Aung San Suu Kyi’s India visit: Killing softly with her words
Myanmar’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to India last week was more than a homecoming of sorts to a country where she went to school and college, and which shaped her political beliefs. It was also about repairing ties frayed by New Delhi’s abrupt decision in the mid-1990s to engage with the military junta in Yangon after decades of support for her campaign. She ended up reminding the world’s largest democracy of how far it had strayed away from the ideals of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, in the pursuit of realpolitik.
For a country which has prided itself on something bordering on “Indian exceptionalism”, and fighting for equality and non-discriminatory policies on the global stage as well as the voice of the downtrodden in the initial decades since it won independence in 1947, the gentle admonishment from Suu Kyi must have rankled. Gandhi wouldn’t have countenanced such a policy shift towards a military regime that brutalised its own people, she said, whatever the compulsions. She was saddened that India had taken a path different from hers, despite their shared colonial history and close ties between the independence leaders of the two countries, she told The Hindu in an interview ahead of the trip.
It’s one thing to be pilloried by your own people and an unrestrained press about the rot that has set deep into Gandhi’s India; it is another for a foreigner to be telling a proud democracy that it wasn’t living up to its own legacy.
Indeed, historian Ramachandra Guha wrote a few months ago, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was among a host of leaders beating the path to Myanmar’s door as the military relaxed controls and a quasi-civilian government took charge after a rigged election, that Aung San Suu Kyi was probably more of a Gandhian than any living Indian. The Nobel laureate had run a peaceful campaign against one of the world’s most repressive regimes, refusing to give up or compromise during her long years of incarceration. Not Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress party which fought for India’s freedom, or her prime minister Manmohan Singh or even Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption campaigner whose supporters are trying to project him as a latter-day Gandhi. “Compared to this Burmese heroine, these are all nakli (false) Gandhians,” Guha wrote.
It was Singh’s Congress government that reversed course, worried that strategic rival China was fast building a relationship with Myanmar in its own backyard. It also fretted about the sanctuaries that insurgent groups in its turbulent northeast region had established just over the border in Myanmar. In the end, it was the promise of tough action against these insurgents that led India to open up to the junta, even offering them weapons, ostensibly to fight the insurgents.
But for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, those arms could just as easily be deployed to crack down on its supporters and India in its eyes became one of eight countries that was providing arms to the junta while the rest of the world shunned it. Subsequent Indian governments, including a Hindu nationalist government, carried forward the policy of engagement as part of a “Look East” policy even though defence minister George Fernandes continued to host Burmese exiles at his residence as he had long done before he became a minister.
Suu Kyi isn’t the only leader to rebuke New Delhi for its inconsistency. U.S.President Barack Obama during a trip to celebrate India’s emergence as a global player, told parliament that with great power comes responsibility and one of those responsibilities was speaking up against human rights violation in countries such as Myanmar. That punctured some of the euphoria generated by Obama’s trip.
Indians themselves have been ambiguous about the policy toward Myanmar. The government conferred the Nehru award for international understanding to Suu Kyi in absentia (for which she delivered the oration during her trip) at the very time it began to do business with the military dictators.
While some thought it was a fine tightrope walk balancing its concerns about Chinese inroads with its instincts for support for democratic values, others probably concluded New Delhi was trying to be too clever by half. It clearly left Suu Kyi and her supporters hurt, while yielding modest gains from the engagement with the military rulers.
Bilateral trade has more than doubled between 2005 and 2010, expanding from $557 million to $1.2 billion, quite an improvement from the time when the border was known more for smuggling activity. India is also helping build Myanmar’s infrastructure, from power stations to road networks that would help integrate its own northeast region with the economies of neighbouring countries.
But it’s nowhere the scale of the Chinese engagement in Myanmar which included oil and gas pipelines, effectively linking Kunming in China’s Yunan province to the Bay of Bengal, which caused deep unease in New Delhi. It also upgraded the country’s naval facilities in the Indian Ocean and provided billions of dollars of interest-free loans to help fund hydropower projects, roads and railway construction.
While the Chinese beat it in the early round, it now trails behind South East Asian countries and Japan as they have muscled their way into the resource-rich economy. India is only the 13th largest investor in the country, according to a 2010-11 study.