Glass Houses

Can the world’s democracies actually bring change to Burma?

Aung San Suu Kyi, shortly after being freed from house arrest. Soe Zeya Tun / REUTERS
01 December, 2010

IN HIS EPIC NOVEL, The Glass Palace, which chronicles the history of colonialism and its aftermath that made Burma, Malaysia and India the countries they are today, Amitav Ghosh dates the political connection between India and the country that now calls itself Myanmar to 1858, when the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was exiled to Rangoon. My own Indian family’s link with Burma began about four decades later, at the end of the 19th century. In flight from drought and famine in Gujarat, my ancestors migrated to the first sliver of Burma annexed by the British: Akyab, on the Arakan coast. The British needed Indian capital and labour to exploit the riches of Akyab—rice, teak and precious stones—and they encouraged enterprising Indians to pursue business opportunities in Burma that were still much more severely controlled in India proper. My Gujarati merchant family thrived.

Eighty years ago, on 4 December 1930, my father was born in Rangoon. He attended the Anglo Vernacular Gujarati School, and remembers as a highlight of his childhood garlanding Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited Rangoon in 1937 with his young daughter Indira. It was the same year that Britain separated Burma from India and made it a crown colony, but this made little difference to my family’s life there. It was not until the Japanese bombed Rangoon on 23 December 1941 that they had to flee, joining hundreds of thousands of panicked war refugees scrambling to return to India by boat or on foot. They were among the 500,000 Indian men, women and children who tried to leave Burma during the war; between 50,000 and 100,000 people died attempting to do so. The onset of World War II had dealt my family’s fortunes in Burma a severe blow, but it was the coup carried out in 1962 by General Ne Win—whose successors still rule the country—and his order to expel all Indians and nationalise their assets that finished them off.

My family’s business office was located on Mogul Street, which runs parallel to China Street in the heart of old Rangoon. Indian and Chinese merchants lived cheek by jowl in harmony in Rangoon for generations, largely indifferent to the policies of their governments. When I visited Burma in 1998, Japan had become the most visible foreign presence; Japanese brands were everywhere, and the high-ranking members of the military junta had made the Toyota Land Cruiser their vehicle of choice. The citizens and consumer products of the United States, India and China were conspicuously absent.

My contact at the Indian embassy was very nervous, even paranoid, about our meeting. He refused to talk on the phone, and when I finally managed to visit his office, he closed and locked the door as soon as I arrived. “I don’t want anyone trying to serve us tea or anything,” he said. “They’re all spies!”

Unlike India, the United States did not have an embassy in Rangoon, but until the mid-1990s the two countries pursued much the same line in their dealings with the military regime, which even then had Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.

While the world’s major Western democracies—including the United States, Australia and the countries of the European Union—have consistently condemned the behaviour of the Burmese military junta, and backed up this policy with economic sanctions, India abandoned this course more than a decade ago for a policy it calls ‘pragmatic engagement.’

Fearful of China’s burgeoning relationship with the Burmese junta and its expanding influence across Southeast Asia, as keen as China and Thailand to gain access to Burma’s considerable oil and natural gas reserves and jittery about the activities of insurgents on its long and mountainous border with Burma, India has embraced a realpolitik approach to its eastern neighbour, which has given considerable comfort to the junta. In addition to opening commercial relations with Burma and encouraging Indian investment and trade with the country, the Government of India has given the Burmese junta direct military assistance, selling it hardware and providing it with intelligence capabilities it can and does use against Burmese citizens.

As India’s economic power has increased, its inclination to exercise any corresponding moral authority has proportionately decreased. Amartya Sen recently slammed India on this point at a meeting on Burma held in Washington, DC. “When our power to influence the world was zero, we spent our time lecturing the world on morality. And when we get a bit of power, although not as much as China, then we completely abdicated that responsibility,” Sen fumed.

The winner of India’s race with China, even at the cost of high moral principles, is the Burmese junta—the same regime that ejected my family and confiscated its property, and that of thousands of other Indians, in 1962. Like the child of divorced parents who threatens to spurn his father and then his mother if either dare condemn his bad behaviour, Burma plays India and China (and Thailand) off one another to ensure that it always gets what it wants; the result is a spoiled brat, unwelcome on the global playground.

