Forbidden kingdom

Manmohan Singh’s initiative in meeting Aung San Suu Kyi is an opportunity to revive Indo-Burmese ties and placing them on a positive footing

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s congratulatory visit to Burma (May 27-29) to meet Aung San Suu Kyi shortly after her runaway electoral victory in the country’s parliamentary byelections of April was as much to convey his greetings and extend India’s fullest support to her personally, as to send a message to the government presently in office in Burma that if the relationship between the two countries is to proceed on a positive course, one important caveat has to be adhered to — Burma must continue to advance on the path of democracy.

Ever since the military came to power in 1962, Burma has always been something of a “forbidden kingdom” for India, dominated by a xenophobic military with whom India’s system of democracy has had little genuine resonance so far. But attitudes are mellowing, though Burma still remains a door only partially open, access through which is still somewhat restricted. However, Burma borders India’s eastern flank, and the imperatives of geography demand that India makes every effort to develop and maintain positive relationships with that country.
The Burmese Army has been in constant conflict with the parallel presence of strong street-level student movements for restitution of democratic rights in the country, during which the Army has often used grossly disproportionate force against political agitators. Casualties amongst students have been heavy, and a large number of them have sought trans-border sanctuary in India. Western countries have been especially disapproving of the military takeover in Burma, and public opinion in those countries has been vocal in their criticism. Severe economic sanctions have been imposed on Burma, which have adversely affected the country’s economy. Public opinion in India, particularly amongst the student community, has also been critical of the violations of human rights by the Burmese Army and sympathies have mostly been with the pro-democracy movement, while the government has unofficially conveyed their muted concerns over the issue. Not unnaturally, the Burmese government has not taken kindly to this perceived interference from India in what they consider is an internal affair, which has made it difficult for India to engage with the military junta and evolve an pragmatic Burmese policy balancing geopolitical relations and concern for human rights. The People’s Republic of China, however, has had no such inhibitions, and has strongly supported the junta, a pragmatic and calculated move which has extended China’s influence in the region, hardened the attitude of the Burmese government towards India, and diminished India’s geo-political space and influence in Burma. Pro-democracy agitators have been denounced by the Burmese military as agents of foreign powers fomenting instability in the country, an approach which has resonated amongst some sections of the people and fanned their xenophobia.
Burma’s northwest is part of the Golden Triangle and geographically contiguous with India’s own Northeast, with which it shares 1,600 kilometres of common border. These areas are relatively inaccessible as well as inadequately administered and policed; opium and its derivatives are the traditional industry and there is extensive drug trafficking in illicitly cultivated opium. Separatist movements based on ethnic diversities have taken roots here, and militants of diverse groups operate freely on both sides of the border. Burma has adopted a hardline military approach against its tribal peoples, but without much success, and a series of ceasefires have now been negotiated with the Kachin and Chins in the west, the Karen, Shan and Wa in the east, and Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine region so that a political resolution can be arrived at.
There has also been a historical undercurrent of resentment in Burma against the resident Indian community which has resulted in periodic ethnic clashes. Following the military coup in Burma in 1962, resident Indians, largely of Tamil origin, were declared foreigners by General Ne Win, the head of the junta, who confiscated their properties and businesses and summarily expelled them from the country. This was a blow to Indo-Burmese relations which have still not been fully normalised, and China has exploited this vacuum to extend its own influence.
Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of U. Aung San, Burma’s first democratically elected Prime Minister post-independence, has been the public face of the movement for democracy in Burma. She is personally well disposed towards India where she spent a portion of her student life in New Delhi at the prestigious Lady Shri Ram college for women of which she undoubtedly carries pleasant memories. Her considerable personal charisma has been a major factor in her widespread popularity, both within Burma as well as abroad, and she drew huge crowds at her political rallies throughout the country. However, she has suffered for her consistent support for democracy in Burma, and has been placed under house detention on numerous occasions, commencing soon after her return to Burma in 1988. The effects on her personal life have been devastating which would have shattered a lesser person. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but could only travel abroad in 2012 to receive it in person, after release from house arrest by the junta. If the National League for Democracy under her leadership comes to power in Burma after the next national elections in 2015, as is widely expected, it will hopefully have a positive effect on Indo-Burmese equations.
Economic relations between the two countries have not developed to anywhere near their full potential, and the Prime Minister’s interaction with Ms Suu Kyi can play a very fruitful role in this context, especially if she comes to power. The economy of Burma has traditionally been a Chinese preserve and still largely remains so, which is a cause of some uneasiness in Burma. But the Indian commercial sector can certainly wrest a larger market share in Burma, if they really set their minds to it. Meanwhile, Indian business interests are hesitantly testing the waters in Burma, though on a very limited scale.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s laudable initiative in meeting her is a fresh opportunity for refurbishing and reviving Indo-Burmese relations and placing them on a more positive footing.

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