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Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No 33, August 7, 2010

Burma: India’s Betrayal of the Democratic Struggle

Monday 9 August 2010, by Surendra Mohan

The ethos of the Indian independence struggle was built around the concepts of human rights for all, freedom of all colonial peoples and secular plural democratic polity. This ethos guided India’s foreign policy for several decades, and India stood firmly in support of anti-colonial movements, struggles against authoritarian regimes and establishment of human dignity. Her identification with the Palestinians’ aspirations for liberation and self-rule in their land, anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Nepalese quest for democratic governance, freedom struggle in Algeria and Kenya was highly respected by all freedom loving peoples. The concept of non-alignment strengthened these policy orientations, for it freed countries accepting it from all kinds of colonial and authoritarian influences. The Panchsheel signed at Bandung also reflected the same perspective. India occupied the moral ground of an independent international voice of peace and freedom. Even if the government faltered some times, the civil society raised its voice against attempts to subvert the sovereignties of other nations by their strong neighbours. The invasion in Hungary was one such issue, as was the Baby murder in Tibet. The liberation struggle in East Pakistan elicited strong resonance from the people which was taken up by the government as well.

After it was guaranteed that the British were withdrawing from India, the Vice-President of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, Jawaharlal Nehru, organised the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947, in order to strengthen the freedom movements in Indonesia and Burma in particular. Soetan Sjariar, the Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of Indonesia, was flown to New Delhi by a daring Biju Patnaik who had to evade the strong encirclement by the Dutch Air Force. Aung San, the leader of the Burmese freedom fighters, came to attend the Conference amidst great risk. The Conference gave a new fillip to anti-colonial struggles all over Asia and Africa.

However, our foreign policy got gradually compromised under the pressures built by ‘pragmatists’. A country, which had taken principled positions at the time of the Korean conflict and the liberation struggle in Vietnam, kept quiet when the Russian Army marched into Kabul. We were quiet again when the Americans sought to suppress the revolt of the masses against the monarchy in Iran. Then, India tilted towards Israel, ignoring the latter’s aggressive and racist occupation of much of the area which the United Nations had earmarked for the Palestinians. Gone were days when Yasser Arafat was welcomed in New Delhi as a hero. Influenced by the USA and wanting to distance the country from its traditional Arab friends, the Government of India decided that our defence and internal security challenges required that we court Israel. The same kind of ‘pragmatism’ made us to propose constitutional monarchy in Nepal at a time when the monarch, Gyanendra, was under siege of a mass upsurge.

NOW, we have turned our backs on the Burmese people’s struggles and abandoned Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of our guest of yore Aung San and leader of the democratic forces of that nation. Suu Kyi has been in detention for fifteen of the last twentyone years, the longest that a leader of a party fully supported by the people has suffered. We are silent when the military dictatorship wants to hold a fraudulent election in Burma. We have instead, hosted the military dictator, General Than Shwe, in New Delhi, forgetting that he heads a regime which had repudiated the democratic verdict of the people when they massively voted in favour of the National League of Democracy and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. The military junta had dissolved the elected House, arrested Suu Kyi and other leaders of the NLD, including a large number of elected MP’s and forced several other elected representatives of the people to go into exile. That was in 1989, and the Indian civil society had then expressed strong resentment against the junta’s suppression of the democratic movement. Since then, two decades have passed, Suu Kyi continues to be under detention, the NLD is virtually banned, most of its leaders are either incarcerated or in exile, the Ethnic Nationalities Council has expressed its solidarity with the NLD, and yet, our government decided to invite Than Shwe.

It is known to everyone that the military junta has rejected any intervention by the United Nations and all those who are pledged to upholding human rights. It has cared little for international public opinion. Its main supporter is China, a country which itself suppressed the democratic aspirations of its own people. No one has forgotten the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square, which happened almost at the same time when the Burmese military junta rejected the massive verdict of the Burmese electorate. Even when Burma’s South Asian neighbours strongly told the junta that they collectively disapproved its authoritarian actions, the latter did not relent.

Two years ago, the Buddhist monks and thousands of youth mounted protests against rising prices and repression. The junta used armed force against them too. The Army attacked even the monasteries to arrest the protesting monks. It has no intention of handing over its arbitrary power to the people; yet, if only to deflect criticism, it is organising an election. Free and fair elections cannot be held when the military regime still denies freedom to its opponents, keeps hundreds of them in jails, refuses to free Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic struggle, and constitutes an Election Commission which does not enjoy credibility among the people. These conditions have compelled the NLD and Ethnic Nationalities Council to boycott the election.

All this, however, means nothing to a government blinded by sheer opportunistic ‘pragmatism’. It wants Burma’s gas and petroleum. It desires her cooperation in quashing the terrorist threat in the country’s North-East, even though it is a democratically elected government in Bangladesh which has refused haven to such terrorists and has, in fact, turned them over to India. Our government has been lulled by false promises made by the military dictators in Burma. We are trying to woo the junta away from China, which is just impossible. These are the petty considerations and false hopes, which fool us into denying support to a right cause of the NLD and other democratic forces in Burma. The Government of India’s invitation to Than Shwe and the enthusiastic welcome given to him have betrayed the democratic struggle in that country; these are an insult to our own ideals which India has cherished for about a century. Slowly, India is abandoning all her past, present and potential supporters.

Only a democratic Burma will be a sure friend of our democratic republic. Only free citizens living with dignity will be marching with us towards world amity and peace. The junta will continue to ally with those who have the same power-hungry attitude to their own people as the Generals have. While deploring the policy of our government towards the Burmese fighting for restoration of democracy, we, on behalf of India’s democratic forces, salute those fighters and their undisputed courageous leader, Suu Kyi, who turned 65 in June this year.

The author is one of the country’s leading socialist ideologues.