Aung San Suu Kyi has criticised the financial angle of India’s engagement with the Burmese junta during an interview with an Indian news agency.
The opposition leader told the Press Trust of India yesterday that the world’s largest democracy should be doing more to pressure the ruling generals, who last month held controversial elections which Suu Kyi was barred from competing in.
“We would like India to play a more active role in trying to help in the process of democratisation of Burma and I would like the Indian government to engage more with us…who are working more with democracy,” she said.
The Nobel Laureate, herself an Indian resident for two years when she studied there prior to returning to Burma, did not say however that the Indian government should stop engaging with the Burmese junta, but was critical of its growing investment.
“India’s role in previous decades has been aided firmly by its reputation as the biggest democracy and it has taken pride in this, but, perhaps, more attention has turned towards the commercial side.”
India had been enormously supportive of the pro-democracy movement in Burma, even allegedly providing funding to anti-government armed groups such as the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF).
But this all changed in the late 1990s after the Narashima Rao administration seemingly did an about turn, taking the country from outspoken opposition to the military, through ‘engagement’, and towards the current warm relations – largely a result of strategic and economic interests.
This will have likely distressed Suu Kyi, whose father, General Aung San, was among the Burmese independence icons who developed close ties with India, seen then as a natural ally given its own democratic political culture.
Test cases of the current relationship range from a new manufacturing plant for Indian vehicle giant Tata Motors in Burma, to the inking of major hydropower projects. But perhaps most tellingly was India’s alleged betrayal of around 40 ethnic freedom fighters who were offered asylum on the Indian Andaman islands, only to be detained, and some killed.
Ultimately, Suu Kyi is asking India’s leaders to look beyond the race with China for economic supremacy in the region, which was typified by the lavish welcome given to junta chief Than Shwe when he visited India earlier in the year, controversially paying homage to Indian independence icon, Mahatma Gandhi.
With bilateral trade at around $US1 billion per year, and India’s important role in Burma’s soaring pulse exports, the financial incentives for both governments are clearly attractive.
Added to this is India’s interest in developing the hydro-electric potential of the Chindwin river in western Burma, which runs close to their shared border. Plans have also been mooted to connect India’s isolated northeastern states to the Bay of Bengal, with a ship route along the dredged Kaladan river given the go ahead earlier in the year.
But despite such robust economic relations, Suu Kyi will see India’s dynamic democracy as more fertile ground for mustering local support.