The conviction and sentencing of democratic opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to additional 18 months house arrest by a Yangon court at Yangon’s notorious Insein prison on August 11, has once again shown how the Myanmar’s ruling military junta was determined to stop her participation in the elections to be held in 2010. The 18- month sentence slapped on her would effectively do that.
The Nobel Peace laureate was found guilty of hosting a mentally disturbed American tourist John William Yettaw (53) who broke into her home on May 3 where she had been held under house arrest for nearly 14 years out of the past 19 years. It did not matter to the court that it was the security forces that controlled access to the house. In an act of “benevolence” the military regime commuted the court’s original three-year hard labour sentence handed out to her to 18 months house arrest.
In the last elections held in 1990 she led the National Democratic League (NLD) from the front and romped home with a thumping majority. Although the military regime never transferred powers to the NLD led civilian government it would not want to take a chance with her participation in the elections. Though the elections are to be held under the new constitution, weighted heavily in its favour, apparently Aung Saan Suu Kyi’s participation would make a difference.
The intention of the junta was very clear when it turned down the request of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to meet with Ms Suu Kyi when he visited Myanmar in July. As he described, Myanmar wasted a “unique opportunity” to turn a new leaf and usher in a new era of political openness.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction has drawn universal condemnation. The U.S. President Obama demanded her immediate release while British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for a U.N. embargo on all arms exports to Burma. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France sought fresh restrictions on Myanmar’s two important export items – rubies and hardwood.
Thailand, chairman of the ASEAN alliance in which Myanmar is a member, was even more explicit. It urged Myanmar to immediately free Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest to allow her to play a role in next year’s general election. It reiterated the demand made at the16th ASEAN Regional Forum held last month for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Myanmar, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
The U.N. Security Council meeting in a closed door session to discuss the issue failed to reach agreement on a statement that would condemn Myanmar and demand Suu Kyi’s release. China – the military junta’s patron – held to its stand that the UNSC had no business to interfere in Mynamar court’s action, while Russia among other members expressed its reservations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in a statement that it was time not for criticism but for dialogue with Myanmar. “This not only accords with Myanmar’s interests, it is also beneficial to regional stability,” she added. She said the international society should fully respect Myanmar’s judicial sovereignty.
The UNSC meetings on Myanmar had been effectively reduced to a charade by China’s firm support to the Myanmar’s military rulers. The global economic downturn has strengthened China’s global economic and as a corollary political clout. At present there is no incentive for China to change its stand on Myanmar; even if a civilian government of sorts comes to power in Myanmar, after the 2010 elections. Working under the benevolent eye of the army, it is doubtful whether a civilian government would be able to reduce Chinese influence in the country even if it wants to.
The Chinese are simply too well entrenched in Myanmar’s military, economy, trade and commerce. And the geo-strategy of Myanmar confers special advantage on China to intervene militarily in the shortest time than any other nation. As a veto-wielding permanent member of the UNSC, China is positioned better to bale out the military regime than any other Asian country including India.
Under such circumstances, India’s reaction to the conviction of Aung San Suu Kyi was shameful to say the least. It had not one word of condemnation or even ‘disappointment.’ The spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs on questioning would only say, “We have seen reports of the sentencing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar for a period of eighteen months.
India has emphasised to the Government of Myanmar the need to expedite their political reform and national reconciliation process and have noted the various steps taken so far by the Government of Myanmar in this direction.
We have maintained that this process should be broad based, including the various ethnic groups. In this context, the issue of release of political prisoners will no doubt receive due attention.”
What do these words mean? How can the sentencing Suu Kyi to 18-month house arrest be construed as part of the national reconciliation process? If past experience is any indication, it would be business as usual for India. Would the 12-member Indian Parliamentarians’ Forum for Democracy in Burma, started in April, look into this and turn it into some meaningful positive action?
India’s soft pedaling of issues of global sensitivity is unlikely to affect either Myanmar’s cozy relations with China or build India as its preferred partner. On the contrary, Myanmar’s relations to India– particularly as long as the army holds the upper hand – would always be under close Chinese scrutiny.
It is time India re-examined its ‘Look East policy’ to make it more vibrant and meaningful. And Myanmar is a key player no doubt; but India needs to be proactive and not conditioned by China’s attitudes.
In this context the BBC report that India had abandoned plans to reopen the Stillwell road, a World War II entity, is of strategic significance. The road connects Ledo in Arunachal Pradesh with Yunnan Province in China after traversing through Kachin State of Myanmar. The opening of the road would have opened up India’s northeast for trade with ASEAN countries and provided a direct access from India to China from India without intruding into Tibet. What is disturbing is the announcement has come a few days after 13th round of India-China border talks. Is there a connection between India’s decision not to reopen the road and the border talks? Are we sacrificing Indian interests to appease the Chinese? Will the government take the public into confidence and explain?
(Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence officer,, is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group, and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Blog: www.colhariharan.org E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org)