Did India betray democracy in Burma?

Beneath the diplomatic platitudes and the soundbites for the media, it soon became clear that Ms Suu Kyi was not entirely happy

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The Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi flew into India this week, her first visit for almost 25 years. As someone who spent much time here as a schoolgirl and later as a student at Lady Shri Ram College, she said was happy that some parts of Delhi were still recognisable to her. "It's good to be back in India," she added.

But beneath the diplomatic platitudes and the easy-on-the ear soundbites for the media, it soon became clear that Ms Suu Kyi was not entirely happy. Until the early 90s, successive Indian governments had supported the Burmese democracy movement in its struggle against the military junta (and provided a safe haven for thousands of Burmese who fled the country.)  In 1993, Ms Suu Kyi was named as the recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding.

But then, soon after, as part of its 'Look East' policy, India decided that its eastern neighbour was too big and too important to ignore and that realpolitik had to become before principle. As a result, India started engaging with the Burma's military rulers, competing for energy deals and dampening down its criticism of human rights abuses.

In the aftermath of the Saffron Revolution in September 2007, for instance, when dozens of Buddhist monks and citizens were killed and hundreds arrested, while much of the world condemned the violence and called for tougher sanctions, India issued a statement saying it was "closely monitoring the situation". Indian army chief Gen Deepak Kapoor said the regime's crackdown was an "internal matter".

Perhaps one of the most notorious incidents came in the summer of 2010 when India hosted the head of the Burmese junta, Gen Than Shwe, who visited Delhi and took an obligatory side-trip to Bodh Gaya, the site of Buddha's enlightenment.  The "realists" in the Indian government said it was important to counter China's growing influence over Burma, but as Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK, said at the time: "It would make far more sense for them to back the democracy movement. They are not going to beat China, and the generals are not going to be in Burma forever."

One of the events Ms Suu Kyi attended this week was the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture, which the Nobel laureate had been invited to deliver. It was a fitting honour, coming almost 20 years after she had been given the award that she had been unable to collect in person because she was either under house arrest or else feared the junta would not let her return to the country if she left on an overseas trip.

It appeared as if half of Delhi was out last night at the Vigyan Bhavan auditorium to hear her speak. Among the Indian dignitaries present was Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress Party and chair of the memorial committee. In her opening remarks, she told Ms Suu Kyi: "You have kept the spirit of Gandhi alive in your own country."

For her part Ms Suu Kyi, dressed in yellow silk and her back as ramrod-straight as ever, did not fail to return the compliment. In a moving delivery, she told how during her long years of incarceration she had taken support from the writings of both Gandhi and Nehru, drawing particular attention to Nehru's The Discovery of India, which he wrote between 1942-46 while imprisoned by the British authorities at Ahmednagar Fort.

"During the years of house arrest, I felt closer to those I could connect with politically and culturally, even if they were figures from the past...more than those I knew personally," she said.

But at the end of her speech, watched by Mrs Gandhi and her heir apparent Rahul Gandhi, who was in the audience, Ms Suu Kyi took up the matter of India's failed support for her movement. "Since yesterday, I have heard two words, 'expectations' and 'disappointment', and I have thought about them very carefully," she said.

She explained that she could afford to bear neither expectations or disappointments, but she added: "I was saddened to see that we had drawn away from India, or India had drawn away from us during our very difficult days." Her criticism of the Indian "realists" was all the more forceful for the understated nature in which it was made.

India, of course, is hardly the first country to put national interest ahead of principle when it comes to matters of foreign policy and US President Barack Obama was perhaps the last person to be lecturing India - as he did when he spoke in the Indian parliament in November 2010 - that with "increased power comes increased responsibility".

Yet at the same time, as Ms Suu Kyi said, India knows better than any nation the sacrifices required to secure freedom. She said her country had not yet achieved full democracy and asked India to walk with Burma on its journey. "We hope that through this difficult last stage, the people of India will stand by us and walk with us as we proceed along the path which they had taken many years before,” she said. "Friendship between two countries should be friendship between people, and not friendship between the two governments. Governments come and go, and that’s what democracy is all about."

There is an additional irony to all of this. In recent months, Ms Suu Kyi has been learning the hard way about the challenge in making the transition from an almost saintly opposition activist to a working politician with every day political concerns and issues. In particular, she has faced mounting criticism from human rights activists for failing to speak out over the persecution of the Rohingya muslim community that has been the target of repeated attack. Many within the democracy movement have said this community should leave the country. The opposition leader has also faced a grassroots rebellion from within her party for perceived "authoritarianism".

In the coming months, Ms Suu Kyi will be faced by other, similar challenges. It will be interesting to see whether she too opts for realism over principle.

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