THen New Delhi always found it hard to walk the divide between democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and the ruling military junta. The PV Narasimha Rao government decided it had to withdraw support for Suu Kyi because it needed Myanmarese military help to bring Naga rebels to heel. When in 1992 India gave Suu Kyi the Nehru award, the junta promptly called off ongoing joint military exercises against Nagas.
But in the mid-1990s a different narrative intruded. The generals asked India to remain engaged with their regime because they needed a balance against the growing Chinese presence north of the Irrawaddy river. The junta played it both ways, of course. And their dependence on Beijing for arms and money became overwhelming
NOW Like much of the world, India was surprised by the radical reformist vision of the new president, General Thien Sien. Based on what New Delhi has learnt from its interactions with various Myanmarese leaders, the army is comfortable with Suu Kyi but is more concerned about the northern ethnic insurgencies.
India is a benign force in Myanmar’s view. Too benign, says Suu Kyi. This makes New Delhi a useful third party, given the suspicions that exist among the Myanmarese regarding the role of China and the suspicions China has about the West.
WHY Theories abound as to why Thien Sien took this path. Former Malaysian leader, Mohammad Mahathir, after meeting him, concluded “he had always been reform minded”. His father, a devout Buddhist, also helped. But Thien Sien has support from others in the army who are worried, perhaps most of all, at the Chinese footprint in the north. Some argue the Arab spring made a difference.
The unknown factor in all of this is Beijing. About half-a-dozen of the ethnic insurgents are in China’s pocket. China is less than enthusiastic about democracy. However, its main fear is that a democratic Myanmar will become a pro-US Myanmar. Beijing’s blessings for the present process are at best conditional. Something Thien Sien is well aware of.
NEXT The reforms are scarred by several divides, any one of which could trip up the entire process. One, though arguably the shallowest, is between Suu Kyi and the military. The other is between reformists and hardliners in the army. The latter have become more concerned since the last bye-elections when the military’s party won only one out of 43 seats. These party members are coalescing into the main anti-reformist noises. There’s another which puts the ethnic groups on one side and the ethnically Burmese Suu Kyi and the generals on the other. The latter need to persuade the former to join them or the game is up.
India does not have close links with any of these players. What it hopes to do is open up a “western front” with Myanmar to reduce the country’s dependence on China. When PM Manmohan Singh visits in May, he will unveil a border region development plan. He will also seek to institutionalise security ties with army and police. At least this time, India can play its democracy card often and hard. “Nobody can help them build the institutions of democracy better than us,” says a senior Indian official.