Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to India comes at a time when there are major reforms being pushed through in Myanmar after decades of military rule and the opening up of the country offers an opportune time for her and India to renew old ties and make new ones. After spending several years under house-arrest, Daw Suu Kyi was released in November 2010.
The journey from 1988, when she first joined politics, till her release is a story that inspires many both inside and outside Myanmar. In 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD), that she helped formed, won a landslide victory. However, the military regime refused to honour the election results and, instead, imprisoned Daw Suu Kyi along with several political activists. Daw Suu Kyi continued her fight for democracy and freedom and had spent most of the years in house-arrest since then.
Daw Suu Kyi’s respect and popularity had only grown over the years. This was evident soon after she was freed and when the people of Myanmar voted her and the NLD with a huge victory in the by-elections in May this year, winning 43 out of 45 seats. The NLD is today the largest opposition party in parliament. Although the party holds only about 7 per cent of the seats in parliament, she and her party commands respect and her voice carries weight. Daw Suu Kyi’s charisma in pulling crowd has been demonstrated during her trips to the United States and Europe in June and September this year.
Since the reform process was initiated a couple of years ago, hundreds of political activists have been released and those who fled the country to escape political prosecutions and repression have been returning back to Myanmar after spending many years in exile. Daw Suu Kyi’s visit to India is special because of her personal connection with the country. She had spent some of her growing years in India and rightly so, the visit will be marked by a lot of nostalgia as she recalls her ‘fond memories’.
She was reported to have said that Indians “don’t know much” about Myanmar’s democracy movement and the visit will go a long way for Indians to learn more about the democracy movement that she had long fought for. The visit will also be used to look into the future in re-engaging India, whose leaders have been a source for inspiration in her fight for freedom and human rights. She has followed Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence.
Over the years, India’s domestic political landscape and its profile in the international arena has been undergoing changes. Unlike the days when India’s national politics was largely dominated by one party, the emergence of new political forces representing different interests has become a key feature in the era of coalition politics and Daw Suu Kyi will need to engage all political forces. In the past two decades, Indian political parties have not engaged Daw Suu Kyi and her party as much to understand each other and this visit provides an opportunity to rebuild ties.
Engaging the Indian business community is another area to strengthen ties. In the recent months, Daw Suu Kyi has called for foreign investment in Myanmar, but has stressed the need for ‘democracy-friendly development’ and job-creation for unemployed youths. Few Indian private industries have been involved in Myanmar’s economic development and, of late, more companies have been showing interest. Suu Kyi’s visit will help Indian companies take greater interest in the development of Myanmar in a way that benefits the people of Myanmar.
Daw Suu Kyi will need to forge new ties with the young generation of India. Connecting with young India is crucial. Many young Indians know Suu Kyi as a global ‘democracy icon’, though many may not know what has made her such a prominent international figure and it may not be surprising if some are unaware that she belongs to one of India’s neighbouring nations.
This is particularly so because in 1989 the military junta changed the name of country from Burma to Myanmar, which itself became a point of political contest between the military government and the pro-democracy groups led by Daw Suu Kyi. While the country’s name is no more a major political issue, Daw Suu Kyi continues to use the old name to refer to the country. Many young Indians would identify Daw Suu Kyi with the country’s old name and may not relate her to ‘Myanmar’. Daw Suu Kyi has always struck the right chords with young people and, no doubt, she will pull the youth towards her. Sustaining that engagement is equally important.
India-Myanmar relations have moved on in the past decade and the task before Daw Suu Kyi is to build on the existing relationship and take it to a higher level. The political deadlocked in Myanmar until the reforms had created some disquiet on the part of India in its engagement with Myanmar. This is has been removed now.
Even as Myanmar’s reform process has made significant progress, there are daunting challenges confronting Myanmar. The transition process still remains fragile. There are questions about finding lasting political settlement between the government and ethnic armed groups and peace remains elusive in some ethnic areas. The country’s economy needs international support to help it integrate with the world economy and development aid to help lift millions of people out of poverty.
For both in Myanmar and India, Daw Suu Kyi’s visit needs to be viewed as yet another important step towards strengthening relationship between the two neighbours. It will serve nobody’s interest if the visit were to be seen as a political gain for a party at the cost of others in Myanmar. The fact that Daw Suu Kyi is today part of the reform process offers an opportunity for India and Myanmar to further deepen ties and understand each other better. India needs to wholeheartedly offer all assistance that support the establishment of a stable, peaceful, prosperous and democratic Myanmar for the long-term interests of both India and Myanmar and the region at large.
K Yhome is a Research Fellow at the Observer Research
Foundation, New Delhi.