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        Volume 11 |Issue 46| November 23, 2012 |


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A Call from Myanmar

Salman Haidar

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took Delhi by storm. There have been few occasions in recent years to match the public outpouring and eagerness with which people flocked to her. She is a great global icon, of course, and a vast turnout for her was always on the cards.

The formal reason for her presence was to accept, finally, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award presented to her decades ago but held in abeyance as she was denied the right to leave Burma (as she called it, rather than the currently more usual Myanmar) to come here to claim it.

Her acceptance speech was an important statement of her beliefs and a revealing expression of her outstanding leadership qualities. Delhi responded to Aung San Suu Kyi's gracious presence; her tough inner core was also to be discerned. Her readiness to accept the privations and disabilities of being confined to her house for years was not flaunted, but her audience was made aware of it and of the harshness of the restrictive measures she had to experience. It was evident, too, that having been through the crucible, she was now a seasoned, confident leader, ready for the challenges ahead.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Photo: AFP

She said in Delhi, as she has often said elsewhere, that the task of restoration in her country had only begun and there was much more to be done before proper democratic functioning was restored.

When Myanmar's generals first intervened and took over their country, there was a huge outcry all over the world, nowhere stronger than in India. Especially resonant were the All India Radio bulletins beamed to an avid audience in Myanmar. This became an encouragement to the suppressed democratic opposition and an irritant to the junta that had settled in for a long stay. India's voice became progressively isolated, however, as others of Myanmar's neighbours moved towards some form of engagement with the regime.

From the start, China was cautious and reluctant to show hostility to a regime that seemed to have established itself firmly on its border, and as matters progressed China became the principal arms supplier to Myanmar and its main external partner. India began to feel uncomfortable and saw a need to maintain some links with Myanmar, whose strategic importance could not be ignored.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has led the parade of prominent US dignitaries who have visited Myanmar. This measure of attention bespeaks not ideological gratification alone at the measures of democratic restoration but also points to renewed strategic interest and thrust.

The continued rise of China and the many unresolved issues between that country and the US are having a growing impact on the Asian political configuration, and Myanmar is not far from the centre of concern. For years, when the unblinking generals ran the show with studied disregard for external opinion, the US and its partners did what they could to isolate and bear down on Myanmar.

Stringent sanctions were applied with damaging effect, so that what was once a prosperous land is today left far behind. China has become ever more closely involved in plans to develop the rich natural resources of Myanmar, its forest and mineral resources and its river potential. There could be something of a nationalistic reaction to the overwhelming Chinese presence, which would be an encouragement to others to make their presence felt. Thus as the isolation of the country eases, the strategic demands on it are taking a more testing shape.

In some Western think-tanks, India has been projected as an Asian counterweight to China. This may not be a role it has chosen for itself, but yet India's dealings with Myanmar over the last several years show awareness of the impact on its interests of the developing situation in that country. Slow normalisation in Myanmar means that the situation there and in its environs is becoming more fluid. There are new tests to be faced.

The writer is India's former Foreign Secretary.


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