Has India Abandoned Burma?

September 28, 2010

By Anil Raj, Myanmar (Burma) Country Specialist

Gandhi once said, “An ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of preaching.” But in the decades since Gandhi and in an environment premised on India’s towering pursuits of economic development and regional security, I am beginning to wonder if India is doing more preaching than practice when it comes to promoting democracy and freedom – the very things that it fought so hard to win over from the British Raj.

Aung San Suu Kyi

India has traditionally been a key ally for Myanmar’s (Burma) democratic opposition, most prominent is sure to be none other than Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has remained under detention or house arrest for the last 15 of 21 years.  India has long provided safe haven for fleeing pro-democracy Burmese activists and has bestowed Suu Kyi with India’s highest civilian honors.

However, in the last two decades Indian foreign policy vis-à-vis Myanmar has made an about-face from its former ‘principled’ approach, and reached an unprecedented threshold when Myanmar head of State, Senior General Than Shwe, visited India for five days in July.  The visit ushered in a new strategic partnership between the two neighbors as part of India’s “Look East” policy aimed to enlarge India’s presence in the region and to keep China’s growing presence at bay.

But it wasn’t the panoply of high-level and expensive agreements that were reached, nor was it the fact that none of these agreements were contingent upon Myanmar’s willingness to release Aung San Suu Kyi or the 2,200 other political prisoners, or any push to ensure free and fair elections in Myanmar later this year – the first in 20 years.  What was shocking to me was that India allowed Than Shwe to pay homage to the burial site of Gandhi.

It was entirely unpalatable to me that India could allow one of the world’s most flagrant violators of human rights to stain the legacy of a man who led masses to peacefully overthrow a repressive colonial overlord not entirely different from that of the present-day Myanmar, or to symbolically forsake its support for Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a sort of “Burmese version” of Gandhi in her own right.

Of course matters of national interest will take front and center at certain junctures in any country, but when governments are willing shed their most quintessential creeds and replace them for short-term gains it should stir the collective consciousness of an entire people.  For instance, when the Americans debated passionately over what constituted a just interrogation policy in the “War on Terror”, U.S. Senator John McCain staunchly opposed the use of torture claiming that it disgraced the U.S. Constitution and very essence of what America stands for, arguing, “this is not about who they are [alleged terrorists], but who we are”.  In the short period of time that America did forsake these values, America learned that sacrificing the very creeds that became its genesis comes at a high cost and something that has taken precious time and resources to mitigate for.  India is currently on a similar trajectory of repeating this very mistake and leaves us to wonder just how much India will give up of itself to court men like Than Shwe – a virtually unsustainable effort if it seeks to gain full ascendance as a democratic, global power.

As India pioneers forward in its quest for expanding frontiers, this is an opportune time for Indians to carefully ponder over who they are and what they are about, lest they find themselves on the wrong side of history.  After all, the natural state of humankind decisively levitates towards freedom.  The only thing that stands between the people of Myanmar’s quest for freedom and its actualization is merely time, and Indians of all people should know that.

Anil Raj in the Myanmar (Burma) Country Specialist for Amnesty International USA.  He’s also a member of the Board of Directors for the organization.