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Sreeram Chaulia, Hindustan Times
November 11, 2012
The visit of Burma’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to India this week presents an occasion for New Delhi to scale up its policies towards a transforming neighbour of immense strategic value. Suu Kyi is coming to India long after her release from house arrest and subsequent trips to Norway, Britain, the US and Thailand. The lag is an indicator of the visible gap between the aspirations of the pro-democracy forces in Burma and India’s cosiness with the Burmese military establishment. Though India had championed Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) when it was established in 1988 and after it swept the 1990 elections that were annulled by the army, its willingness to be friendly to the Generals from the mid-90s disillusioned pro-democracy activists.

In the most trying period when Suu Kyi was under imprisonment and the NLD was being hounded, India was a mute observer. The most we did for suffering Burmese dissidents was to offer asylum. Suu Kyi’s base drew solace and inspiration from the moral and diplomatic support of the West, while growing disillusioned with democratic but ‘pragmatic’ India. The younger generation of the NLD, which remains a formidable force as revealed in its triumph in recent by-elections, has memories of India trying to outdo China in wooing the junta.

Now that the tight lid of army suppression has lifted and Burma looks a hopeful prospect for transitioning to democracy, the NLD is re-energised and gearing up to win Burma’s next general election in 2015. Barring the unfortunate reverses, Suu Kyi is poised to become the first freely elected president of Burma in three years’ time. Her metamorphosis from a stubborn resister of compromise with the military into a savvy politician capable of practical concessions with the aim of eventually assuming the reins of power means that India is hosting a head-of-State-in-waiting this week.

On her first return to India, which moulded her worldview four decades ago, the magnetic Suu Kyi will attract hordes of admirers. But more important than the undiminished love of India’s citizens towards her will be the question of how the Indian government can make up for the lost goodwill with the NLD and other actors striving for Burma’s democratisation.

Since the slow political liberalisation that began with Suu Kyi’s release in 2010, Japan has garnered maximum mileage by rushing into Asia’s so-called “last frontier market” with a bevy of infrastructural aid projects and investments. Western companies and governments are also queuing up to expand in Burma and unlock its demographic and mineral potential.

In spite of geographical contiguity and a long history of association with Burma, India has not particularly ramped up its engagements in that country with the goal of further prising open its closed economy or political system. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s declaration that India will strengthen Burma’s democratic institutions needs to be followed by New Delhi with a much bigger footprint in building its civilian sector.

The training projects India currently has in place in Burma on imparting IT skills and entrepreneurship lack explicit political content or intent to give democratisation a fillip.

India’s default foreign aid penchant for apolitical ‘technical assistance’ may appear to be safe and non-controversial from the comfort of South Block, but falls short of procuring a decisive influence in a transitional society like Burma, where there is a dire need to shape political parties, election officials, opinion makers and academicians. As an Asian neighbour with proven democratic credentials, India’s substantial aid to such segments of Burmese society can rectify the imbalance of the past when New Delhi lost popular approval as an appeaser of the junta.

Suu Kyi’s visit could be the perfect platform for India to increase its flow of human and material assistance to the NLD and other parties. Fledgling programmes for training Burmese media persons in India’s free journalistic environment have to be regularised and multiplied. Identifying non-violent sections of Burma’s angry minority tribes and acclimatising them to India’s multi-ethnic federalist structure can be another positive input towards reconciliation in that fragmented country. 

Our efforts must be more political and larger in ambition and size, matching the grand and noble vision of the Nobel Laureate in town this week.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs

The views expressed by the author are personal