The images are indelible thousands of red- robed monks, bare-footed and bold, quietly standing up to the armed might of riot policemen and tanks. And then the even starker photograph of a Japanese journalist continuing to film protestors on the run from military guns, even as soldiers pump him with bullets. One look at these pictures and you know you are watching history in the making. Somehow, their rawness and naked honesty make India’s silence on Myanmar seem both loud and brutal.
You wonder how the world’s largest democracy can be so numb and unmoved.
Foreign policy wonks will dismiss the outrage as the sentimental hand-wringing of the liberal elite. We will be told about the several strategic imperatives that drive our relationship with the military junta. And arguably, at a certain time in history, India probably had no other option than to do brisk business with the generals of Yangon.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who went to college in Delhi, was admired and loved, but it was clear that the struggle for democracy was losing steam. China, which had supplied arms and knowhow to Myanmar’s military, had begun to upgrade ports and facilities dangerously close to India. Military alarmists were warning that Indian armies had once marched into China down the Burma Road. How was India so sure that the reverse journey southwards was not a possibility?
And under the new regime, a country that had been a historical haven for Naga militants was now ready to close down training camps and forest hideouts. Besides, India shares a 1,700 km-long border with Myanmar. Realistically, how long could we not talk to another government based on a moral principle?
So, painful as it is, let’s agree that government policies are invariably imbued with pragmatism and cannot afford the purity of ideologies. And let’s rephrase the question — as every global leader of worth condemns the military atrocities in Myanmar, is India’s decision to remain a mute spectator an intelligent, well thought-out policy? Or is the government in danger of misreading the public mood and batting on the wrong side of change?
Poignant and disturbing as the underground stories of the Burmese people are, this cannot only be an academic debate about democracy. In fact, democracy has for long been an excuse used by powerful nations to push their armies into countries where they don’t belong. There’s no better example of that than the ill-fangled American invasion of Iraq. In the name of democracy, President George W. Bush has slapped new sanctions against Myanmar’s military government, accusing the regime of enforcing a “19-year reign of fear”. But his passionate outburst against autocracies and oligarchies was interestingly silent on Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — all close American allies, all a huge distance from democracy.
Despite the fact that a popular political movement has clearly taken root in Pakistan, Washington’s strategic interests have defined a stubbornly supportive policy when it comes to President Pervez Musharraf. This, even as every major American newspaper and commentator of consequence is warning against the Bush administration’s blind faith in a regime that has an expiry date stamped across it.
Closer home, we may like to boast that our democracy is what elevates us above the grandiose power of China, but the fact is that India’s official relationship with democracy has been full of ambivalence and contradictions. Take Pakistan again — despite all our suspicions and misgivings, and despite Kargil, the Indian establishment and many ordinary Indians were quite willing to be charmed by the smooth-talking General. On my many visits to Pakistan — and this was well before the upheaval — I was always confronted with the same question: why were Indians so taken in by a dictatorial regime? But we genuinely believed that President Musharraf was moderate, tough, innovative about the peace process and, ultimately, our best bet. The dialogue with Pakistan may have broken down a million times but our problem with the General was never that he came into power through an army coup.
It’s not as if we believed that the ‘democratically’ elected leaders who had been pushed into exile were necessarily ‘better’ for India. The Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision on Friday to allow him to contest in uniform means a huge setback for the political uprising against him.
But even so, India’s enthusiasm for his government has been inevitably diminished by the popular mood in Pakistan. We are suddenly looking at Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto with fresh eyes. This is because there comes a time in the history of nations that propels them to the precipice of dramatic change. And other countries, especially those which see themselves as regional leaders, must respond accordingly.
It’s the same principle that we must apply to the military crackdown in Myanmar so that we don’t repeat the mistake we almost made in Nepal.
India’s decision to send Karan Singh to mediate with a despot king who had already been rejected by his own people was hugely controversial and much criticised. Days into the upheaval against the palace, the government’s official position remained that the constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy were the “two pillars of Nepali polity”. When we finally decided to put our weight behind the forces of change, it looked like a belated response, instead of the firm stand by a country willing to lead.
Of course, there is nothing to indicate a sudden or dramatic turn in Myanmar yet. But the Buddhist clergy is deeply respected across every divide among the Burmese people. This time it may be a rise in fuel prices that transformed their serenity into anger and actually pulled them out from the monasteries on to the streets. But the very visible protests beamed across the entire world have stripped the Burmese generals of the last layer of legitimacy. It’s clear from the continuing street protests that this time the seeds of dissent may have been sown much deeper than the military estimates.
Change, whenever it comes and it could still take years is now an inevitability in Yangon. India has to decide which side it will be on for the day that the monks come marching in.
(Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7)