Hey India, Help Free Aung San Suu Kyi

January 24, 2010


India should use it’s democratic cred and influence as a rising global power to help Aung San Suu Kyi and other Prisoners of Conscience (POC) in Myanmar.

In 1993, the Government of India, outraged by the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders of the National League for Democracy, awarded their highest honor to the pro-democracy leader, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award.  In the late 1990s, then Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes assailed the Myanmar junta’s lack of protection for human rights.  The Government of India, whether led by Congress (I), by the BJP or by the Janata Dal have made it a policy to encourage the protection of human rights in Myanmar (widely known as Burma, but Amnesty International follows the United Nations naming conventions).

But now, not a peep from the Indian Government.

On May 14, 2009, Aung San Suu Kyi and two of her assistants, Khin Khin Win and Khin Khin Win’s daughter, were taken from Daw Suu Kyi’s home to Insein PrisonInsein Prison is known to be a harsh facility with substandard conditions of detention including poor food and poor medical care. For 14 of the past 20 years, Aung San Suu Kyi has endured unofficial detention, house arrest and restrictions on her movement.  But, she is just one of the hundreds of POCs that have been languishing in prisons in Myanmar (also called Burma).  You can take action to help free Aung San Suu Kyi.

India proudly trumpets (rightfully so) that it is the “world’s largest democracy”.  In fact, despite the human rights violations in the country, India can be justifiably proud of its vibrant civil society and chaotic yet stable and functional political system.  India can be a model for other countries in the global south as they manage a possible transition from American hegemony.

So India is at a crossroads in its foreign policy, it can either confidently lead by example and show the rest of the world that no matter how poor its citizens are, a vibrant civil society and mobilized poor does not mean instability and poor economic growth.  Or, it can react fearfully and defensively to China’s influence by copying their foreign policy style in the world, which in my opinion is predicated on short-term economic considerations over longer term goodwill of civil society.

Of course, as a human rights activist, I would urge India to be a confident and bold player in their foreign policy and seek to influence the course of human rights in Myanmar in a positive manner by helping to free Aung San Suu Kyi.  Of course taking a realpolitik and short term approach to relations with Myanmar might have some short term gains— a natural gas contract here, help with fighting various insurgencies there.  It creates a great amount of goodwill of Myanmar’s military junta secluded in their oasis of their brand spanking new capital of Naypyitaw, where apparently citizens of Myanmar are not even allowed to visit.  But, those folks won’t be around forever and when the day comes and Myanmar is free this short term strategy will fall apart and those that have been urging Myanmar to improve its human rights will be the ones who will have influence.  The question is whether civil society in Burma appreciate the cynical approach that helped to prolong their agony at the expense of India’s energy needs.

You can also participate in an online chat about Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday, January 27, 12:00-1:00pm Eastern with Anil Raj, AIUSA’s Myanmar Country Specialist.

Thanks to Jim Roberts, Nancy Galib and Anil Raj, Myanmar Country Specialists for Amnesty International USA for contributing to this blog entry.