Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi Returns to India, Renewing Frayed Ties

Aung San Suu Kyi, who studied in India in the 1960s, returned on a much-anticipated, week-long visit to deliver a lecture on the birthday of one of her political idols: India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

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Manish Swarup / AP

Burma's opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stands after paying floral tribute at the memorial of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on his birth anniversary in New Delhi, India, Nov. 14, 2012.

On Tuesday, as India celebrated the festival of lights, Diwali, another light was rekindled after almost 25 years. Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who studied in India in the 1960s, returned on a much-anticipated, week-long visit to deliver a lecture on the birthday of one of her political idols: India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

In many ways, the visit was a kind of reconciliation between the celebrated Nobel Laureate and the country that helped to shape her into the icon she is today. India vocally supported Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement in Burma in the 1990s, but later engaged with Burma’s military rulers, a move that some thought undermined the country’s opposition groups. On Wednesday, however, the past was buried and both Suu Kyi and New Delhi seemed keen to rebuild the relationship.  “…Our good wishes are with you as indeed with your struggle for democracy,” prime minister Manmohan Singh told Suu Kyi on Wednesday when they met. “We admire you for the indomitable courage you have shown.”

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The last time Suu Kyi was in India was in 1987, when she traveled to Shimla to visit her husband Michael Aris, who was studying there. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, a Burmese independence hero, was Nehru’s close friend, and her mother, Khin Kyi, was Burma’s ambassador to India from 1960 to 1967. Suu Kyi attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary School and later graduated in politics from Lady Shriram College. During that time, she lived with her mother on 24 Akbar Road, in Delhi, the address that now belongs to the Congress party office. When Burma’s military junta robbed Suu Kyi of her election victory in 1990, her struggle found resonance in the world’s largest democracy, which at the time sheltered many of Burma’s political dissidents.

But as India’s domestic insurgencies intensified in the late 1990s, New Delhi enlisted the help of Burma’s military rulers in an effort to clamp down on Indian rebels hiding in jungles along the Indo-Burmese border. The policy shift was part of India’s vigorous Look East policy, which sought to engage with East and South East Asia to further India’s economic interests.The new ties between the Indian government and the junta were a major blow to the pro-democracy movement in Burma — and to Suu Kyi. In an interview ahead of her visit, Suu Kyi told the Hindu she was saddened at India’s about face in the 1990s. “I’ve always felt we had a special relationship — India and Burma — because of our colonial history, and because of the fact that the leaders of our independence movement were so close to one another,” she said. “I feel that perhaps in recent years we’ve grown apart as peoples, because India took a road which is different from ours.”

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As Burma transitioned to a more open political system two years ago, India welcomed the return to democracy, as well as Suu Kyi’s return to the political stage.  The pragmatic Suu Kyi seems keen to once again engage with India, as well as other countries that could help further the democratic cause. “Her visit shows how everyone is adjusting to changed circumstances,” says Udai Bhanu Singh, an India-Burma expert associated with Delhi’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses. “We are trying to rebuild our relationship.”

For Suu Kyi, the India visit may also be a welcome diversion from growing international criticism of her lack of action on behalf of the Rohingya, a minority group facing ongoing violence in Burma’s Rakhine state. In Burma, the Rohingya, whom the United Nations has called the world’s most persecuted group, have for decades been denied citizenship and most basic rights. Experts speculate that Suu Kyi has avoided speaking out on the matter so as not to alienate Burmese citizens, whose vote she’ll need to win the 2015 general elections. Many Burmese distrust the Muslim Rohingya, unfairly casting them as outsiders, infiltrators, or even terrorists. “Politically, Aung San Suu Kyi has absolutely nothing to gain from opening her mouth on [the Rohingyas],” Burmese commentator Maung Zarni recently told the Daily Beast. “She’s a politician, and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote.”

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In India, many have drawn parallels between Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingyas and India’s abandonment of her cause in the 1990s. “As she prepares to give her Nehru Memorial Lecture today, perhaps Suu Kyi will have reason to reflect on the arc of her own history and public perceptions of her have evolved in just the space of a few months,” Venky Vembuwrote on firstpost.com on Wednesday. “Perhaps it will induce a greater empathetic understanding of India’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Myanmar, which was framed in a specific geopolitical context to advance its strategic interest, without abandoning the moral support for the cause of democracy in Myanmar.” 

At Wednesday’s Jawaharlal Nehru lecture, Suu Kyi told crowd that Gandhi and Nehru were the two Indian leaders to whom she felt “closest.” Her India visit, just two years after she was released from house arrest, seems a fitting stage where, under the gaze of her mentors, she can renew her Indian ties and help Burma take steps toward democracy.  “We hope that through this difficult last stage,” she said, “The people of India will stand by us.”

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