Can India Push Burma on the Road to Liberty?

Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian head of state in 25 years to make a visit to Myanmar (formerly Burma), the eastern neighbor that has for 50 years been ruled by a repressive military junta. The visit was both a welcome gesture of reconnection and a reminder of a wasted half-century in relations between two newly independent states (Burma was decolonized in 1948, a year after India) that share a border of more 1,500 kilometers (900 miles).

The meeting of top representatives of the world's largest democracy and an authoritarian but liberalizing regime was also a reminder of how the ideology of the nation-state -- appearing in this region in response to colonization, straining against local traditions of feudalism, despotism and dynastic rule to fashion a secure transition to democracy, and eventually spawning a fresh jostle for power and influence in an often arbitrarily broken-up subcontinent -- has served to disrupt age-old civilizational links in South Asia, probably for good. Realists would also say that the rapprochement was geopolitically inevitable, given Burma's vast reserves of natural resources (including natural gas) and China's growing influence over its economy, a reward for a no-questions-asked engagement with the junta. A team of prominent Indian businessmen accompanied Singh on his visit, seeking new markets in areas such as telecommunications and manufacturing.

The door to Singh's visit was opened by a series of reforms over the last 18 months by Myanmar's president, Thein Sein, that led to the release of many political prisoners, a road map for a return to democracy and the party of the country's foremost dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, being readmitted into national politics. Myanmar has ceased to be the pariah state that it was for several decades; the U.S., too, eased sanctions on investments and appointed an ambassador after 22 years. In April, Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, contested by-elections for 46 seats in the 664-seat parliament, winning 43 in a landslide.

Last week, Suu Kyi, who was freed in 2010 after more than 15 years under house arrest, left the country for the first time in 24 years, having been given an assurance that she would be allowed to return. Among the many stops on her travels was Oslo, where she belatedly accepted the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her in 1991. There remains a concern, though, that these concessions are merely the price agreed upon by Myanmar's junta to keep its hold and to resuscitate the country's ravaged economy.

In "Delhi Takes First Step For Great Leap To Myanmar" in The Telegraph of Kolkata, probably India's most readable English daily, Ashis Chakrabarti reported from Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar, on May 29:

What India and Myanmar initiated here today could change history and geography not only for the two neighbours but for a region where China’s domination has long been taken for granted.

The agreements signed between the two countries today could go a long way to revive a relationship that broke down completely when, following the military coup in Myanmar in 1962, Indian businesses were nationalised and Indian entrepreneurs expelled en masse. The vacuum that followed further disconnected the lives of millions of people living along the long border between the two countries.

In all the agreements that were signed today, the thrust is clearly on re-connecting or simply connecting what has remained disconnected for nearly half a century. Whether it is building roads, ports, power facilities or telecommunications and opening up India’s Northeast to a new world of opportunities, it has all the makings of a brave new beginning.

Sunil Bharti Mittal [the CEO of the Indian telecommunications company Bharti Airtel, which recently made a big acquisition in Africa] , who is leading a team of top Indian businessmen, put the whole exercise in perspective. Talking about the team’s meeting with Myanmar president, U Thein Sein, which lasted more than an hour, he said: “No, we haven’t missed the bus in Myanmar (to China). This is a country that is happening only now (with the democratic reforms).”

And in India Today, the Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor supplied an overview of India-Myanmar relations and some thoughts about what lay ahead:

As elections in 2011 (and a bye-election in 2012) have both ratified and subtly altered the consequences of three decades of military rule in Myanmar, formerly (and to many nationalists, still) called Burma, it's time to take a fresh look at the country which our Prime Minister has just visited.

For many years, India was unambiguously on the side of democracy, freedom and human rights in Burma – and in ways more tangible than the rhetoric of the regime’s Western critics. But then reality intruded. India’s strategic rivals, China and Pakistan, began to cultivate the Burmese generals. Major economic and geopolitical concessions were offered to both suitors. [..] The clincher came when large deposits of natural gas were found in Burma, which it was clear would not be available to an India deemed hostile to the junta. India realised that its rivals were gaining ground in Delhi’s own backyard while New Delhi was losing out on new economic opportunities. The price of pursuing a moral foreign policy simply became too high.

