New Delhi: Myanmar opposition leader and pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on Wednesday renewed a desire for better relations between her country and India as she made a strong appeal for India’s support to achieve democracy in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi, on her first India visit in 25 years, described Indian independence icons Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as two leaders she identified most closely with when she delivered the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi—one of the high points of her visit.
The comments come as Myanmar—located in a strategically important region close to India and China—is making the shift to democracy after years of army rule. Suu Kyi, who spent most the past two decades in detention, is being seen as the future president of the country when the next polls are held in 2015.
“I would like to express my deep appreciation for the leaders of India who became my most precious friends because their lives helped me find my way through uncharted terrain (during her struggle for democracy in Myanmar),” she said in her speech.
On India’s decision to engage with the military government in Myanmar earlier, she said she “was saddened to feel that we had drawn away from India or rather India had drawn away from us during our very difficult days, but I always had faith in the lasting friendship between our two countries.”
Suu Kyi added: “We have not yet achieved the goal of democracy and we are still trying and we hope that in this last and most difficult phase, the people of India will stand by us and walk by us as we proceed along the path that they were able to proceed many years before us.”
Analysts in India described her speech as candid and factual. “It shows the comfort level she has with India that she can speak with such candour,” said C.U. Bhaskar, analyst with the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank in New Delhi. “It does happen that friends cannot always engage as they would like to and that is because of circumstances.”
Once a staunch supporter of Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, India changed tack in the mid 1990s and started engaging the military regime when it realized its security interests were being affected. India shares a 1,640km border with Myanmar, mainly along its restive northeast that is plagued by a myriad insurgences. According to Indian government officials, India engaged the junta to make sure that Myanmar cracked down on militant groups that staged attacks in northeast India before fleeing back to bases in Myanmar.
“China was also increasing its influence there, and it’s because of these reasons that India engaged with the military regime. We weren’t comfortable doing that but ultimately we have to deal with whatever government is in power. So I think she was being realistic,” said former Indian ambassador to Myanmar, G. Parthasarthy.
Suu Kyi’s comments are being seen against the backdrop of her visits to Thailand, Norway, Britain and the US before her visit to India, a country she acknowledged had inspired her. On Wednesday, she recalled her days as a student in New Delhi in the 1960s where her mother served as an ambassador. Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San—regarded as Myanmar’s independence hero—was a personal friend of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, she said.
Suu Kyi is in India at the invitation of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi. Chief among Suu Kyi’s engagements on Wednesday was a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during which they discussed the political changes in Myanmar, Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry, said.
In a series of unexpected political reforms since November 2010, Myanmar’s military rulers have organized elections, released Suu Kyi from house arrest, allowed her to meet international leaders including US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and travel out of the country, besides easing curbs on the media and the Internet.
Myanmar’s nominally elected president Thein Sein has addressed press conferences and given interviews—a far cry from the days when Myanmar was administered by reclusive generals. Myanmar’s new government has also freed the economy to allow foreign investors in.
India extended a $500 million credit line to Myanmar during Thein Sein’s visit to India last October. This year, in May, during Singh’s visit to Myanmar, the two governments signed 12 pacts covering an array of issues including security, trade and transport—a gesture seen as supportive of the nascent pro-democracy moves in the country.
During her four-day trip, Suu Kyi is also due to visit Parliament and will inspect rural development projects. On Friday, she will visit the Lady Shri Ram college in New Delhi, from where she graduated with a degree in politics.