Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Has India let down Myanmar's people?

By Raghu Krishnan, ET Bureau

It’s 20 years since the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi was first put under house arrest. It’s 19 years since her National League for Democracy swept the last national elections, winning over 80% of the seats it had contested, or 392 out of 447 seats. Other minority parties sympathetic to the NLD won 65 seats, taking the final tally to 457 out of a total of 492 constituencies. An estimated 10,000 people were killed in six months of military repression before the elections.

Instead of governing the country whose people had given her party an overwhelming mandate, Aung San Suu Kyi has been under virtual detention for the last two decades. She has become a symbol of grace in duress, someone whose freedom was taken away by the military junta misruling her country but not her steadfast courage.

The world has been transformed since Suu Kyi was first put under house arrest. The Berlin Wall has fallen. The Iron Curtain, which, according to Churchill, had cut off Europe from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, has disappeared. India, where Suu Kyi had studied before going to Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics, has become one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. China is all set to become the economic superpower of the 21st century.

The world has moved on. Yet Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known, has remained in a time-warp.

The military junta has become even more inflexible, going to the extent of building a new capital which is so isolated that it will be difficult for anyone to attempt to restore democracy even though all the rallies held so far have been of a non-violent kind! It was at New Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College, where she studied political science for two years, that Suu Kyi was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi’s message that an authoritarian government could be fought through ahimsa (non-violence), civil disobedience and satyagraha (the force of truth).

Which makes it that much more ironical that one reason why Myanmar’s military junta is so firmly entrenched despite international opprobrium is because of the support from China and India. As Justin Wintle points out in his biography Perfect Hostage: Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and the Generals, there was the prospect of a breakthrough a few years ago: “Progress appeared to have been made in December 2005 when, in the wake of a fiercely critical report prepared by the US law firm Piper Rudnick Gray Cary and commissioned by Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the UN Security Council agreed that it should be briefed on Burmese affairs — thus putting Burma on its agenda. But nothing came of this.

On January 12, 2007, a resolution proposed by the US and Britain, calling for immediate reform in Burma, was vetoed by fellow UNSC permanent members China and Russia. Bolstered by increasingly close, lucrative trading ties with India, Bangladesh, Asean, Japan and South Korea as well as (overwhelmingly) with China (the main supplier of weapons and technology to Burma), the regime could finally flick two fingers at the west.”

Today, the regime seems invulnerable. The protest by monks against an arbitrary 60% hike in petrol prices in September 2007 was crushed. Suu Kyi is being tried on a fresh charge after an American barged into the house where she was being detained. The regime had earlier charged her with not repatriating the money she had received after being awarded in absentia the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991.

Her fight for human rights against a regime which has machine-gunned peaceful protesters was one reason why she was awarded the Nobel Prize. The regime is now talking about holding fresh elections under a new Constitution which will prohibit women with foreign spouses (Suu Kyi’s late husband Michael Aris was an Oxford don) from participating! Her two sons have not been allowed to meet her since 1991.

The walls of her Rangoon residence at 54, University Avenue, are covered with quotations from Nehru, Gandhi and her father Aung San who led Burma’s freedom struggle. Nehru gave asylum to the Dalai Lama some 50 years ago when he escaped from the Chinese army in Tibet. That was in an era of cordial Sino-Indian relations. China and India are today perceived as nations with whom Myanmar’s military junta shares a rapport. China’s human rights record is nothing to write about, with the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on student demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square being remembered on June 4.

Some would argue it is in India’s national interest to maintain close ties with Myanmar’s military regime so that China doesn’t have it all its own way — there are reports that the Chinese navy has been allowed to set up a listening post on a Burmese island in the Indian Ocean. But can the world’s most populous democracy, which subscribes to the values practised by Suu Kyi, close its eyes indefinitely to the military junta’s repression of the people of Myanmar?

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. It is the fear of losing power that corrupts those who wield it, and it is the fear of the scourge of power that corrupts those who are subject to it”, said the prisoner of conscience who celebrated her 64th birthday on June 19.

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