Burma is one of those sleepy, business-as-usual dictatorships that no one in the West pays much attention to until something exceptionally horrible happens, such as the violence inflicted on anti-government protesters this past week. Pakistan and India have both commemorated their 60th anniversaries this year as states freed from the British Empire and we should not forget that Burma, which is in others way so very different, will celebrate that same milestone in 2008.
Burma, or rather Myanmar — we’ll come to that in a moment — is not usually considered part of South Asia, according to the Asia Society, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and many other organizations. However, it comes very close: Burma shares a long border with India and Bangladesh and is set along a once-lucrative trade route between India and China. During the centuries when Indian culture and trade dominated Southeast Asia, Burma was geographically at the center of things and as a result, Buddhism remains the most common religion in the country. (In a truly surreal twist, the military junta justifies its brutal rule with the claim that it is protecting Buddhism.) India still has a significant interest in trade with Burma, including in petroleum, which is comparatively scarce in India, and this has been suggested as the key reason India has maintained silence over the Burmese regime’s abuses. India sees itself in competition with China over the Burmese energy sector, as the Hindu reported in 2005.
Though they are now split by the magical line dividing South Asia from Southeast Asia, India and Burma were amalgamated in the 19th century thanks to colonialism. The
history is a bit complicated but basically Burma was absorbed into India as the
British fought three wars of conquest against Burmese rulers between 1824 and
1885. George Orwell spent time as a civil servant in Burma and he famously
hated it. It inspired Rudyard Kipling to write one his worst poems.
In short, Burma was just the eastern frontier of British India.