Burmese Days

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.

When the generals in Rangoon (Yangon) suppressed a popular uprising in 1988, overturned the NLD’s overwhelming electoral victory, shot students, and arrested the new democratically elected leaders, India’s government initially reacted as most Indians would have wanted. For many years, India was unambiguously on the side of democracy, freedom, and human rights in Burma – not only rhetorically, like the regime’s Western critics, but also in more tangible ways. It offered asylum to fleeing students, allowed them to operate their resistance movement within India (with some financial help), and supported a pro-democratic newspaper and a radio station.