Aung San Suu Kyi pulled no punches at Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi when she delivered the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture on November 14, a full 19 years after she received the Nehru award for International Understanding. Speaking to a full house, which included Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, the Myanmar opposition leader vented her displeasure, but without rancour, at India’s long honeymoon with Myanmar’s military junta.
For Suu Kyi, India’s inspirational history ended with Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. Her tributes to both were rich and personal, but there wasn’t a single reference to the newer crop of Indian leaders.
Not even a reference to Rajiv Gandhi who, as prime minister, had supported Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement in the late 1980s, a policy that was derailed by P. V. Narasimha Rao (1991-96) as India’s head of government.
Her disappointment was evident, but Suu Kyi has repeatedly said she didn’t expect support from anyone. She emphasised that transnational relations were between peoples, underlining that governments, after all, were subject to change.
“I was saddened to see that we had drawn away from India, or India had drawn away from us during our difficult days,” the National League for Democracy leader said towards the end of her lecture.
For a country that prides itself as being the world’s largest democracy, India gladly hosted former General Than Shwe of Myanmar at Gandhi’s samadhi in Rajghat.
Hard-headed national interest, the argument went, dictated India’s foreign policy and it was a must for New Delhi to engage with first the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and its later mutation, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in Myanmar.
There is only the word of the government of India that they gently raised with the military junta the issue of democracy and the incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi in the long years of her house arrest.
Myanmar and Suu Kyi squarely raise the issue: Is there any space for morality in India’s foreign policy? Can national interest be combined with morality? Should India even be talking about morality in the first place?
For many diplomatic practitioners, India’s anti-colonial positions in a bygone era appear dinosaur-like, a time period when India punched above its weight in the international arena, quite oblivious to the hard realities of the world. India’s own anti-colonial struggle, along with Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideology, went a long way in carving out a foreign policy space for India that often ended up with Delhi supporting the underdog.
Few nations can refrain from taking positions on issues of universal concern like the denial of democratic rights to an entire nation. Unlike in Sri Lanka, where the Manmohan Singh government had to bend to ally with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and vote against Colombo at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2012, there were no such pressures when it came to Myanmar.
It is easy to say that foreign policy must flow from national interest. But, in India’s desire to help the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the military training extended to militants in the 1980s created the monster of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That was clearly not in India’s national interest.
In April 2003, India’s Parliament, through a unanimous resolution, called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops operating in Iraq without an explicit mandate from the United Nations Security Council. India must be one of the few countries that passed such a resolution, recognising the strong sentiments of its people against the invasion of Iraq. The moral underpinnings of such a resolution were apparent.
In the case of Myanmar and Suu Kyi, the battle for democracy is still not over. Whatever may have happened in the past, India has taken a small step in restoring the confidence of democrats in Myanmar by inviting Suu Kyi to Delhi.
Will this visit be the beginning of a new engagement, with India using its leverage with the Myanmar government to ensure that real, lasting democracy is inaugurated in that country?
Amit Baruah is the South Asia Studies Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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