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'Aung San Suu Kyi is like Indira Gandhi'

By ARCHANA MASIH
February 08, 2021 09:03 IST
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'She's not going to keel over.'
'This is the kind of difficult situation that she thrives in.'

IMAGE: Myanmar's National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Photograph: Ann Wang/Reuters

"India will continue to support democracy, but is unlikely to criticise the military strongly or in public. It will more likely to rely on quiet diplomacy."

"We have learnt some things from 1988-1990. One is that in Myanmar, unlike most normal democracies, all coercive power is in the hands of the military. The civilian government virtually has no coercive power. As a neighbour with cross border security issues, we need to have cooperative relations with security agencies in Myanmar," Gautam Mukhopadhaya, India's former ambassador to Myanmar, tells Rediff.com's Archana Masih..

 

You must have had occasion to meet Aung San Suu Kyi several times. What is she like?

Yes, of course. She has popular appeal and is strong willed. She is no pushover. She takes stands on principle. She can be imperious.

She is a bit like Indira Gandhi in some ways, but she probably lacks the cunning. She's not going to keel over.

This is the kind of difficult situation that she thrives in.

Aung San Suu Kyi won the election a few months ago by a landslide and bettered her previous performance. Does it mean she continues to be hugely popular?

Absolutely. The resounding electoral victory of the NLD for a third time (1990, 2015, 2020) shows that notwithstanding the beating her international image has taken over her position on the Rohingya issue and criticism of her political style and performance, she remains popular with the masses.

Indeed, her defence of Myanmar against international censure at the International Court of Justice may have contributed to her better than expected electoral performance.

What do you see Aung San Suu Kyi's political future?

Difficult to say. The military will likely keep her in detention as they did for 15 years rather than let her come back. But she will continue to represent the people's will.

Much will depend on whether she calls for street action or if the people there take to the streets once again as in 1988. She has not been so inclined. But if that happens she would become the rallying point against military rule once again.

The military would respond harshly. The situation would become far more serious than the detention or arrest of the political leadership. There have been a few signs of protest, but they have not been threatening or disturbed public order.

The Tatmadaw (as the Myanmar army is called) may also depend on a degree of resignation and fatalism amongst the public who have lived under military rule for most of Myanmar's history. Yet the advances in basic freedoms over the last 10 years cannot be reversed.

Ideally, they should reconcile and return to some form of hybrid government. But Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is not given to half measures, and after this, it is difficult to see Min Aung Hlaing and Daw Suu work together in a forced cohabitation again.

Nevertheless, our effort should be to walk them back and seek an exit strategy. If at all we try it, we would do it quietly.

IMAGE: Myanmarese in Japan at a protest against Myanmar's military coup in Tokyo, February 3, 2021. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters

Could she be held indefinitely? She was under house arrest for 15 years after all -- or has the situation changed that would not allow the military to keep her in detention for so long?

Anything is possible. It seems unlikely that they will let her return to political life. Exile could be an option, but I believe she would decline that.

The question is whether this is permanent, or whether they have an exit strategy, and whether the exit strategy will work.

The Tatmadaw is prepared to withstand international pressure with the help of authoritarian powers. If anything, with China stronger, the US distracted by China and internal politics, Russia on their side, they can withstand pressures even better.

A long period of detention will however bring greater pressure from the democratic world.

We have to wait and see whether General Min Aung Hlaing is serious about the one year transition. He would probably ideally like a situation where he can cobble together the possibility of a civilian government minus the NLD or minus Daw Suu, with the help of the USDP (the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party), military MPs and some ethnic parties.

IMAGE: A child holds a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi outside the United Nations office in Bangkok, February 3, 2021. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

The MEA has said that India is steadfast in its support of democratic transition, but India also maintains very close contacts with the Myanmar military leadership keeping our own security in the north east in mind. What are the challenges confronting India now?

The main challenge in view of the showdown between the two, will be that it may be difficult to satisfy both sides.

Democracy activists will expect India to be vocal in its criticism. This is unlikely.

