Thursday, November 8, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi's landmark visit: onset of stronger India-Burma ties?

By Dr Alana Golmei
The release of Burma's iconic leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2010 and the subsequent by-elections in April this year open up the process for a democratic transition in Burma. It resonate hope and reinstates believe in non-violent democratic struggle across the world. For the Burmese inside the country and those outside, it was a moment of jubilation and celebration.

After five decades of military rule, slowly Burma began to experience a new dawn of hope. The April 2012 by-election was, in fact, something that can be described as a step towards a change, where common Burmese citizens came out to exercise their franchise. People move freely, with slogans and cheer, the excitement was palpable. The local, national and international media coverage of the election process indicates freedom which was not there till then, is worth to note.

Subsequently, several prominent world leaders visited Burma. After a gap of 25 years India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Burma in May 2012 inviting Aung San Suu Kyi to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in Delhi.

Accepting the invite and expressing her happiness to build a closer ties and exchange with India, Aung San Suu Kyi stated that India and Burma have been particularly close over the years not only because of geographical position but because of shared history and deep ties of friendship for many, many long years.

During her meeting with India's Prime Minister in May, Suu Kyi said, "True friendship between the countries can be based only on friendship between our people and this is what I hope we will be able to achieve."

Aung San Suu Kyi's subsequent travel outside Burma, addressing forums and parliamentarians, dignitaries in different countries further gave a positive affirmation to the transformation process. She first traveled to Thailand in May where she addressed the World Economic Forum. Then she went to Europe and gave her Nobel Peace acceptance speech in Oslo which was awarded in 1991, she travelled to Paris, addressed the British Parliament in London and students at her alma mater at Oxford University. Her trip to the United States has been significant and was well received. She urged for lifting of sanctions imposed against Burma by the US.

Dr. Tint Swe, ex-MP of Aung San Suu Kyi's party NLD residing in India for two decades, feels it is high time for India to initiate the realistic Burma policy. He said, "We want not only responsible investment but also accountable business from India, we need good resource from friendly nations which are mutually beneficial to the common peoples not for cronies."

In fact, India and Burma, as immediate neighbors with 1600 km border running along its four northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, share a long friendship, people to people to contact and trade relations. Both India and Burma became independent from colonial rule in 1947 and 1948 respectively.

Leaders of both the countries in those times and decades were particularly close. The relation both politically and socially was said to be smooth and sustained until the military overthrew the civilian government in 1962. The relation between India and Burma was deeply strained when India condemned the suppression of pro-democracy movement and provided shelter to thousands who fled the country during nationwide uprising against the military junta in 1988. Since then, relations between the two countries worsened.

However, due to domestic and external compulsions, in 1991 India opted for its own realist policy (based on national interest) and underwent a policy shift from supporting democracy in Burma to building close relations with the military regime. The policy is stated as a pragmatic approach to economic development, India began to look towards its eastern neighbor. Besides others, the main key policy evolved was the Look East policy where Burma played a central role if India had to reach out the South-East Asian countries, which in no doubt once again will revive the relation between the two countries.

Accordingly, while the world condemned the military regime and its continued human rights violation on political activists and common citizens in Burma, India remained silent. This gesture did not go down very well with the Burmese democracy activists and political exiles. Some common expression often comes in phrases such as "India could have done more"....; "we look up to India (for solidarity and support) as a big brother, a neighbor and the world's largest democracy".

In an attempt to reconcile with the pro democracy activist, India awarded Aung San Suu Kyi the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for promoting international understanding in 1993. This has upset the then military regime in Burma and bilateral relations between the two countries became sour. Therefore, due to its national interests India tried to court ties with the military regime.

Consequently, bilateral relations between India and Burma has increased in terms of numerous exchanges of high level visits and signing of bilateral agreements and MoU.

M. Kim, pro democracy activist and coordinator at the Burma Centre Delhi, who lives in Delhi for the past 15 years campaigning for restoration of democracy in Burma, feels that the visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to India should not be a mere 'image makeover'. He stated that an uneasiness have developed with pro-democracy activists given India's closeness with the military regime in the past. We believe India's invitation to Aung San Suu Kyi is a genuine effort as we expect that this visit will deepen stronger ties between peoples of the two countries, said Kim.

In the recent years relation between the two countries remained complicated and complex. The momentous release of Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Thein Sein's reform process and the election that followed has once again brought Burma into focus, one of the worst military regimes in the world.

Today there are over 100,000 Burmese migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers in different parts of India including northeastern states and Delhi. Moreover the situation of the displaced Burmese in India is altogether another story. Particularly in the capital Delhi, it is an everyday struggle against all odds: discrimination, abuse, even to the extent of physical attack and harassment, all of which go unreported. Merely basic facilities come only from the UNHCR and its partners.

It is a crucial time and an important turn of events for India. More so with the democracy leader Daw Aung San Su Kyi who will be visiting India in November.

It may be recalled that in her address to the World Economic Forum, Suu Kyi opined that there should be a balanced approach, cautious optimism and a healthy scepticism. On the future of Burma, the upcoming 2015 election and the chair for ASEAN in 2014, she urged the world leaders at the WEF that ASEAN should not engage in 'handouts' but should ask and demand what ASEAN expect from Burma.

There could be several reasons India did not seem to figure in the first priority country in Aung San Suu Kyi's travel itinerary after her release. For Aung San Suu Kyi, India has always been a second home where she had her education and influence by Mahatma Gandhi's Ahimsa.

Besides her friends, her well wishers in India, the displaced Burmese community in India anxiously awaits the arrival of Daw Aung Suu Kyi. They have hope, they have many questions in their minds as they look towards their leader's visit, all the while as the transition back home in Burma unfold. What will be the outcome of (mother) Daw Suu Kyi's visit and how India will engage with her? What does Suu Kyi expects India to do for Burma? And as India welcomes the iconic democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate, common Indians and Burmese look forward to a new era that will usher in progress and peace in the region.

Definitely, the visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, follower of Mahatma Gandhi's ideals, will have an effect, and will impact on India and Burma's future relationship.

(Dr. Alana Golmei is Coordinator, Burma Centre Delhi. Burma Centre Delhi (BCD) is a non-profit organization founded in 2008 to work for restoration of peace, justice, democracy and human rights in Burma with a mission to strengthen relationships between the people of India and Burma for mutual understanding and solidarity.She can be contacted at