There are few Indians who do not laud the fortitude and leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. The extension of her house arrest by 18 months by a court in Yangon on Tuesday is bound to elicit one predominant emotion: sadness. That sentiment, however, has little bearing with the larger challenges that India confronts in its south-eastern periphery.
Suu Kyi was sentenced to three years with hard labour for violating state security laws. This was immediately commuted to an 18-month house arrest by Than Shwe, leader of the country’s military junta. She had earlier been put on trial after an American, John Yettaw, swam across a lake to her residence.
India’s strategic adversity often foists difficult choices on it. Myanmar is no exception in this regard. The country is ruled by an entrenched military elite that is both insecure and obdurate in equal measure. There are historical reasons for that behaviour. When it gained independence from Britain in 1948, Burma (as it was then known) was more a nation and less a state. Confronting multiple secessionist movements and battling communism left the country’s governing apparatus skewed towards its military wing. When the Cold War ended and the great transitions to democracy began, it was unprepared. The Suu Kyi saga is a poisonous legacy of that past.
It is said that India is locked in a fight for influence with China in Myanmar. The question is what is wrong with that? When Western pundits decry India’s “amoral” behaviour in dealing with a military regime, they forget that they are legatees of a tradition, dating all the way back to the Middle Ages, of realist foreign policies that make no distinction between democrats and dictators. Why must India conform to their newfound notions of morality?
That, of course, does not take away the fact that the Suu Kyi affair poses a dilemma for India: Indians at large favour her release while policymakers have to chose between pressing for her release and losing bigger battles. A utilitarian would say make a small sacrifice for the benefit of the much larger majority. That is a painful choice, if it can be called a choice at all. India should tell the world that incessant chants of “democracy now” will only make a democratic transition in Myanmar more difficult.
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