Dances with Myanmar

In the span of less than a week, Myanmar has provided India with a couple of foreign policy reality checks. All these years, New Delhi justified its engagement with the junta as not just dictated by its own strategic and security concerns, but as one that prodded the military towards political reforms. Even if there is some truth to this, it was clearly, if gently, rebuffed by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, on her visit to India last week. On a journey that was both personal and political, the chairperson of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy was categorical that it was no thanks to the world’s largest democracy where she spent several formative years that she now walked free after nearly two decades of imprisonment. In another subtle rebuke, she said she wanted to focus on rebuilding what were once strong ties between the people of Myanmar and India that would stand the two countries in better stead than governmental relations. As someone likely to lead Myanmar sooner than later, Ms Suu Kyi’s remarks cannot be shrugged off lightly. Fortunately, her streak of pragmatism has enabled her to take a generous view of India’s policy as something “that happens all the time in international relations”, as she told this newspaper in an interview. Indeed, it is this pragmatism that has enabled her own co-operation with her military oppressors on the reforms process.

The other instructive event was Barack Obama’s visit to Myanmar on Monday. The six-hour stopover, sandwiched between stops in Thailand and Cambodia, had two apparent intentions: to underscore Myanmar’s importance in the “pivot to Asia”, Obama II’s new strategic focus; and, to claim success for the U.S. policy on Myanmar, first of punishing economic sanctions against the junta and since 2010, a calibrated engagement with it. While Ms Suu Kyi has been profuse in her gratitude to the U.S. for standing by her, the importance the regime attached to the visit was evident in President Thein Sein’s decision to go out of his way, literally, to receive Mr. Obama in Yangon rather than in the new capital Nay Pyi Taw. The gesture would have been noted in Beijing, which has massive clout in Myanmar but remains untrusted. He also released another batch of political prisoners ahead of the visit. For his part, the U.S. President signalled the increasing accommodation for the regime by using the junta-given name Myanmar instead of Burma, and expressed more confidence in the reforms process than Ms Suu Kyi. But he made an emotion-filled visit to meet her at her lakeside home that was once her prison. If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision to make her meet him at a Yangon hotel during his visit in May 2012 seemed like a bad idea then, it seems worse now.

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