Burmese Days

After Burma's generals suppressed a popular uprising in 1988, overturned the opposition's overwhelming electoral victory, and arrested its leaders, India’s government initially backed the country's democrats, only to succumb to Realpolitik in later years. With Burma now opening up, has that amoral foreign-policy choice been vindicated?

NEW DELHI – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Myanmar (Burma), noted largely for a memorable photo opportunity with a wan but smiling Aung San Suu Kyi, signaled a significant change in the geopolitics surrounding a land that has faced decades of isolation, sanctions, and widespread condemnation for its human-rights violations.

Twenty-one years ago, after Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) swept a general election, the results were annulled, the party’s leaders and workers were incarcerated or exiled, and two decades of ruthless – and remarkably opaque – military rule followed. This year has witnessed political opening, the release of several prominent political prisoners, and evidence of self-assertion by the nominally civilian government (headed by a former general, Thien Sein). Suu Kyi’s announcement of her intention to contest a by-election to the new parliament offers a glimmer of hope that democrats could use the fledgling political process to create something resembling genuine representative government.

Burma’s military rulers are cynically hoping to use Suu Kyi’s participation in the parliamentary process to bolster the illusion of freedom while continuing to exercise real control. But such exercises in “managed democratization” – in places as different as Iran, Indonesia, and the Soviet Union – have often surprised their would-be manipulators. It is clearly in the interests of both India and the United States to seize this opportunity. While China has always been much more comfortable dealing with a military regime, India’s embrace of the junta has been more reluctant, based on reasons of geography rather than shared ideals.

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