The light slap on the wrist that Barack Obama delivered to India over its policy toward Burma during his speech before Parliament on 8 November was intended to coax India back to the higher moral principles that democracies espouse—the same principles that the United States prides itself with upholding in regard to Burma. The problem is that this small stone thrown at the edifice of Indian democratic hypocrisy was cast by the leader of a country that inhabits a very large glass house.  For even if the United States can offer a moral argument for maintaining economic sanctions against Burma—and given the real economic suffering of the Burmese people and the scant effect sanctions have had on the junta’s behaviour it must work hard to do so at this point—it can hardly provide similar justification for the sum total of its foreign policy conduct.

No nation on Earth is more ruthless in the defence of its national interests than the United States, which has rarely hesitated to intervene, militarily or otherwise, in countries whose leaders have pursued policies deemed to be contrary to American interests, invariably defined as access to the natural resources necessary to fuel economic expansion. The expression ‘vital interests,’ in fact, has almost always been a euphemism in the United States for oil—the very resource India seeks to secure from Myanmar through the minimally invasive tactics of bribery and selective silence.

The history of American policy toward a very long list of unsavoury leaders who nevertheless provided valuable services to the United States was elegantly encapsulated in an apocryphal comment attributed to Franklin Roosevelt about the Nicaraguan Anastasio Somoza Garcia, a brutal dictator who, like the rulers of Burma, amassed great personal wealth and ran the country like his own monopoly corporation at the expense of the people and their liberties. “He’s a son of a bitch,” Roosevelt is supposed to have said, “but he’s our son of a bitch.”

At this point India asks even less of the Burmese junta: “They’re sons of bitches,” it might say, “but at least they’re not just China’s sons of bitches.”

While the majority of the world’s democracies condemned Myanmar’s recent elections as a sham, India, like China, maintained a studied silence. Unlike China, India delicately praised the subsequent release from house arrest of Aung Sang Suu Kyi. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna issued a statement that the Government of India hoped the release of the Nobel Prize-winning thorn in the junta’s side “will be the beginning of the process of reconciliation in Myanmar.”  Suu Kyi hit the ground running, going straight to her banned party’s office in Rangoon and directly addressing her supporters and the Burmese people. While she has expressed her desire to work with the country’s military rulers, she also did not hesitate to repeat her commitment to bringing real democracy to Burma, a process she acknowledged would necessitate nothing less than a revolution, a word she quickly defined as meaning “radical change.”

It appears that one of the most powerful cards in Suu Kyi’s hand is the one given to her by Western democracies, particularly the United States: the possibility of lifting economic sanctions. While the Myanmar regime will hesitate to allow her any kind of official political role, it may be ready to give her a powerful position as a mediator in a dialogue it cannot have directly with the Western powers. To what extent Suu Kyi can leverage this into a real political opening for her party and set the stage for truly fair and free elections that would usher in an era of democracy and civil liberties in Burma will depend on how she plays the West’s stated allegiance to the moral high ground against the lure of the vast resources and profits that would be unlocked with the lifting of sanctions against Burma—potentially worth billions to investors. The temptation for the West after Suu Kyi’s release is to follow the path of India’s realpolitik towards Burma: to steal a bit of China’s thunder and gain access to a strategically located, fossil-fuel rich, agriculturally underproductive, undeveloped market of 50 million people as starved for economic opportunity as they are for political freedom.

If anyone is up to the high-flying act required to confront such powerful interests on behalf of Burma’s long-suffering people, it is Aung San Suu Kyi—the physically diminutive yet hard-as-nails 65-year-old who is still known affectionately by those who pin their life’s hopes on her as “the lady.”  The events of the coming weeks and months—if she remains free that long—will tell whether Suu Kyi will be allowed to play this role, whether she will find a way to create a space on Burma’s tightly controlled political landscape for her party and the Burmese who yearn for a different regime than the one they have had to put up with for nearly 50 years, and whether the Burmese people who have done without so much for so long will prevail over profits, either those of the generals or those of foreign energy companies and investors eager to get back into what was once one of world’s biggest producers of rice and oil.