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Step up, India

The world's largest democracy and Asian regional power must put aside short-term interests and embrace its principles to help a nonviolent, democratic movement succeed in Burma.

November 18, 2010|By Timothy Garton Ash

If we want to help pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the cause of freedom in Myanmar (also known as Burma), we must hope that India rediscovers the spirit of its better self. The world's largest democracy needs urgently to review its approach to one of the world's worst tyrannies, which squats like a toad on its very doorstep. Otherwise, it seems highly unlikely that the weak, divided opposition forces inside Burma and Western support outside can generate the leverage needed to help to success the nonviolent, negotiated revolution that the liberated heroine has again evoked. So long as Burma's generals can rely on China's strategic and commercial realpolitik, and on the trade and energy-hungry equivocation of Thailand and other ASEAN countries, the only external power that can change the balance of forces in and around Burma is India.

Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong. But a cool analysis suggests that the Burmese buck stops in New Delhi. Heavy-handed lectures to India from former colonial powers or the United States are clearly out of place and may well be counterproductive. This is not a matter of asking India to snap into line with Western policy. On the contrary, we in the West should be looking to the regional democratic giant to tell us how best to facilitate change in the miserable dictatorship next door. That is how things should work in an increasingly post-Western world. And who better to point the way than the country of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru?

Fortunately, there now are a few important Indian voices raising the necessary questions about Indian policy more authoritatively than any Western commentator can. In a recent column, Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian minister of state for external affairs and United Nations undersecretary general, recalled his country's course from perhaps excessive idealism to unprincipled soi-disant realism. Nehru was friends with Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, the leader of Burma's independence struggle. Suu Kyi herself lived and studied in New Delhi, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, India gave her and her National League for Democracy generous support.

But then India's regional rivals, China and Pakistan, began to cozy up to the Burmese regime and take advantage of its large reserves of natural gas, oil and other resources. When Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf traveled to Burma, the Indian foreign minister hastened to follow. "India turned 180 degrees," writes Tharoor. It placed its economic and geostrategic interests ahead of its sympathies and values. Particularly shocking was the Indian response — or non-response — to Burma's supremely Gandhian peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks in 2007. The Indian oil minister visited the country to sign oil and gas contracts with the military regime at the height of the protests. When the too-quickly dubbed "saffron revolution" was brutally suppressed by the regime, the Indian government contented itself with pathetic statements hoping that "all sides would resolve their issues peacefully."

Even more eloquent is the criticism by the economist and political thinker Amartya Sen. In a speech late last month, he said, "I have to say that as a loyal Indian citizen, it breaks my heart to see the prime minister of my democratic country — and one of the most humane and sympathetic political leaders in the world — engaged in welcoming the butchers from Myanmar." The problem arises, he suggests, "from a change in the political climate in India in which narrowly defined national interest — or what is taken to be national interest — gets much loyalty, and in which India's past propensity to lecture the world on global political morality is seen as a sad memory of Nehruvian naivety."

Like every democracy, India has to strike a balance between its interests and its values; or, to be more accurate, between its values and long-term interests (for India has a vital long-term interest in a prosperous, open Burma) and its short-term, narrowly conceived interests.

This is not to suggest that India should immediately join the targeted sanctions policy long adopted by the West, nor to prescribe any particular policy response. Like Suu Kyi herself, the friends of freedom in Burma, near and far, need to take a few weeks to work out what is really going on there.

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