WHEN I received an invitation to attend the release in India of the book, Than Shwe: Unmasking of Burma’s Tyrant by Benedict Rogers, I was anxious to attend the function.
Rogers has visited Burma (also called Myanmar) 30 times, and has studied the dictator who has ruthlessly smothered democracy and kept Aung San Suu Kyi in house arrest for as long as 15 years out of the last 20 years.
Rogers is a British academic, politician, writer and human rights activist, all rolled into one. In the one and a half hours that he took to give a presentation on the book and answer questions from the audience, he gave a vivid picture of how the totalitarian regime has been doing everything possible to keep the people under subjugation, if necessary, even by killing them.
Particularly moving was his description of the killing of a Burmese dissident in his own house in Thailand, just days after Rogers had interviewed him. In wanton disregard of international law, the Burmese troops crossed the border and killed him.
Though Rogers wanted to meet Than Shwe for the book, he was not given an interview. He obtained details about him from his associates, former colleagues and diplomats who had met the General. The picture he assembled is even less flattering than Shwe's public image.
While Aung San Suu Kyi understands international relations, speaks excellent English and is suave, highly qualified and impressive, Shwe is the opposite of all these qualities. An overt chauvinist, Shwe seems unable to reconcile himself to the fact that his rival is a woman.
"Left to himself, he would have liked Aung San Suu Kyi to serve tea at a meeting, rather than engage with him in a political discussion", Rogers said.
Shwe believes only in brute power and is, therefore, unable to appreciate the fact that moral power can override even the greatest power on earth.
In failing to grasp the import of moral power, Shwe is like Joseph Stalin, who famously asked Winston Churchill, in a discussion of Poland's religious fervor, how many divisions the Pope had. Pope Pius XII responded, "You can tell my son Joseph that he will meet my divisions in heaven".
Yet, with all his power and "divisions", Than Shwe does not feel secure. Rogers showed several pictures of Naypyidaw, also known as the "Abode of Kings", the new capital the military junta has built 460 kms north of the old capital Yangon.
Than Shwe believes that every "great" ruler must build a capital.
"It has wide roads, impressive, colourful blocks of residential apartments and well-appointed office complexes. But you won’t find any people on the roads. It is a soulless city", said Rogers.
This same Than Shwe was praised when he visited New Delhi last July, and he was taken to the Rajghat where he laid a wreath at the Samadhi of the Father of the Nation. The Mahatma would have turned in his grave over the sacrilege.
As far as the people of India are concerned, Aung San Suu Kyi is the only Burmese leader they know. She is popular in the country, which bestowed her with the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in 1992.
She believes in Gandhi’s "satyagraha" or non-violent form of protest. The 65-year-old leader has been protesting against the deprivation of power, despite her party winning the 1990 election. For 15 years out of the nearly 20 years since then, she had to remain confined to her poolside villa in Yangon. The building was in a state of disrepair with plaster falling off the walls and weeds growing luxuriously in the compound as a recent photograph Rogers took suggested.
In comparison to her 15 years, Jawaharlal Nehru remained in jail for a total of only nine years, the longest single duration being two and a half years. Mandela spent a longer 27 years in jail. Field Marshal Montgomery in his book "The Path to Leadership" finds that all great leaders had long periods of seclusion which strengthened their power of concentration.
Not much is known about Jesus’ life during his years of childhood and youth. But we know that for long periods, he was alone in the wilderness and elsewhere. Prophet Mohammed went into religious retirement during which time he is reported to have communed much with the angel Gabriel. Buddha sat for six years under the Bodhi tree to gain enlightenment. Hopefully, she too has gained from her solitary confinement.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s connections with India began when she accompanied her mother Daw Khin Kyi, who was posted as Burma’s Ambassador to India in 1960. She had her education at Lady Sri Ram College in New Delhi before she migrated to Oxford in 1967. Her father General Aung San, considered the George Washington of Burma, formed an independent army to liberate Burma from the British rule. He was a friend of India’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who had formed the Indian National Army for the same nationalistic purpose.
