India Inc.’s increasing presence on the Burma “Dirty List”

The recent visit of the Burmese senior general to India underpins a growing corporate relationship.

India’s recent red-carpet welcome for Burmese dictator, Than Shwe, highlights the fact that New Delhi is ready to honor the result of the upcoming election in Burma. Senior General Than Shwe and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are reported to have signed agreements to combat the smuggling of arms, drugs and ammunition across their common frontier. The world’s largest democracy has also agreed to cooperate with Burma in the fields of information, science and technology. That, despite the continuing house arrest of pro democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency, has also charged Burma’s regime with a ‘crime against humanity’ and describes how men, women, children and the elderly are forced to labour on roads, railways and other construction projects. They also face punishments that include: “money demands, physical abuse, beatings, torture, rape and murder,” according to the ILO. India is currently Burma’s fourth largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore. Despite India’spersistent moral rhetoric, its foreign policy appears to be steeply tilted towards fulfilling its own economic and political interests without regard to the moral implications. This co-operation between the two nations is in part to counter the perceived growth of Chinese influence – or so India thinks. India is a major investor in Burma’s thriving energy sector. For example, two Indian government-controlled companies, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (through its subsidiary, ONGC Videsh) and Gas Authority of India Ltd. (GAIL), are partners with a total 25.5% (17 percent and 8.5 percent respectively) in the consortium that is working to extract natural gas from major deposits located in the Shwe fields off the coast of Arakan state in western Burma. Other Indian companies with operations in Burma include:

Aban Offshore
Essar Group
National Hydroelectric Power Corporation
Sun Group Enterprises Pvt. Ltd.
Tata Motors

Currently the Burmese regime has around 500,000 military personnel, one of the largest armies in Asia for a country of only 50 million people. There is increasing global concern over how international investments in the country are feeding the Burmese military.
Aung San Suu Kyi, represents the struggle of Burma’s people to be free. In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82% of the seats in elections. However, the military continues to refuse to transfer power to Burma’s democratically elected leaders. The proposed 2010 Burma elections are expected to be nothing short of a farce, with the regime taking all steps to dictate terms and conditions that will be in their favour.
Clearly, India’s hope to win equal or greater influencethan China seems obscure, especially when the contract to import natural gas from the Shwe fields was awarded to China, despite intense Indian bidding. While India continues to pawn its stance on political and human rights issues in Burma, it seems unreasonable to assume that India’s engagement with this profoundly cruel regime will genuinely yield all the commercial, security and diplomacy related returns that its seeks. Can we truly trust the Burmese regime, with a record of treating its own people with such contempt, to uphold its cross border commitments?

Priyanka Joseph is a Sustainability Analyst and Product Manager with Solaron Sustainability Services. Link to Solaron