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Flowerless Insein
The Indian policy to view Aung San Suu Kyi's incarceration in a dreaded prison as an "internal matter" of Burma will backfire.

By Sreeram Chaulia

28 June 2003: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the hope of Burma and the most famous wearer of jasmine flowers in the world, has been interred in the dreaded Insein prison after a violent clampdown launched on pro-democracy activists by state-sponsored militias in May. Insein is Burma’s "Lubyanka", a "special jail" outside Yangon where political prisoners are systematically tortured and broken down by the military junta, the dead house where hundreds of National League for Democracy (NLD) workers have perished from starvation, disease and abuse for the last twelve years.



Believed to be crammed with as many as ten thousand inmates at any given time, Insein is perennially short of bare essential supplies. Paucity of syringe needles has generated repeated HIV AIDS-epidemics. Paucity of clean water has led to mass dysentery deaths. Paucity of space is an incentive to daily rapes and stabbings. If at all anything is available in plenty, it is barbed electric wire, iron chains, manacles and other diabolical weapons to inflict physical pain on detainees.


I doubt if Daw Suu Kyi will be allowed to adorn her hair with fragrant jasmines in Insein because everything in this confined penitentiary runs by writ of bribes and espionage. Perform a favour for the guards and maybe you can get three square meals a day. Since oiling the palms of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) would lower the dignity of democracy fighters, the latter have universally preferred death to ingratiating jailers. But then, Razali Ismail, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy, says that she is “well and in good spirits.” Compared to the rank-and-file NLD workers, the junta has tended to treat her like a VIP throughout her decade-long house arrest ordeals. Ismail “did not see any signs of injury on her…no scratches on her face, no broken arm”.


The coarse and inhuman conduct reserved for ordinary captives will obviously not be meted out to someone as high profile as Daw Suu Kyi, but then it would be a lie to claim she has not suffered much for standing up to dictatorship and injustice. In 1999, her husband Michael Aris was in the advanced stages of prostate cancer in England. He requested permission to visit his wife one last time, but the military rulers denied entry, arguing that there are no appropriate facilities in the country to tend to a dying man. They suggested instead that Suu Kyi visit him in England, hoping to exile her permanently and stoke propaganda that she is a “foreign woman” who leads a scandalous lifestyle in the West. She refused, fearing that leaving the country would result in banishment. Aris passed away without seeing her. Sacrifice is in her blood, made votive by the scented jasmines that symbolically defy Burma’s harsh fate and her own.


In his spare time, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee pens Hindi poetry hailing heroic women studded with aromatic flowers who will inherit the earth and bring peace. Not unaware of the tribulations Daw Suu Kyi and the Burmese people are being subjected to right in India’s immediate neighbourhood, he and his foreign office have failed to issue even a murmur of protest on the latest grotesque twist at Insein. Navtej Sarna, the Indian external affairs spokesman, laconically commented, “we are watching the situation in Myanmar carefully…solutions to internal problems must come from within”. Poetry and politics don’t mix for Vajpayee. Poetry and so-called national interests are even more incompatible in "realist" India.


Trade and cultural exchange between Burma and India date back to the age of Emperor Ashoka (Third Century BC). Buddhism traveled through eastern India to Burma. From 1885 to 1937, Burma was a province of British India, a period of administrative harmonisation between the two countries. During the freedom struggle against colonial rule, the national leaders of the two countries developed close political links which stood the test of time for years after Independence. Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu shared a common worldview of nonalignment and India helped the newly-independent Burma tide over crisis after crisis. In the Fifties, Nehru extended military assistance to U Nu, saving his "Rangoon Government" from advancing insurgents. Daw Khin Kyi, Suu Kyi’s mother, was ambassador to India in the 1960s and her daughter studied at Delhi’s Lady Shriram College. Over the years, Burma has acquired in the Indian mind an emotional nostalgic image immortalised by the 1949 Bollywood classic Patanga, where the hero croons into the telephone to his beloved- Ham Burma ki galiyon mein, aur tum ho Dehradun (I gallivant the lanes of Burma while you stay unhappy in Dehradun – an Indian hill station).