There is no doubt that the country’s military rulers are cynically hoping to use her participation in the parliamentary process to bolster the illusion of freedom while continuing to exert real control over what goes on in their country. While China has always been much more comfortable dealing with an uncompromising military regime which could be guaranteed to uphold its interests, India’s embrace of the junta has always been a more reluctant one, based on the compulsions of a common geography rather than the affinities of shared ideals.

But let's not assume that realpolitik and self-interest are the only principles on which foreign policy or political action must be pursued. If that were the case, there would be no frame to understand the heroic struggles and many sacrifices made for the cause of Burmese democracy by Suu Kyi, the subject of a good recent biography by Peter Popham. The historian Ramachandra Guha focused in the Telegraph not on the junta's engagement with India, but on the relationship of Suu Kyi's nonviolent resistance with a similar tradition in Indian politics represented by Mahatma Gandhi. Guha wrote:

In the 1970s, Michael Aris [Suu Kyi's late husband, and a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism] was invited to the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla. Scouring the institute’s library, Suu Kyi renewed her interest in Indian nationalism. In a monograph she wrote for the IIAS, she praised Rammohan Roy, who had “set the tone for the Indian Renaissance”. Later nationalists ensured that “social, religious and political aspects of reform should move together”. Of Indian thinkers, Suu Kyi admired Rabindranath Tagore (whose poems and songs she still quotes) and, most of all, Gandhi, who reconciled tradition and modernity in a manner she found most appealing. “In spite of his deeply ingrained Hinduism”, she remarked, “Gandhi’s intellectual flexibility made him accept those elements of western thought which fitted into the ethical and social scheme he considered desirable.”

A close friend of hers once remarked, “Gandhi is Suu Kyi’s role model and hero.” In his book, Popham picks up on this point, comparing his subject repeatedly with the Mahatma. [...]

The comparison is natural, not forced. As I see it, there are at least six respects in which Suu Kyi’s career parallels that of the Mahatma: 1. a leavening of politics with morality, which comes in both cases from a religious faith, which is devout without being dogmatic; 2. a commitment to non-violence in word and in deed; 3. a willingness to reach out to one’s rivals and opponents; 4. an openness to ideas and innovations from other cultures; 5. an utter fearlessness, with death holding no dangers for them; 6. great personal charm, a feature of which is a sense of humour.

For Guha, "Suu Kyi is far closer to Gandhi, and a much better Gandhian, than any Indian now living."

And in a long essay called "Burmese Days" in the New York Review of Books, Christian Caryl advocated a skeptical attitude to the recent political thaw in Myanmar:

Burmese dissidents are quick to point out the limits of the new tolerance. The political prisoners released from jail are not the beneficiaries of an amnesty; under current law, they can be rearrested at any moment for offenses to be defined virtually at the whim of the government. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of dissidents remain in prison. Censorship has been merely curtailed, not eliminated.

Indeed, it could well be that Burma’s new pseudo-civilian leaders are aiming less for checks-and-balances democracy than a modernized authoritarianism in which they continue to pull the strings—perhaps modeled on the prosperous but despotic nearby states of Malaysia or Singapore. Of course, one can argue that even this option would represent a huge advance for a country whose astonishingly incompetent military rulers have succeeded, in the course of their fifty years at the helm, in reducing one of Asia’s richest countries to one of its poorest.

In one of the greatest Indian novels, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's "Srikanta," the eponymous protagonist, a weak-willed young man who has just had his heart broken, heads by ship to the old Burmese capital of Rangoon (now Yangon) to start a new life. The Burmese scenes in the book are based on Sarat Chandra's own experiences as a young man in Burma in the early years of the 20th century, at a time when Rangoon was the second-busiest immigration port in the world. But these aren't scenes that any modern Indian writer has been able to update because of Burma's retreat from the world. If Myanmar's ruling elites prove to be serious about opening a road for a return to democracy, the resultant softening of borders would be a step into the future that would also be a step back into the past.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Chandrahas Choudhury at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Max Berley at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.