Why India offers tepid response to Burma's release of Suu Kyi
In its relationship with Burma (Myanmar), India is caught between its commitment to principles of democracy and its desire to counter China's rising power in the region.
New Delhi, India
On his recent visit here, President Obama lustily praised Indians for their democratic ways. But he also wagged his finger at India’s cozy ties with military-ruled Burma (Myanmar), telling lawmakers “that with increased power comes increased responsibility” to speak out on human rights and democracy.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Aung San Suu Kyi released
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“As the world's two largest democracies, we must also never forget that the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others. Indians know this, for it is the story of your nation,” Obama said.
Many Indians were, to put it mildly, unimpressed. They point out that the story of their nation – and its relations with its eastern neighbor – is also shaped by the same geopolitics that brought Obama to India, namely a fear of Chinese domination of Asia. As long as China seeks to extend its reach into Burma, so India will engage with Burma, whoever holds the levers of power.
IN PICTURES: Aung San Suu Kyi released
In addition, India covets Burma’s energy resources and wants to secure a lawless, nearly 1,000-mile land border that abuts northeast India, where ethnic-based insurgent groups have operated for decades on both sides of the border. In recent years, Burma has stepped up cooperation against Indian-based insurgents, say security analysts.
These calculations explain India’s muted reaction to the Nov. 13 release of Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who elicited praise from Obama and other Western leaders. While the same leaders condemned Burma’s recent elections as an undemocratic sham, India has sided with Asian countries in welcoming them as a step forward. It goes out of its way to avoid direct criticism of the junta, whose supreme leader, General Than Shwe, was here in July.
Realpolitik trumps principle
India’s distance from Ms. Suu Kyi is a 180-degree turn from its previous stance. Until the early 1990s, it openly backed the opposition led by Suu Kyi, who attended college in India in the 1960s and later drew on Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent struggle. But Indian leaders feared being shut out of Burma, which was courting China and other East Asian countries, and switched sides.
Such realpolitik stirs regret among Indian intellectuals who identify with Suu Kyi’s struggle and advocate a more principled foreign policy that befits the world’s largest democracy. They recoiled in horror at India’s tepid response to Burma’s violent suppression in 2007 of monk-led protests against fuel prices. Bloody images of the crackdown resonated in India, the birthplace of Buddhism.
But the public rebuke delivered by Obama, and carried live on television, didn’t strengthen the hand of idealists, says Sumit Ganguly, a political scientist at Indiana University and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi. “Because he said it in parliament, it actually had the opposite effect” of stirring debate, he says.