After the post-1988 pro-democracy uprising caught the Burmese military in a bind and led to the annulment of NLD’s election victory, India was the first and only neighbour to clearly and openly take the side of Daw Suu Kyi. Rajiv Gandhi, who knew Suu Kyi from her student days in Delhi, instructed border troops to not deter genuine Burmese refugees and dissenters seeking asylum in India. Ubiquitous ‘Burma colonies’ appeared in major Indian cities and public sympathy for the NLD was on prominent display on the streets.


Around 1992, foreign-policy pundit J.N.Dixit initiated a new "Look East policy" for India that would steer the locus of Indian external interests from the problematic northwestern side towards the economically-promising Southeast Asia. Geostrategically, India was announcing to China that its interests stretched into the hitherto neglected Asia Pacific and that it will compete with Beijing’s predominance in that region. China was inching ever closer to India’s sphere of influence in South Asia via friendly Burma and Indian intelligence was rife with reports that Pakistan and China were infiltrating arms, drugs and insurgents into Northeast India through the Burmese border. Under these circumstances, India reasoned that a "working relationship" with the Burmese State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) was essential, no matter what the moral qualms were.


Dixit’s initial foray paved the way for India-Burma cooperation in border controls, resumed trade, business joint ventures and even extradition of anti-junta figures resident in India (in 1997, twelve Burmese defectors who joined with pro-democracy groups based on the Indo-Burma border were secretly deported by Indian military intelligence agents). In 2001, Jaswant Singh, Vajpayee’s first foreign minister, inaugurated the "India-Myanmar Friendship Road" linking the town of Moreh in Manipur to central Myanmar and then Mandalay.


This year, India, Burma and Thailand are discussing a road that would connect all three countries as well as a deep-sea port in Daiwe, southern Burma to facilitate Indian and Thai ships to refuel here instead of waiting to cross the Malacca Straits. A pro-India faction within SLORC has been identified in the Burmese junta, led by Vice-Senior General Maung Aye and foreign minister U Win Aung The deepening of such political ties was hailed by the Indian government as a step that would “earn a lot of goodwill from this part of the world”.


Would it really? Far from a "working relationship" premised on indefinite continuation of SLORC rule in Burma, India seems to be getting into "thick relations" department with Yangon’s bloody regime, thereby strengthening its internal terror apparatus, of which Insein is the apotheosis. Tibetans were sacrificed by Nehru in 1954 in return for Beijing’s hand of friendship, a move that ricocheted in 1962. The long-suppressed democratic aspirations of the people of Nepal have also felt betrayed by India’s recent “cautious policy” that has not questioned monarchical usurpation of power. As a reward for its ambivalence, India is being accused by the monarchical government in Kathmandu of aiding the Maoist insurgency! For Bangladeshi Hindu minorities too, India’s lackadaisical interest in the fundamentalist violence unleashed by Islamists tied to the ruling Khaleeda Zia government has come as a shock.


What kind of “goodwill” is being earned for India in Burma that will be long lasting? Can it match the goodwill of the Nehru-U Nu era? The Indian government may have awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Peace Prize in 1995 to Daw Suu Kyi as a token, but the substantial policy trend in the last decade has been a colossal let-down of the Burmese people by a myopic Delhi. In the lure of short-term benefits, India has forgotten that when democracy triumphs in Burma, its legitimisation of and connivance with SLORC will rankle and affect relations. India’s size and economic potential (twenty-three per cent of Burmese exports reach India) are often considered permanent interests that will override sentimentality when there is regime change in Rangoon, but it is instructive to note that like in most democratic polities, Burmese public opinion will inform foreign policy when Daw Suu Kyi takes over. Burmese people do not have a say in the current set-up, but one day they will, and India may have to pay a heavy price.


Nonintervention in internal affairs of other countries is a word of faith in Delhi and for a medium world power, it should be so. But nonintervention should not be translated into apathy when crimes against humanity are happening in India’s backyard. The realism that nods at flowerless Insein as an “internal affair” will boomerang.


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