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India should not Prove Gandhi Wrong & Irrelevant in Myanmar

In the wake of the widespread non-violent protest movement against the military junta by large sections of the monks and students in August and September, 2007, the Myanmar military Junta, under international pressure, gave the impression of responding at long last to international concerns over its policies. Pressure from China also played an important role in this matter.

2. It allowed Mr. Ibrahim Gambari, the UN Special Representative on Myanmar, to visit the country twice and meet not only senior officers of the Junta, including Gen. Than Shwe, but also Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader under house arrest. It appointed Col. Aung Kyi, Labour Minister, as an intermediary to interact with Suu Kyi and allowed Mr.Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, also to visit the country. It claimed to have released most of those arrested in connection with the agitation.

3. Now, confident that it has crushed the protest movement effectively and that the international focus on Myanmar is no longer as intense as it was from August to October, 2007, the Junta has once again reverted to its long-held stand that Myanmar will have democracy on its terms and in the colours decided by it and that Suu Kyi will have no role in the transition to democracy or in the governance of Myanmar as and when democracy is restored. Its interactions with her will be not on strategic issues of Myanmar’s future and its transition to democracy, but on tactical issues relating to the containment and management of the anger of its people over its policies.

4. The Chinese pressure was confined to nudging the Junta to respond to international concerns. It was not related to the people’s aspirations. The Chinese worries were and are not over the suppression of the people by the Junta, but over the likely negative impact of a worsening situation in Myanmar on its image in the months leading up to the Beijing Olympics of August, 2008. The Chinese were also worried that if the saffron revolution succeeded in Myanmar, it could next spread to Tibet. Thus, the signs of a slight opening up of the country and a more responsive Junta, which we saw in the wake of the protest movement, were a tactical move by the Junta, with a nod from Beijing, to prevent its being swept away by a combination of domestic and international storms. Now that the Junta feels that the storms have weakened and are unlikely to regain force in the near future, it is back to its unrelenting opposition to a restoration of democracy, with Suu Kyi playing a role in the transition.

5. This became evident at a press conference organised by the Junta at Naypyidaw, the new capital, on December 3, 2007. It was addressed, among others, by Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan, the Information Minister, Mr. Khin Yi, the national Police chief, and Aung Kyi, the Junta-designated intermediary with Suu Kyi. The salient points made by them were as follows:

  1. Kyaw Hsan: The protests were the work of “bogus” monks organised by exiled dissidents and the US. “Actually, the August-September protests were trivial for the whole country. It is found with sound evidence that ex-convicted bogus monks got joined with anti-government groups inside and outside the country. Those unrests and violence, not participated by the majority of the people and the majority of monks, have been put under control.” The Government would stick to its own road map to democracy. There is no timeline for completing the charter. There would be no role for Aung San Suu Kyi or her National League for Democracy (NLD). “No assistance or advice from other persons is required.” No changes to the National Convention’s work would be considered. “It is not reasonable or fair to amend those principles adopted by the delegates.”

  2. Khin Yi: The protesters had hoped to overthrow the Government. “The demonstrations and protests were planned and conspired months ahead to topple the Government.” He accused a non-governmental organisation called the Forum for Democracy in Burma of working with exiled dissidents to orchestrate the protests, and said the US Embassy had also helped train the activists. “The American Centre held a three-day training course on infiltrating and organising the public. The uprisings dissolved within a very short time frame simply because the general public did not take part and our security forces were able to make pre-emptive strikes.”

  3. Aung Kyi: His three meetings with Suu Kyi had yielded “positive developments,” but he declined to elaborate.

6. While international organisations, media and elite have gone silent, supporters of the pro-democracy movement in the US have continued to keep the focus on Myanmar and its Junta. A special hearing on the subject was held by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom at Washington DC on the same day on which the Junta had organised its press conference. The hearing was addressed by Rev. Ashin Nayaka, of the International Burmese Monks’ Organisation, who is now a visiting Fellow at the Columbia University, Mr. Aung Din, Executive Director of the US Campaign for Burma, and Mr. Jared Genser, President of human rights group Freedom Now. The salient points of their presentations were as follows:

  1. Ashin Nayaka: “Myanmar’s Buddhist monks are prepared to face another bloody confrontation with the ruling military government if the international community fails to force the Generals to accept democratic reforms. “Monks were a “symbol of hope” for reforms in Myanmar but were “forcibly disrobed, assaulted and killed” by the military Government. “If this continues unaddressed, further bloody confrontation is unavoidable. The very existence of monastic life is being destroyed by the evil military regime and it will face bloodshed again, if the international community, including the UN Security Council, cannot find a collective and effective way to stop this evil regime from killings and arrests.” He had been working closely with U Gambira, the leader of the Alliance of All Burma Buddhist Monks and key leader of the September protests arrested by the military government last month. He expressed regret that pressure by the international community on the military government had eased even as serious questions remained over the number of monks forcibly disrobed, imprisoned and killed following the protests. “Where has the global outcry gone? This should be of grave concern for all governments worldwide. This is a moral crisis that Americans must stand for.”

  2. Aung Din: The US should appoint a full-time sanctions coordinator for Myanmar as it did in the late 1990’s against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s regime accused of genocide. This would enable coordination of global sanctions against Myanmar’s military Government. Citing the Australian Government which had targeted financial sanctions against 418 Myanmar citizens, including 40 businessmen, he asked the US Government to impose restrictions on more Myanmar businessmen who provided money to the military Government leaders and their families.

  3. Jared Genser: He wanted that the US should consider imposing sanctions, such as those used against a Macau bank accused of money laundering for nuclear-armed North Korea, on a Southeast Asian state-owned bank suspected of links to Myanmar’s military rulers. The US move against Banco Delta Asia in Macau is believed to have forced North Korea back to the negotiating table. According to him, a State-owned bank in one of the ASEAN countries was playing a similar role in backing the military Junta in Myanmar and US action against it might have an impact on Myanmar. He added: “Anecdotally in conversations with diplomats in ASEAN countries, I know there is a deep concern about the prospects of the United States doing to a state-owned bank what happened to Banco Delta Asia in Macau because of its laundering of North Korean funds.” He did not name the bank.

7. The sanctions imposed till now have been directed mainly against the Junta and other Army officers. Suggestions for sanctions against Myanmar and foreign businessmen backing the Junta are now being made. In addition, sections of Burmese political exiles have been advocating that the US should also use the Beijing Olympics for keeping up pressure on China to make the Junta change its policies. Non-governmental elements in the US and West Europe have already been linking the human rights issue in Darfur in the Sudan and Tibet to the Olympics. They want that the issue of Chinese support to the Myanmar Junta should also be linked. They feel that while a call for the boycott of the Olympics by the participating Western countries would not work, a call for the boycott of the Olympics by the Western media in protest against Chinese policies in respect of Darfur, Tibet and Myanmar might. They want that even if the Western media is disinclined to boycott the Olympics, it could at least down-grade the coverage of the Olympics. These Myanmar exiles are also considering the issue of an appeal to foreign tourists not to go to Beijing to watch the games.

8. In the meanwhile, groups of students and monks inside Myanmar have not allowed themselves to be demoralised by the repressive policies of the Junta. They are now canvassing support for a non-cooperation movement similar to the movement started by Mahatma Gandhi against the British in India. This would involve a boycott of services and products of companies associated with the Junta.

9. India faces a strategic as well as an ethical dilemma in Myanmar. The strategic dimension arises from the importance of Myanmar for the internal security of our North-East and the need to counter the Chinese presence and designs in Myanmar, particularly in its North. The ethical dimension arises from India’s status as a successful democracy, its long association with Myanmar political leaders and people and the fact that under Suu Kyi, the Myanmar people have been emulating the non-violent methods of Gandhiji. We will be betraying the memories of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and other freedom-fighters if we fail to support a Gandhi-inspired movement in Myanmar and instead support a military Junta, which rules the country in its interests and not in the interests of the people.

10. The strategic path need not exclude the ethical and vice versa. A mix of ethical and strategic parameters should govern our policy-making. Presently, the ethical parameters hardly have any influence in the policy-making on Myanmar. This position has to change and ethical parameters should play an important role. A beginning in this direction can be made by expanding the Myanmar language broadcasts of the All India Radio in order to provide for more time to political and economic issues, by allowing the leaders of the Myanmar exile movement in different countries to visit India in order to interact with our leaders, people and media and starting telecasts specially beamed to Myanmar. Our private TV channels should also play an active role in this.

11. Suu Kyi and her supporters are trying to prove that Gandhiism has still got relevance and can work in restoring to their people their dignity and freedoms. We should not prove them wrong by continuing with our present policies.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail:

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