Aung San Suu Kyi’s long journey to democracy brought her to the country that shaped her personality and inspired her to fight for freedom for her people. Rising to deliver the Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi was one of the finest moments of her life perhaps next only to receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace. It was also a poignant moment, as she had to come to terms with India’s policy of befriending the very military junta that kept her in a cage for more than 20 years.
“I was saddened”, she said, “by the fact that India had drawn away in our most difficult days but always had faith in our lasting relationship. Even more significantly, she observed, “Friendship should be based between people and not governments: governments come and go.” This was a masterstroke on her part. In a way she justified the Indian action by attributing it to compulsions of governments, or realpolitik. India’s position has always been that it recognises states, not governments and that it deals with every government that has control over territory.
At no time in history has an authoritarian regime permitted a democratic leader to campaign for democracy abroad even before democracy becomes a reality in that country. Nor has an American president ever visited a country in which the United States has sought, but not accomplished, a regime change. The military leadership, Suu Kyi and Barack Obama are taking calculated risks with implicit and explicit motives, which are not mutually complementary. The military has much to lose if full democracy is restored. At the same time, the army needs to get the sanctions lifted and foreign investments facilitated. Suu Kyi has to watch her steps carefully to ensure that the army is not offended and the pro-democracy movements are not disillusioned. Obama must have satisfied himself that the democratic reforms in progress will not be reversed, even while enjoying the hospitality of the junta.
In Delhi, she said: “We have not achieved the goal of democracy. We are still trying and we hope that in this last, I hope, and most difficult phase the people of India will stand by us and walk by us as we proceed along the path that they were able to proceed many years before us.” She is not unaware that the path ahead is different from the path India took, but she clearly hinted that the path ahead was hard and unpredictable.
In 1971, Suu Kyi arrived in Bhutan as the young bride of Michael Aris and was mistaken initially in the social circles as one of the Bhutanese princesses. She was friendly with us in the Indian embassy in Bhutan because of her long association with India. She gave a subtle hint of her father’s path being different from that of Gandhiji and that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was a greater hero than Pandit Nehru in the eyes of the Burmese. The generosity that Nehru showed to Aung San’s family after the latter’s death was particularly significant against that backdrop.
India’s policy towards Burma under the long reign of Ne Win and his successors took several twists and turns. Ne Win had an ambivalent attitude to India. While he was ruthless in depriving the fleeing Indians of their wealth, he maintained good relations with the Nehru family and the Indian leadership. His isolationist policy kept us away from Burma, except for cultural contacts, though we tried to open up trade contacts by importing rice from Burma. Among all our neighbours, Burma made the least demands of us and caused us no embarrassment internationally. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Ne Win flew to an unnamed destination to meditate in grief. I accompanied him to Delhi when he went on a condolence visit and saw for myself the love he showered on Rajiv Gandhi as the ‘uncle’, who came calling at the time of grief. India was a sentimental link even for Ne Win, but it never translated into a meaningful relationship.
Right through the elections, the bloodshed and the consolidation of the junta, India remained committed to democracy and showed our attachment to Suu Kyi. We blocked the return of Myanmar to the Non-Aligned Movement at a ministerial meeting in Bali. The subsequent decision to do business with the military regime in Yangon was an effort by India to wean Myanmar away from China and to seek some economic benefits for us at a time when western sanctions were in effect. Myanmarese saw in our overtures an opportunity to diversify their external relationships and to gain respectability. As for the benefits, which accrued to us, these have not been significant, essentially because we ourselves have been negligent of follow-up action to many proposals for cooperation.
One welcome indication that the visit of Suu Kyi has given even before the advent of democracy is that she carries no grudge against India for its proximity to the military government. How soon she will become the leader of a democratic government and pursue policies friendly to India is a matter of speculation. In fact, she would be beholden, first and foremost, to those who stood by her and brought her back to the reckoning and that is the signal that she is giving to China by not going there before her trips to the US and India. We too will have to take our turn to benefit from the opening up of Myanmar.
The limited agenda of seeking cooperation in dealing with the insurgents on the India-Myanmar border, sharing some of the energy resources of Myanmar and establishing the base for a beneficial trade relationship can be pursued even during the transition to democracy. Whether democracy in Myanmar will eventually give us benefits is yet to be seen. China and the US are likely to call the shots even in a democratic structure.
Suu Kyi’s pursuit of democracy could be long and arduous, but she has shown remarkable skills in managing the military. She has the potential to get on with governance, whatever role she assumes in the years to come. She has refused to take sides in the conflict between the Buddhists and the Rohingyas on the plea that her role would be to bring about reconciliation rather than to take sides. The same spirit may prevail in Myanmar if she succeeds in sending the military back to the barracks. We should be happy if Suu Kyi could bring about stability and prosperity in Myanmar without undue influence of China.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India and governor for India of the IAEA.