India's Halt to Burma Arms Sales May Pressure Junta

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007

India has halted all arms sales and transfers to Burma, a development that could increase international pressure on the military junta that brutally crushed the pro-democracy "Saffron Revolution" led by monks this fall.

The Indian government's decision has not been officially announced, but diplomatic sources said it has been privately confirmed by New Delhi to top U.S. officials in recent weeks. In a little-noticed statement, first lady Laura Bush noted the decision in a video teleconference she held on Dec. 10 in recognition of International Human Rights Day. Ticking off actions taken by countries around the world in response to the crackdown, Bush said, "India, one of Burma's closest trading partners, has stopped selling arms to the junta."

A spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Washington declined to comment.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, is regarded as one of the world's most repressive nations. The National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in the country's last elections, in 1990, but the military leadership refused to recognize the outcome. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest or in prison on and off since then.

But in September, massive demonstrations led by Buddhist monks threatened the junta's rule, until the army arrested thousands of monks and democracy activists. Of the thousands arrested, 700 remain behind bars along with 1,150 political prisoners already in detention, according to Amnesty International. At least six members of the 88 Generation Students, a leading pro-democracy group, were arrested last week, the State Department said.

Before the protests, military ties between India and Burma had appeared to be on a fast track. Military contacts had increased in early 2007, with New Delhi seeking help battling Burmese-based insurgent groups operating on its northeastern border and also attempting to counteract China's growing influence in the Burmese economy. Indian and Burmese military forces began conducting joint operations, and Indian officials indicated they would grant Burma's request for military equipment.

In one sign of cooperation, India began discussing the transfer of military helicopters that Amnesty International, in a July report, said are "highly likely to contain components, technology and munitions" originating from European Union nations and the United States, undermining embargoes by those countries.

"India's relationship with Burma has expanded pretty dramatically in the past few years," said Michael J. Green, a former top Asia adviser to President Bush who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said that Southeast Asian neighbors of Burma had complained to Bush about India's deepening military ties with Burma. "They expect it of China, but India is a democracy," Green said.

He said India's decision to end arms sales to Burma is "a big deal for U.S.-India relations. I think they are shifting."

More broadly, India's move may put pressure on China, currently Burma's largest trading partner and arms supplier, experts said.

Last week, a bipartisan group of 48 senators, led by Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), signed a letter to Bush urging him to support an international arms embargo against Burma, in the form of a U.N. Security Council resolution. "No responsible nation should provide weapons to a regime as reprehensible as the one found in Burma," the letter said.

Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said, "We support an arms embargo against Burma and have been engaged in discussions with various countries on the matter."

China is one of the nations holding veto power at the United Nations, and few expect it to support the arms embargo. But analysts said that India's decision could force China to think of options short of an arms embargo to pressure the Burmese junta.

In the 1990s, China became Burma's most important trading partner, according to Amnesty International, providing more than $2 billion worth of weapons and military equipment, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces such as howitzers, antitank guns and antiaircraft guns, some sold at below-market prices.

"The Chinese clearly are sensitive to the emerging role they are playing," Durbin said in an interview. "We have an obligation to continue to remind them we need their help in stopping some of the outrages in the world."

A top European envoy last week also urged China to use its influence in Burma, specifically to end the house arrest of Suu Kyi. "Any sign from the Burmese authorities to progress on this path will be welcome, and the Chinese intervention is fundamental," Piero Fassino told reporters at the end of a three-day trip to China.

In her year-end news conference last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that "when the monks were in the streets, that there was an energy in the international community to try to do something about it," but now that momentum has dissipated. "It's our responsibility, along with others, to try to keep a focus on that effort," she said. "We will return again and again to the Security Council to discuss this issue. We will return again and again to those states that have influence, like China, to move this forward, because there needs to be a process of political reconciliation."

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