In the early 1960s, Aung San Suu Kyi studied politics at Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, where, as the daughter of Burma’s ambassador to India, she also got an up-close look at arguably the world’s biggest democratic experiment.
India’s non-violent freedom struggle under the stewardship of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and its nascent efforts to remain a liberal democracy despite the enormous developmental challenges of those early decades, proved inspirational for her. Years later, when she launched a pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, she would continue to draw strength from India’s model, even though India’s record as a liberal democracy was already beginning to fray at the edges.
Today, as she returns to India after 40 years and delivers the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture and visits her alma mater, Suu Kyi has a far less starry-eyed view of India’s record of being a role model for countries in the neighbourhood, like Myanmar, that aspire to be democracies.
Suu Kyi has in the past given voice to her sense of “sadness” that India had in recent years fallen off the pedestal on which she herself – and a lot of other freedom-loving people around the world – had placed it. India had, she felt, silenced its moral voice, and begun to strike dirty deals with dictators and military rulers.
In particular, the fact that the Indian government had openly embraced Myanmar’s military junta, which had robbed her of her election victory in 1990 and jailed her, rankled with her. India, she observed last year, “is not as concerned” about the fate of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar “as we would like them to be.”
It’s a theme that Suu Kyi has dwelt on in greater detail in her media interactions ahead of her current visit. In an interview to The Hindu, she said, in the context of India’s dalliance with the military government, that she was more “sad” than “disappointed”.
“I think rather than disappointment, sad is the word I would use because I have a personal attachment to India through my friends as well as because of the friendship that existed between my father and Jawaharlal Nehru, because of the closeness that existed between the countries. So rather than disappointed, I was sad that it had to be like that.”
Yet, in recent times, Suu Kyi herself has drawn criticism from international human rights campaigners for her failure to give voice to her conscience and for taking a morally ambiguous line in respect of developments in homeland, particularly the killing and displacement of Rohingyas in western Myanmar, and the Myanmar military offensive against the Kachin community.
Human rights campaigners have been upset by Suu Kyi’s studied silence for months after the violence against Rohingya Muslims, which began in June and continued even into October. Her silence was particularly deafening given her iconic image as the voice of Myanmar’s conscience in championing the cause of democracy against formidable odds, and great personal tragedy.
SOAS University of London research Guy Horton encapsulated the disappointment with Suu Kyi when he said that she had “lost much of her credibility” because of her silence over these “appalling events.” Suu Kyi’s “evasiveness” on what he called “one of the greatest human rights tragedies in the world today” had “lost her the commodity she has always had in abundance: her moral authority.”
Ironically, Suu Kyi was compared unfavourably to the very iconic leaders who she said had inspired her. Horton pointed out that Mahatma Gandhi went on hunger strike to stop exactly the kind of killings that were being inflicted on Rohingya Muslims. And, in his estimation, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King – to whom she has been likened – would have shown solidarity with the victims. “Instead, she has just collected prizes - including the US Congressional Medal of Honour - from a fawning world," Horton added.
Swedish journalist and author Bertil Liintner too reckons that Suu Kyi’s silence – and the perception that she has moved too close to the Myanmar government and the military as she gets into stride as a full-fledged politician – had cost her a lot of popular support in the country that once venerated her.
In June, at a talk in London during her first tour of Western democracies in more than two decades, Suu Kyi was asked by a student from the Kachin ethnic minority why she had not condemned the government offensive against Kachin rebels. Suu Kyi couldn’t summon her moral conscience, and waffled in the way that immoral politicians do. “We want to know what’s happening more clearly before we condemn one party of the other,” she said.
Likewise, when she visited Norway (to collect the Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to her in 1991, while she was under house arrest), Suu Kyi was asked if she considered Rohingya Muslims citizens of Myanmar.
"I do not know," said Suu Kyi, and went on to give a circuitous answer that was remarkable for its reflection of her inability to take the same moral stand that she had in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
For her exertions, Suu Kyi drew criticism from all around - from the Kachin community, which accused her of “condoning state-sanctioned violence”, and by the Rohingya Muslims (who want recognition as Myanmar citizens) and by the locals who call them infiltrators.
All this represents a sobering fall from grace for the woman who, ironically, says she feels saddened by India’s fall from the moral pedestal. In her interview to The Hindu, Suu Kyi pointedly downplayed her own erstwhile “iconic status”. “People talk as though I were sort of an icon or on a pedestal… I find it surprising because I’ve always been a politician.”
As she prepares to give her Nehru Memorial Lecture today, perhaps Suu Kyi wlll 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. Perhaps it will induce a greater empathetic understanding of India’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Myanmar, which (as Firstpost noted earlier) was framed in a specific geopolitical context to advance its strategic interest, without abandoning the moral support for the cause of democracy in Myanmar.
Perhaps Suu Kyi’s education in politics, which began in Lady Shri Ram College all those years ago, will have undergone a refresher course.
Perhaps, then, a morally shrunken Suu Kyi will have fewer reasons to feel “saddened” by India.