Very often, Myanmar gets bad press in the West and elsewhere. After all, it is, so to speak, a “bad boy”: the lack of democracy and a kleptocratic bunch of generals are on top of the list of bad qualities. It needs a breather.
When Myanmar’s civilian president, Thein Sein, makes his maiden visit to India, the last thing our leaders should do is to deliver him a lecture on the merits of democracy. It is natural for India, the world’s most populous democracy, to wish all its neighbours democratic success. This feeling, however, should be tempered. Myanmar’s history since 1935 is complex, and military rule, while unfortunate, has a context in which it appeared. At one time, insurgency and the danger of fragmentation threatened the unity of the country. These may or may not be justifications for the kind of political system the country has. But that is a problem for the people of Myanmar to sort out.
There are signs that the country, and its rulers, are moving in the direction of democracy. This must be encouraged, but with care. Experience with other countries—and Iran is a notable example in this regard—shows that very often these countries feel democracy is the jemmy by which their doors can be prised open. Mostly, such pressure is counterproductive and backfires. In Iran, this had put the reformist leadership on the back foot and accusations of “selling out” flew thick and fast. Whatever democratic gains had been made were reversed.
It is important for the world, and certainly for India, that such mistakes are not repeated. If anything, the new president has shown ample signs of wanting to relax the political atmosphere in his country. No less a person than Aung San Suu Kyi has said as much. Press censorship is being gradually relaxed. Trade unions can now be established. And there are signs that political prisoners may be released. While all this should be welcomed, India should focus on more substantive bilateral issues—economic and political—and not be sidetracked by issues of good form.
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