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India,US and Burma’s Unity

For years now Delhi had cautioned Washington against the policy of isolating Burma.

India has every reason to welcome US President Barack Obama’s new engagement with the Burmese government that could help end the prolonged international isolation of our eastern neighbour so critical to our internal security and Asian strategy.

For years now Delhi had cautioned Washington against the policy of isolating Burma and urged the US to recognise the genuine insecurities of the Burmese ruling elite. In a speech at Tokyo that set the tone for his first presidential tour of Asia,Obama has made a long overdue political gesture to Burma’s military rulers.

In explicitly underlining the American support for Burma’s territorial integrity,Obama was offering reassurance to the Generals who see themselves as the sole custodians of the nation’s unity and fear that political reform might unleash uncontrollable ethnic warfare.

Even the most trenchant critics of Burmese military rule have argued that Western support for the nation’s unity and territorial integrity must be an early critical step in any international effort to promote internal political change.

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In Tokyo,Obama did precisely that. “We support a Burma that is unified,peaceful,prosperous,and democratic. And as Burma moves in that direction,a better relationship with the United States is possible,” Obama said in Tokyo.

Obama’s public emphasis on Burma’s national unity is believed to be part of the broader political framework for the bilateral engagement that had been negotiated in recent weeks between the two sides.

The Obama Administration has also consulted Aung San Suu Kyi,who is the voice of Burma’s democratic aspirations in reversing the previous American policies. This framework is said to lay out a series of reciprocal actions that will lead to the end of US and Western sanctions against Burma.


In Tokyo,Obama argued that “despite years of good intentions,neither sanctions by the US nor engagement by others succeeded in improving the lives of the Burmese people.” “So we are now communicating directly with the leadership to make it clear that existing sanctions will remain until there are concrete steps toward democratic reform,” Obama declared.

The US President also laid out the expectations from the American side for lifting the sanctions: “There are clear steps that must be taken–the unconditional release of all political prisoners,including Aung San Suu Kyi; an end to conflicts with minority groups; and a genuine dialogue between the government,the democratic opposition and minority groups on a shared vision for the future”.

With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) endorsing Obama’s initiative,the stage is set for a new phase in Burma’s international relations. As the rest of the world returns to Burma,India can more effectively contribute to its neighbour’s political and economic modernisation.


A united Burma at peace with itself and engaged with the wide world would be a powerful partner for India in transforming its eastern periphery. Getting there will not be easy; but Delhi must fully empathise with and contribute to Burma’s efforts reorganise its internal political structures and reconnect with the world.

(C. Raja Mohan is Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress,Washington DC)

First published on: 14-11-2009 at 10:08:25 pm
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