New Delhi will need more than one prime ministerial visit to restore its image among pro-democracy activists in Myanmar. It is no secret that many in the National League for Democracy, the political movement headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, see India’s past policy as opportunistic if not amoral.
Suu Kyi has been diplomatic in her public statements, but her expressions of “disappointment” with India are almost inevitable, given the inspiration she has drawn from India’s intellectual tradition.
The obvious influences are Mahatma Gandhi for nonviolence and Jawaharlal Nehru for his closeness to her father, Aung San. But Suu Kyi, who lived in New Delhi for many years and studied at Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, also found inspiration in Indian thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and Rammohun Roy.She once said that Tagore’s poem Ekla Chalo Rey (Walk Alone) "taught me my most precious lesson" during her long years of house arrest. This helped hold up her commitment to a cause that often seemed hopeless and which was scarred by the loss of many friends and colleagues.
The impact was not just cerebral. Her most recent biographer, Peter Popham, says Suu Kyi also learnt the Indian way of “passionate, long-winded and often ferocious discussion.” This “became part of her character — one that was to cause her endless trouble … back in the far more protocol-heavy atmosphere of Burma”.
Ex-Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to Myanmar, Shyam Saran, described her relations with India as “strongly sentimental — almost familial”.
Lacking this counterweight of sentiment, the ranks of the NLD have views on India ranging from neutral to negative. India’s unwillingness to criticise the Myanmar military is only part of the story, says Aung Aung Thin, an activist who fled to India after a military crackdown. “At international fora, Indian delegations always opposed resolutions critical of Burma.”
NLD functionary Tint Swe is among those who accuse India of handing back Myanmar soldiers and student activists who had sought asylum in India from the military regime.
India is today seen by Myanmar youth as a potential economic partner and benign neighbour, but not a source of political inspiration.
“There is surprisingly little mention of India among democracy circles,” says David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch. During her interactions with the NLD, says Yangon-based journalist Shwe Yinn Mar Oo, “no one was against India but not one was for India either”. They just didn’t see India as a force for democratic change.
Singh’s state visit marked a beginning on the democracy front. New Delhi is offering training for parliamentarians and Myanmar is sending local journalists to India to see how a multi-ethnic, Asian democracy can function. Said one who had made the trip, “Seeing your Election Commission and Press Council was an eye-opener — very different from our great neighbour to the north.”