Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s forthcoming visit to Myanmar marks a new turning point in India-Myanmar relations, marked by many ups and downs. The high-water mark of the visit will be his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi whose National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 out of 45 seats for which by-elections were held last month proving that she remains the preeminent political leader of the country.
If the spectacular victory the NLD achieved at Naypyidaw, the new capital the military dictators had built where the voters are mostly government officials, is an indication, she is more popular today than she was in 1990 when she won 82 per cent of the votes but was denied power and put under house arrest that lasted 15 years.
It’s too early to say that democracy has been restored in the country when a majority of the 664 seats in Parliament are occupied by the erstwhile military junta that ruled the country for half a century with an iron fist and their fellow-travellers. But her presence in the House provides some measure of legitimacy to President U Thein Sein’s “civilian” government.
A part of British India for more than a century, Burma, as it was called then, was the “rice bowl of Asia” with a per capita income higher than India’s and China’s when it won freedom. A series of cataclysmic events that began with the killing of General Aung San, considered the architect of Burmese independence and Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, and the usurpation of power by the military saw Burma asking the United Nations at one time to grant it “the least-developed-nation” status in order to receive the handouts that came with it.
For Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who gave asylum to deposed Burmese Prime Minister U Nu in Bhopal, it was a matter of principle that the government would not have any dealing with the military junta. In fact, his successors did everything possible to make the lives of thousands of Burmese Chins, a minority group, who took shelter in India as comfortable as possible.
It was with great warmth that India received Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother as Burma’s Ambassador in India, though it was a clever ploy of General Ne Win to keep trouble at bay. It was in New Delhi that Suu Kyi first went to college. As the military consolidated its hold on power and Burma became a net importer of food, India woke up to the reality of China building bridges with the junta.
It was to counter China’s growing influence that India began its policy of engagement with the junta in the nineties, despite the hiccups India’s conferment of its highest Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding on Aung San Suu Kyi in 1992, a year after she won the Nobel Peace Prize, caused in bilateral relations.
Democratic forces in both countries were shocked that in its eagerness to break bread with the junta, it sent a high-level delegation to attend the funeral of one of its military rulers. The visit by the Indian President, more ceremonial than substantial, in 2006 was considered a crude attempt to mollycoddle the junta.
India’s diplomacy of cringing was evident when during External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s visit to Naypyidaw in June last he did not even meet Aung San Suu Kyi for fear it would antagonise his hosts.
All this has not paid the dividends Indian expected. Bilateral trade is only to the tune of $1.2 billion, though it includes 70 per cent of Burma’s agricultural exports. India is at the 13th position in terms of investment. Myanmar is rich in hydrocarbon and all Western multinational companies are, therefore, scrambling to get a foothold in the country.
There is also realisation in Myanmar that it should cultivate India as a countervailing force against China. All this is to the advantage of India if it plays its cards well. Though it shares 1600 km of border with Myanmar, it does not get the attention Afghanistan gets in New Delhi.
Information Technology, agriculture, education, railways and healthcare are some of the sectors in which India can help the predominantly Buddhist nation. India played host to the former dictator Than Shwe at Bodh Gaya, when he visited the town where Buddha got enlightenment. Both countries stand to gain from religious tourism.
A large business group will accompany the prime minister. A number of joint ventures will also be unveiled during the visit. All this should not, however, be at the cost of India’s support to Aung San Suu Kyi, who should be allowed to play her rightful role as the saviour of Myanmar.