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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

Did India let down Aung San Suu Kyi?

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by Urvashi Dhamija


There is widespread dismay because the Government of India seems to have let down the charismatic democratic leader of Myanmar who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 and whom we honoured with the Gandhi Prize in 1993, at a historical moment when the struggle she leads for a popularly elected government acquired unexpected legitimacy. She was put in jail by the military junta—and that is where she still is—when her party, the National League for Democracy, won 395 seats in the 1990 nation wideelections in which the Army led parties won only 10. In September 2007, saffron robed monks, who came out in hundreds to join a march of unarmed civilians whose protests after the imposition of a 500 per cent fuel price hike had steadily gathered momentum, were gunned down by machines. At least a dozen people died, hundreds imprisoned, suspected activists tortured and the general population bullied into submission through a continuous broadcast of warnings of heavy penalties for violation of “discipline”. To put pressure on the Generals to end the violence, grant Suu Kyi and her supporters their freedom and political due, while the US and the EU have tightened sanctions and Japan, whose journalist was killed in the firing, plans to suspend all aid, the Government of India’s considered position is that there should be no punitive measures and only step-by-step movement in a “broad-based process of national reconciliation and political reform”.

India’s “ostrich like” attitude towards developments in Myanmar has been explained as one due to fear—fear of blocking potential gas supplies to itself, of re-energising insurgents who will once again get a safe sanctuary in that country and of conceding even more clout to China which defends Myanmar in the world fora and gets access to its abundant natural resources in return. At present, India is in the unenviable position of being clubbed with China which has publicly maintained that the armed attack was an internal affair. However, it can be argued that due to a combination of technological and international factors, India, notwithstanding the discomfort, is in a unique position to influence the movement towards democratic transformation in a country where the society is fragmented, political opposition over the years decimated and a dictatorship with an insular world view, a 45- year-old legacy of self-centred and brutal rule, and a battle-tested Army at its disposal, is firmly entrenched.

The Army, on which one-third of the nation’s budget is lavished, has its own schools, technical colleges, and hospitals for its personnel and future leaders. Signs of dissent are quickly either suppressed or crushed. The Army considers itself the backbone of the country and believes that its mission is to save it from internal and external enemies. It has, in fact, been able to rein in the insurgency movements of the ethnic minority groups in Myanmar, which are more than hundred in number. The Army regards the pro-democracy movement as a tool of Western imperialist forces and has systematically sought to destroy it after it massacred 3000 persons in the 1988 upsurge. Urban campuses in the capital city, where the protests began, have been vacated and long-distance learning promoted at the expense of classroom teaching. The government employees, key supporters of the 1988 uprising were deprived support of their natural leaders. Senior civil servants have been relocated at Naypyidaw, a new capital city carved out of the jungle more than 300 km from Yangon. In 1993, the Generals formed the Union Solidarity and Development Association, a social welfare and self-described patriotic organisation that also serves as militia and spy network for the junta. In September 2005 it had 22.8 million members—more than half the population—according to the The New Light of Myanmar, a state run newspaper. Finally, Buddhist clergymen, the formal custodians of a powerful binding common cultural legacy, have been regularly singled out for public honour. Their monasteries were given generous donations and their pagodas renovated at government expense even as killer diseases like malaria and tuberculosis are rampant.

THE worldwide live coverage of the massive turn out of ordinary monks moved by the growing economic hardship of the laity, their pointed refusal to accept alms from the family members of the junta and their subsequent brutal treatment is in sharp contrast to the situation in 1988 where the first images did not filter out of the country until a month. The sense of horror across the globe has acutely embarrassed Myanmar’s chief patron, China. It would like its own treatment of unarmed students in 1989 at Tiananmen Square to be forgotten as it advances towards its goals of becoming a credible superpower which considers the building of the state-of the-art sports facilities for the 2008 Olympics as important as collaborating in a multinational diplomatic effort to disable the weapon making capacities of its neighbour, North Korea, that crashed the nuclear club. It is not surprising that China has thrown its weight behind the Security Council’s initiative which requires the cessation of violence, freedom for Suu Kyi and her involvement in a political dialogue. The Generals who accept her unique position as the daughter of Aung San, the much loved freedom fighter and the founder of the Burmese Army, have agreed to discuss constitutional reform with her provided she disassociates herself from the demand for sanctions.

For designing a durable scheme that accommodates them both, India’s experience could be instructive. In 1946, the Constituent Assembly was crafted to include representatives of all significant minority groups and exceptionally talented people regardless of how critical they had been of the dominant Congress party. In addition, accommodation and consensus were the guiding principle for finalising decisions. Negotiations are bound to be a protracted affair. In India, where there was broad agreement about fundamentals, successful closure took almost three years.

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