Opportunity to mend Indian-Burmese relations

Published on November 16, 2012

By Nehginpao Kipgen

The China Post – November 16, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese opposition and the National League for Democracy (NLD), is visiting India this month after a gap of nearly forty years.

Suu Kyi, who is visiting from Nov. 13 to 18, spent part of her life in India when her late mother, Khin Kyi, was appointed ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960. She studied at the Convent of Jesus and Mary School, and graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi with a degree in politics in 1964.

She is traveling following an invitation from Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance in her capacity as chairperson of the Nehru Memorial Fund.

On Nov. 14 she delivered the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial lecture in New Delhi. Other features of her itinerary include meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Vice President Hamid Ansari, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.

Using the term “mend” in the subject line by itself may have triggered different interpretations. Some may agree with its relevancy, while others may argue that there is no need for mending the bilateral relations as both nations have been actively engaging with eachother.

First, one must understand that Suu Kyi accepted the invitation partly because she was conferred the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1992. Second, one has to look at the sequence of Indo-Burma relations not just with the ruling government, but with the opposition as well.

The nature of engagement between Burma and India has shifted dramatically in the last two decades. During the 1988 pro-democracy uprising when thousands of Burmese were killed and several thousands fled, India was one of the first nations to welcome refugees into its own territory.

India provided provisions and other necessary privileges for the Burmese in exile to continue their pro-democracy activities within India. New Delhi was also vocal about human rights and democratic reforms, by openly criticizing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) — the then-military regime.

India’s support for Burma’s democracy movement faded with the introduction of India’s “Look East” policy, shifting from pro-democracy to pro-military. The policy shift began during the Congress government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991, and augmented during the Bhartiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004).

The salient features of Indian foreign policy vis-a-vis Burma during the military regime can be summarized under three main objectives: seeking Burma’s help in tackling insurgency problems in northeast India, countering China’s growing influence in the region, and expanding India’s international market in Southeast Asia via Burma.

By engaging Burma, India plans to maximize its security and national interest. Burma, the only Southeast Asian country to share 1,643 kilometers boundary in four northeast Indian states and a maritime boundary, serves as India’s gateway to the other 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Because of Burma’s strategic location and proximity to China, it is crucial for India to befriend Burma.

When every nation on earth gives priority to its own national security and interest in establishing relations with other nations, India may have pursued a right policy in its own perspective. However, as the largest democratic nation in the world in terms of population, India was criticized for engaging the Burmese military generals and neglecting the pro-democracy movement.

India also received criticism from the Western nations and the Burmese opposition groups, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party, for not speaking out on human rights violations committed by the SLORC and State Peace and Development Council governments.

While India has not severed its diplomatic ties with Burma over the past two decades, New Delhi’s relationship with the Burmese opposition and exile democratic groups has been at its low ebb.

The present Burmese government led by the Union Solidarity and Development Party is dominated by former military generals, but has initiated certain democratic reforms. Although national reconciliation has yet to be achieved, the government appears to be moving in that direction.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to India should serve as an opportunity for both India and Burma to mend and strengthen bilateral relationship between the two neighbors which have shared cultures, and the same communities settling on both sides of the international border, including the Kukis and the Nagas.

During this trip, Aung San Suu Kyi must seriously consider, among others, paying tribute to George Fernandes, former Indian Defense Minister, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. He deserves such respect from every Burmese individual who has worked for democracy and human rights.

Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. His general research interests include political transition, democratization, human rights, ethnic conflict and identity politics. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar. He has written numerous academic (peer-reviewed) and nonacademic analytical articles on the politics of Burma and Asia that have been widely published internationally.

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