Even if it was an uneasy cohabitation, we had developed relations with both, and have even earned a level of comfort with both the civilian government and military that they could accept the joint visit of our foreign secretary and army chief.

That will now be tested now because they will see everything in terms of which side are you on internally.

I would also say that over a period of time, India has managed to cultivate a sense of trust with the military and civilian side of the government, much more than, for example, China, that they may be willing to at least listen to us.

The civilian side is now virtually shut out, so right now, it would mean talking to the military and advising them to restore the status quo.

IMAGE: Myanmar citizens living in India protest against the military coup in Myanmar, New Delhi, February 5, 2021. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Previously India came out strongly in support of democracy in Myanmar. Do you think India will be inhibited this time about criticising the coup vocally since our own self-interest [vis a vis security of Manipur, Nagaland and the North East is concerned]?

India will continue to support democracy, but is unlikely to criticise the military strongly or in public. It will more likely to rely on quiet diplomacy.

We have learnt some things from 1988-1990. One is that in Myanmar, unlike most normal democracies, all coercive power is in the hands of the military. The civilian government virtually has no coercive power.

As a neighbour with cross border security issues, we need to have cooperative relations with security agencies in Myanmar.

Second, circumstances were also different in 1988-1990. Memories of General Ne Win's 1962 coup and the Burmese Road to Socialism which resulted in the departure of most Indians and Burmese of Indian origin were still live.

A popular uprising against the military was being crushed by force. Plus we had a very active Burmese exile community in India that were pushing for it.

In addition, we have realised that in Asia, and specially Myanmar, public megaphone diplomacy doesn't go down very well.

Lastly, we would also have to factor in the reality that criticising or isolating the military would throw them back into the hands of the Chinese.

But while dealing with the military, we should remember that this is a contest between military power and people power, and not dilute our support for popular, democratic rule.

Do you see China's hand in the coup? Will it strengthen China's influence in Myanmar?

I doubt a Chinese hand, but yes, it will benefit. Like us, China was able to manage relations with both the NLD and the military over the last 5 years quite well.

China's priority in Myanmar is its strategic BRI projects. Instability in Myanmar would not suit it. They too seem to have been caught off guard.

After their experience with projects agreed to by the military like the Myitsone Dam and the Letpadaungtaung copper mine, they feel that a deal with the popular government will be more secure.

I would therefore be surprised if they did this in consultation with them because it's not in keeping with their ethos. Moreover, there are other countries that they can turn to for support, like Russia, which too have been steadily expanding its defence relationship with Myanmar.

IMAGE: Myanmar soldiers at Yangon City Hall after they occupied the building, February 2, 2021. Photograph: Reuters

If Myanmar is going to be turning more towards China, then what bearing will this have on India?

Myanmar has been one of China's most difficult relationships. During the USDP years, Myanmar kept China off balance by diversifying its relationships and reaching out to the US, Europe, Japan, Australia, East Asia and strengthening ties with India and ASEAN.

Although the Chinese tried to cultivate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD hard, and Daw Suu was responsive to the Chinese, the NLD continued that tradition by holding back from all that the Chinese wanted on the BRI and driving a hard bargain.

Even if Myanmar will need China more, the Myanmar military has a strong sense of nationalism and the Myanmar in general, have also always had a very strong tradition of neutrality in their external relations.

While there are some pro-Chinese elements in the government, they also need India to balance China.

India will play this diplomatically and maintain its ties with Myanmar through the military and otherwise. I would be surprised if we do not pull it off.

In your personal experience, what are some of the memories that have remained with you about the country and its people?

It's a beautiful country, rich in natural, cultural and human resources and history, with a great sense of pride in itself.

It is a very religious country with great cultural and physical charm. As a people, they are proud and a bit reserved. You might say that the Bamar majority are a bit racially arrogant.

They have a rich, diverse culture that they have still preserved. They are very polite, courteous and etiquette conscious. It is one of the most interesting countries in the world from a tourism point of view. That will certainly suffer.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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