Guest Column

Is India Still too Cautious with Suu Kyi?

By M. Kim 30 November 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi came and went. For the Burmese community in New Delhi it was a phenomenon, a moment to cherish, perhaps for a long time. We felt a sense of renewed energy, of direction amongst us.

Under Suu Kyi’s leadership, Burmese people both inside and outside the country can pave the way for rebuilding the long-lost democracy it once had—in other words, the building of a new Burma.

Putting speculation to an end regarding her oft-touted “expectations and disappointment with India,” Suu Kyi said in her Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture that Burma cannot indulge in either.

She candidly said that she was saddened that India withdrew support during difficult times. The same response was given to the Indian media regarding her reaction to New Delhi’s approach towards her country in recent years.

On a practical note, Suu Kyi maintained that Burma had no right to demand support from other countries—that it was no longer time to dwell on the past but instead to move ahead. As Burma has yet to achieve a full democratic transition, she hoped that India would stand by her homeland.

Reiterating historical ties, the 67-year-old emphasized the special links between the independence movements of the two countries as well as her personal connection with India.

Motivated by leaders of the Indian independence moment, Suu Kyi told the audience that Burma’s struggle for democracy was firmly rooted in the principle that non-violence that was an effective political force even against the most powerful opponent.

A thousand children dressed in colorful ethnic costumes turned out to receive the opposition leader at Oxford Secondary School on Nov. 16. But she was immediately whisked away amidst tight security after a 30-minute speech. The media—including Indian, Burmese and other international reporters—was not permitted to enter the venue by security officials.

Once again, India failed to seize the moment.

There was no better moment to highlight the cause of the Burmese people to the local population, who know little of their eastern neighbor. Most Burmese refugees and asylum-seekers reside in this area of southwest New Delhi and face all sorts of problems, including sexual harassment, physical assault and discrimination. Therefore, media coverage of the presence of the democracy icon could have been a great opportunity to build links with the Burmese community.

This makes us question whether India remains hesitant to offer support.

It was already early November when confirmation of Suu Kyi’s visit reached us. We immediately started running from pillar to post around various government offices to get information, especially regarding invitations to her prestigious memorial lecture on Nov. 14.

Persistent begging of the officials concerned eventually brought results and we managed to collect around 170 tickets to the Vigyan Bhawan Convention Centre from the Nehru Memorial Fund office. From our rear balcony we listened intently as Suu Kyi addressed the auspicious gathering, attended by some of India’s most important political figures, former bureaucrats and diplomats.

The days that led up to the arrival of Suu Kyi and her five-day stay were full of eager anticipation—to be near her, see her and talk to her. That was a dream and the formal reception certainly was a landmark—a truly unique moment.

Nevertheless, many believe that Suu Kyi’s visit will not herald substantive change in relations between India and Burma. As much as she emphasized her personal ties, not much seems set to evolve other than sustaining ongoing bilateral cooperation and a government-to-government approach.

There was disappointment for those of us who have struggled hard to keep the Burmese democracy movement in India alive, and to draw the attention of the Indian establishment. The way arrangements were handled during her important visit made it seem like our efforts had not been recognized.

Many Indian friends, well-wishers and supporters who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our community were also not acknowledged. It seemed like those who came out of the woodwork to praise Suu Kyi and have photographs taken with her were not who had expressed solidarity and support during difficult times.

As Suu Kyi said in her moving lecture, “Politics is about people and people are about relationships, whether at a private or public level.” People-to-people contact between Burma and India is not something that should go missing given the personal, historical and political ties shared between the two countries.

Moreover, it may be remembered that relations between New Delhi and Naypyidaw cannot be sustained unless ordinary people in both nations partake in building the bond.

M. Kim is Burmese activist and coordinator at the Burma Centre Delhi who has lived in India for over 15 years. The views expressed her are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy. He can be contacted at [email protected].