External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna has returned from a three-day official visit to Myanmar without meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and international democracy icon who was freed in late 2010 by that country's military regime after several years under house arrest. He left that chore to Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao. The Minister's visit was billed as India's first high-level interaction with the “new civilian government.” It would be best to drop the pretence. The Myanmar government is not civilian by any standards. It is run by the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a military proxy that unsurprisingly won a sham election in October 2010. Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy boycotted the election as the junta introduced new rules to keep the Nobel Laureate out of the process. The newly elected Parliament, dominated by the military and its proxies, chose USDP leader Thein Sein as the new “civilian” President in March 2011 after he was handpicked by Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the junta's outgoing State Peace and Development Council. President Sein was a serving general until last year and the Prime Minister in the SPDC regime. A junta loyalist, he is expected to maintain continuity with the junta's policies. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we know that the Indian foreign policy establishment thinks Ms Suu Kyi's “day has come and gone,” and that India's engagement with the Myanmarese military is based on security considerations in the North-East and its fears of losing influence to China. But if this is India's state policy, it should say this openly instead of projecting its dance with the generals as “engagement” with civilians.
India and Myanmar have come a long way in their bilateral ties since New Delhi's barely remembered conferment of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding on Ms Suu Kyi in 1991. Engagement with the generals has paid India dividends: Myanmar is no longer soft on militant groups that operate in India's North-East; New Delhi is involved in a dozen ventures in the energy, agriculture, power, telecommunications, and infrastructure sectors. The construction of a $110 million “multi-nodal” Kaladan transport project linking the landlocked North-East with Sittwe seaport in Myanmar is well under way, and Mr. Krishna's visit has netted more MoUs. But while New Delhi furthers its ties with Myanmar's men in uniform, it will live on India's conscience that it quietly abandoned the Gandhian Ms Suu Kyi. Only last week, on the occasion of her 66th birthday, she reiterated a plea to India to live up to its democratic credentials by “engaging more” with Myanmar's democracy activists. It seems even that was too much to ask.