Balance of pain

Suu Kyi’s trip will be cathartic and help her realise that India has been steadfast in its admiration for her, which she must reciprocate

From her arrival in India on November 13 to receive the Nehru Award conferred in 1993, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has dominated the public space. As a pre-eminent prisoner of conscience her life touches any human heart, but in India she reminds of myriads who struggled against British colonial rule.

In her acceptance speech she invoked both Gandhi, the master, and Nehru his pupil as inspiration to her during years of house arrest, when loneliness, tedium and sheer absence of human company can drive a prisoner to despondency and self-doubt. Her masterly speech dredged her 15-year internment, out of the 21 since her return to Burma from Britain, to expound her philosophy of life and politics.
Lurking darkly in the background was the question whether she was disappointed by India in the 1990s befriending her internees — the military junta of erstwhile Burma. She diplomatically remarked that she was saddened but not disappointed, implying that even nations, like individuals, ultimately respond to exigencies of their dilemmas. However, her delay in coming to India, preferring to visit first her Western supporters, and a lamenting tone indicated that the hurt is deeper than she concedes. While it may not be possible to assuage her feelings in the course of one visit, the Indian change of tactics two decades back needs examination.
Firstly, no country follows a purely ethics-based foreign policy. US statesman Zbigniew Brzezinski titled his memoirs for the period he was national security adviser (1976-80) Power and Principle, indicating the constant struggle between morality and expediency in policy-making. India could dogmatically boycott the apartheid regime of South Africa, despite a million persons of Indian origin trapped there, or abjure diplomatic relations with Israel for 43 years in vocal sympathy with the Palestinians because the two were not impinging on Indian national security interests being not immediate neighbours. Similarly, the US could abandon President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt but would not endorse Arab Spring for Bahrain, knowing its criticality to the stability of the Gulf and thus oil and gas.
Secondly, the re-balancing of Indian policy on Burma began at the end of the Cold War in 1990 and the adoption of a less ideological and more pragmatic approach to a slew of issues. India established diplomatic relations with Israel as a stepping stone to better engagement with the US, and commenced its “Look East” policy to intensify relations with the 10 Asean neighbours, who had for long been viewed through the window of Cold War suspicion. Economic liberalisation, integration into the global market and economy were concomitant developments. It was realised that the sanctions against Burma had only pushed the country into the arms of China, reviving an old Sino-Indian rivalry for influence in that country. Thus India reached out to the ruling junta while conferring on Ms Suu Kyi the Nehru Award. The Burmese government responded by launching in 1995 “Operation Golden Bird” against anti-India militant groups lodged in areas bordering India. Same year Ms Suu Kyi was freed from her first six years of house-arrest,
a success perhaps for quieter diplomacy.
This balancing was not easy for India as the US and its allies would maintain their refrain to have India join their boycott. In India too public sympathy for Ms Suu Kyi was vast though untapped. George Fernandes, a senior minister in NDA, maintained open sympathy for her and the democracy movement in Burma. But even the US has been hardly consistent in supporting these democratic forces. President Lyndon Johnson hosted Gen Ne Win, the junta leader, when the focus was on the Vietnam War and the fight against Communism, which threatened Burma, too. The US is back to the same orientation, seeking to contain the Chinese influence, with President Barack Obama visiting Burma on November 19 at the outset of a fresh term.
Burma is also rebalancing its relations with neighbours and global powers as it awaits to chair Asean in 2014. It realises that India alone could not offset the mushrooming influence of China. Thant Myint-U in his book, Where India Meets China, calls it the 21st-century Great Game. Though historically for centuries India and China have had contact either via the Silk Route in the West or by sea, the shortest connection can be through Burma. The Chinese population in Mandalay today is over 30 per cent, compared to five per cent two decades ago. The Chinese Yunnan province, which borders Burma, was as lagging in development like India’s East. That has been rectified by the Chinese thus leading to concerns in Burma of overdependence.
If Ms Suu Kyi is inspired by leaders of the Indian freedom movement, it was Mahatma Gandhi, visiting Mandalay in the 1920s and recalling Lokmanya Tilak’s internment there, who said that “in India it is a common saying that the way to swaraj passes through Mandalay.” The common bonds of religion, culture and history and the human spirit’s shared aspiration for freedom tie India and Burma in a manner transcending governments. It is also true that perhaps India could not maintain a balance between its commitment to those values and realpolitik and thus hurt Ms Suu Kyi. But let her also realise that even she today has needed to do similar balancing when asked about the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine province of Burma. Her answers are circumspect to the point of disappointing her supporters abroad.
Perhaps her Indian sojourn will be cathartic and help her realise that the people of India have been steadfast in their admiration for her, which she must reciprocate. Burma and Bangladesh are the land bridge to Indian connectivity to a booming Asean, a rising China and a US pivoting to the Pacific. Nehru espoused the Commonwealth and Nelson Mandela embraced the whites, both rising above historical fissures and heralding a healing. Can Ms Suu Kyi the erstwhile prisoner leave her jail behind? That will determine Burma’s future.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry

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