The summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, at which India was an observer, concluded last week with a reaffirmation of the virtues of free trade and regional integration. US President Barack Obama’s visit to Phnom Penh to the summit was preceded by a stopover in Myanmar, which only underlined the new importance of the country as a source of natural resources. Of course, for India, Myanmar means even more — particularly in the context of trade with Southeast Asia. Good relations with its eastern neighbour are essential if new communications networks are to be built that will reduce non-tariff barriers to trade between India and Asean countries.
That was, too, the subtext of the visit of Myanmarese leader Aung San Suu Kyi to India recently. With her elegant longyi, flowered hairdo and communication skills perfected over long years of weekend speeches delivered at the gates of her University Avenue home and sometime prison in Yangon, it was no surprise that she received a resoundingly good press. Much was made of her expression of disappointment at the “abandonment” by the Indian establishment and her somewhat anaemic statements on the plight of the Rohingyas, a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar. What was marked, though, is the emergence of a leader with a shrewd sense of realpolitik. In totalitarian regimes, long years in opposition leave politicians and parties unprepared for liberalisation. Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) finds itself in just such a predicament — but she is aware of it, and correcting for it. She has examples from Eastern Europe to South Africa to remind her. So, apart from building and strengthening the party's base within Myanmar, she is aware that neighbours like India, with an entrenched democratic system of government, count for more in her country's transition to democracy and as a counterbalance to one-party-ruled China, with its deep roots with military junta.
Ms Suu Kyi’s knowledge of her predicament was visible on her India trip. She may have been chagrined at the close political and economic ties that the Indian government developed with the junta. But her visit to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial lecture demonstrated a hard-headed readiness to engage with the political establishment, which reciprocated by according her, almost, dignities usually reserved for a head of state. If anything, she has the opportunity to build on the ties that India had forged under the military government, should she come to power. That’s no foregone conclusion, either, now that an oppressive and corrupt military junta has been replaced by the Thein Sein-led government, and its reformist agenda — freeing political prisoners, lifting curbs on the press and distancing Myanmar from China. Mr Thein’s agenda on a host of issues does not appear very different from the NLD’s. So when Ms Suu Kyi and her party stand for election in 2015, her task will be much harder. She is also well aware that the military continues to wield considerable power despite Mr Thein’s liberalisations. So she clearly demonstrated a politician’s instincts with her low-key stance on the Rohingya crisis. It is easy to deplore such expediency; but then, even the most principled leader knows that compromise lies at the heart of good politics.