WHEN ARGUING for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council or assuring the Bush administration that India can be trusted with American nuclear technology - even though it has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - Indian officials recite the mantra that India is the world's biggest democracy. But India's shameful collaboration with the military junta in Burma that has been arresting and killing Buddhist monks and civilian protesters raises a serious question: Is India betraying its democratic values for the sake of its great-power ambitions?
There is no mystery about the reasons for India's complicity with the Burmese generals. There are purely commercial motives, a thirst for access to Burma's oil and natural gas reserves. There's a desire to gain the junta's cooperation in crushing insurgent groups that have been crossing from Burma into India's northeast to mount guerrilla operations. But above all, India has abandoned solidarity with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues because Indian policy makers are obsessed by their strategic competition with China.
There is a tragic dimension to India's practice of realpolitik in its contest with China. Domestically, India is the antithesis of China. The communists in Beijing rule a hierarchical one-party state; India's multiparty system accommodates many disparate interests. The regime in Beijing throws reporters in jail for revealing state secrets if they publish news about high-level appointments before those promotions are officially disclosed. India boasts a diverse and cantankerous free press.
But when India sets out to compete with China in a 21st-century version of the Great Game once played by European colonialist powers, India transforms its outward appearance into a mirror image of China. In Burma, India's betrayal of its ownmost national identity has become an embarrassing spectacle.
India had once been Suu Kyi's most ardent supporter. She lived in India for several years with her late husband; her mother once served as Burma's ambassador to India. And of course Buddhism sprang from India.
But when Human Rights Watch called last week for a Security Council arms embargo on the junta, it named India along with China and Russia as "nations supplying Burma with weapons that the military uses to commit human rights abuses." Human Rights Watch described "a vast array of military hardware" India has supplied to the junta, including artillery, aircraft, tanks, and helicopters for use against minority ethnic groups in border areas and citizen protesters.
In other words, India sells some of the world's most vicious dictators weapons to kill people in Burma who yearn for democracy. This is not the behavior of a true democracy.