Burma over the past two weeks, the UN showed how ineffective its current structural system could be. Meetings were held, debates were had, but in the end no concrete action was taken, doubtless because Russia and China would have vetoed it anyway, just as they vetoed a resolution criticising the regime in January of this year. Even if they had the political will, the US and UK are not equipped to launch a military expedition to Burma in defence of democracy – forces are too tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan at the moment. So, another country needs to be willing to intervene, but which one?

India shares a 1,463 kilometre border with Burma along its eastern frontier. It has 1.4 million troops to Burma’s 428,000, as well as the all-important nuclear bomb. Would a invasion by Indian forces into Burma to bring democracy be legal and politically feasible? Let’s deal with the legality of such a move first. Don’t worry, it’ll all be over in a second and we can get on to the nice and juicy politics of it.

Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, as any fool knows, states:

“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state …”

This is your basic “don’t start another bloody war” article, that forms the basis of our post-Second World War international community. But are there exceptions to this rule? Was the Pope a Nazi? Of course. Article 51 recognises all states “inherent” right to self-defence, there is a possible right to humanitarian intervention and military forces are allowed to enter another country if they are invited to do so by the government of that country. It is this last exception which I wish to focus on. The military junta headed by Than Shwe and Thein Sein is the government of Burma. There is really no escaping this as they have effective control of the country and they would never invite India to invade in defence of democracy. But there have been interventions in the past where the democratically elected people who have not been able to form a government have been assisted by the military intervention of another country – the US invasion of Panama in December 1989. So there is a precedent for this sort of action were Aung San Suu Kyi to invite India in, and with no Security Council resolution to the contrary (presumably, due to a lack of unanimity amongst the permanent members) it could not be found definitively that illegality on India’s part has taken place, although I am sure it would keep international legal scholars busy for a good long while.

On then to the political feasibility of such a move. Why would India want to intervene in Burma? The BBC gives a summary of the current Indian position:

Relationship: It has close economic and diplomatic ties with Burma. It has expressed concern over the current crisis but generally maintains a careful silence over the situation, describing it as an internal affair of Burma. Former Defence Minister George Fernandez has described India’s current position as “disgusting”.
Interests: India is concerned above all with protecting its oil interests in Burma, signing a new deep-water exploration deal in the same week that protests got under way. India also sells arms to the military regime in Rangoon. But as the world’s most populous democracy, India is under pressure from the West and from activists at home to take a stronger stand in support of democratic forces in Burma.”

My argument is that if they are not too enthusiastic right now to intervene in any direct way, surely they can be persuaded by the West with the right enticements. India, as a matter of principle, it being the world’s largest democracy and a rising economic force, deserves a seat at the top table and that means a permanent seat on the Security Council. The US and UK should support an Indian bid for a seat in exchange for action in Burma. Cynical? Hell yes, but it’s not like India don’t deserve it. India should also be offered intelligence and hardware by the West to aid their action in Burma. Perhaps the biggest enticement for India, though, is that they will likely not need to physically enter Burma. As I noted above, on troop strength alone India beats Burma on a ratio of about 3:1, and that’s before taking into account the technical advantage India enjoys, which would be magnified with Western support. Wouldn’t a build-up of Indian troops on the Burmese border, coupled with reasonable notice of their intentions to invade if a democratic civilian government is not formed force the military junta to stand down, especially in light of the fact that they enjoy little popular support. In this way, India could enjoy the international prestige of projecting force and bringing democracy to another country without the risk of actual invasion (although they should certainly prepare for it).

Of course, there are risks for India, probably the biggest being that China could get aggressive and come to the aid of the military government. However, in the current political climate, with Beijing eager to impress in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, it is doubtful this would occur. There is also the possibility of chaos in Burma similar to what we are currently witnessing in Iraq. However, a civilian government is already willing to step up and greater plans should be made anyway in advance of an invasion to ensure that they are supported. This is really just about learning the lessons of Iraq.

I don’t hold out much hope that this would ever actually happen, but wouldn’t it be great if it did and show the people of Burma that their long sacrifice hasn’t been for nothing?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Fuck. No. Just look at our part of the world for a minute. All of India’s neighbours are under turmoil. Pakistan, Iran, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Maldives – all have dictatorships or farce democracies. Sri Lanka is under civil war inspite of being a democracy. China is not a democracy and a strong force to reckon with.

    India has managed to remain a democracy despite innumerable odds and post-91 also started to progress economically. That is enough for us. We won’t interfere with other countries on matters of principles the way we used to do during Nehruvian years. There is no way we can free our neighbours.

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