Interestingly, it was a well-known Indian journalist M. Shivram, the Reuters correspondent in Rangoon, who reported the shooting down of General Aung San and four others in 1947. By the time the intro of his sensational story was transmitted, the authorities disconnected all telecommunication links Burma had with the rest of the world. Aung San Suu Kyi was just two at that time. India’s leadership maintained strong political and personal relationship with the leaders of Burma.
Thus when Burmese Prime Minister U Nu was deposed in an army coup, the Government of India gave him asylum in Bhopal. Despite such strong ties, there has, of late, been a change in India’s attitude vis-à-vis the military regime that has been ruling the country for several decades. Until Burma fell into the hands of the military junta, it was one of the world’s largest producers of rice.
While many countries in the region have progressed in the recent past, Myanmar has been on the downward slide. Repression and poverty have forced many of the people to seek shelter in neighbouring countries like India, Thailand and Bangladesh. There are 8,000 of them in New Delhi alone. Manipur accounts for the single largest group of Burmese refugees in the country. While Western nations had been pressurising the military junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi and restore democracy, China has been its strongest supporter.
With an eye on the vast gas reserves in Myanmar, China has been bankrolling some of the junta’s cash needs which are met in the main by plundering the forests and other natural resources. The jungles of Myanmar had for long been the sanctuary of some of the insurgents like the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa). By ferreting them out from its territory, the junta has won the confidence of India’s security establishment.
Even so, it was a bit shocking when India sent a high-level delegation to attend the funeral of one of the leaders of the junta. What was particularly galling about the gesture was that it coincided with the failed "saffron revolution" when thousands of Buddhist monks came out on the streets to protest against the brutal regime.
"The way Than Shwe dealt with the agitation provides an insight into his psyche. He allowed the agitation to gather momentum in the hope that it would eventually peter out but when he found that it could even destabilise his regime, he used force to disperse the monks. Who knows, he may do that to Aung San Suu Kyi too", said Rogers.
In India, people in general and political parties in particular do not question the government’s foreign policies. That does not mean that India’s Myanmar policy has the support of the people. A few months ago, while delivering a lecture on literacy at Vigyan Bhavan, Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen bluntly told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who presided over the function, that he did not approve of the policy.
Amartya Sen in his book "The Idea of Justice" brackets Aung San Suu Kyi with "visionary and political leaders across the world" such as Sun Yat-sen of China, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Martin Luther King, of the US."
Yet, for strategic reasons, India has been trying to please the Myanmarese regime, though it did not pay dividends when it competed with China for rights to tap the natural gas reserves there.
It was this willingness to collaborate with the junta that forced US President Barack Obama to flay India’s policy vis-à-vis Myanmar while addressing the members of Indian Parliament during his recent visit to the country. Though its righteous indignation is questionable given the super power’s track record in Iraq, India’s Myanmar policy can only be explained in terms of vested security interests.
Aung San Suu Kyi has both charisma and ability to catch the imagination of the Burmese people. That she is a doughty fighter is borne out by the fact that she never accepted any conditions attached to her release. The junta had released her twice before, in 1995 and 2002, calculating that her extended absence from public view had weakened her appeal. Each time, they were proved wrong.
Huge, enthusiastic crowds greeted her wherever she went, particularly in 2002. The junta is confident that the planned transition to a "civilian rule" will be at the cost of the democracy movement she represents. What is overlooked is that the recent elections were neither fair nor free and failed to meet internationally accepted standards associated with legitimate elections.
How could a Constitution drafted with the express purpose of keeping the military perpetually in power – reserving 25 per cent seats for the armed forces in the nation’s legislature, for instance – be considered democratic? Is it any surprise that the parties the junta promoted won the election when army men had to vote in the presence of their commanders and the villagers had to show the ballot papers to the local rulers before they were dropped in the ballot boxes?
Aung San Suu Kyi’s release is a watershed in Myanmar’s history. Much will depend on what line she adopts in taking the democracy movement to its logical conclusion. Given her strong belief in non-violence, she is in a position to use her moral authority to ensure that the people get a government they want so that Myanmar can regain its lost position in the comity of nations.
The world expects Aung San Suu Kyi to play the role Moses performed in history when he delivered a whole people from slavery. And when she does that, will the Indian government be extending all moral and other support to her? Or will it choose to do business with tyrants like Than Shwe?