Whenever leaders of India and the United States meet, we hear inevitably of the “largest democracy” and the “greatest democracy.” President Barack Obama’s visit to India on November 6-8, 2010, brought up the subject of the same political system, or its denial, in a third country – or what Burma calls a “disciplined democracy,” toward which its military rulers claim to have just taken a major step.
Obama raised the subject during his address to a joint session of the two Houses of India’s Parliament on November 8 evening. The program represented an honor to the president, whose predecessor George W. Bush was not allowed such an opportunity for fear of a furious response from a section of parliamentarians. This, however, did not prevent Obama from pointing, although politely, to New Delhi’s blatant disregard for the butchery of democracy in Burma.
He suggested that India had not done its duty as a promoter of democracy and “often avoided these issues.” He asserted that to protest suppression of pro-democracy movements did not mean “interfering in the affairs of other countries” but “staying true to our democratic principles.”
To many, many Indians, aware of the country’s past policy of solidarity with Burma’s pro-democracy struggle, Obama’s words were welcome and a well-deserved rebuke. To the political elite and establishment, however, the remarks sounded like a parting shot from the president, a “snub” that he should not have administered to a sovereign nation.
The Indians acquainted with the association of Burma with India’s independence movement have never been able to reconcile themselves to New Delhi’s rapprochement with the junta in Rangoon after years of support for the pro-democracy camp led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its charismatic symbol, Aung San Suu Kyi.
To Obama’s critics on this count, however, his questioning of their country’s current Burma policy came as a counter to his own charm offensive earlier on the trip, by which he had more than met the challenge of living down an image as an India-unfriendly leader. Along with First Lady Michelle Obama, he had forged personal rapport with many sections of people, especially the young and the very young, with whom both had very un-presidentially fun interactions.
To many ordinary Indians as well as sections of the political spectrum, Obama’s observations also raise questions about Washington’s own role vis-a-vis Burma. The role had been less than exemplary under Bush, but can the world believe in a change under Obama whose real-time record has yet to catch up with so much of his past rhetoric?
Obama’s remarks came on the morrow of a restricted kind of general election in Burma, which was supposed to be the fifth phase in a seven-step “roadmap to disciplined democracy.” The only two steps left were: convening of the elected legislative bodies and “building a modern, developed and democratic nation.” Few, however, share any hope for such a happy, fairy-tale ending.
The reasons were obvious. A fair and free election was never on the junta’s agenda. It never intended to hand over power on a platter to the people.
The generals, as is well known, had set aside the landslide verdict of the voters in the last general election held two decades ago. Suu Kyi has been punished ever since for leading her party to victory then. She has spent 14 years of this period under house arrest. Before Sunday’s election, she had been banned from contesting it on the ground of her marriage to a foreigner (a British citizen who died some years ago).
This election was held on the basis of a new Constitution, adopted by the country through a rigged and fake referendum, which made Suu Kyi’s political disqualification irreversible. Provisions of the statute stipulate that no less than 25 percent of the seats in both Houses of Parliament and state assemblies are reserved for the Army. Over 75 percent of votes in the Houses will be needed for any change in the Constitution. No amendment, in other words, will be possible without the Army’s consent.
The junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has claimed an overwhelming victory, winning nearly 80 percent of the seats. This was a foregone conclusion. The party fielded candidates in nearly every district, whereas the largest anti-junta party, the National Democratic Front (NDF), was able to contest only 164 of the 1,159 parliamentary seats.
Observers and the opposition alike have alleged unfair poll practices, ranging from manipulation of “advance ballots,” intimidation and unverified counting. Even the second-largest party, the National Unity Party, considered friendly to the junta, has joined the ranks of critics. Added to all this was the fact that about 20,000 people from ethnic minorities were forced to flee into neighboring Thailand by an Army crackdown on the eve of the election.
Several candidates of the three opposition parties – the NDF, the NUP and the Union Democratic Party (UDP) – are reported to have launched a nationwide action, calling for a new vote. The junta can be counted upon to dismiss the complaint and the demand with the contempt they do not deserve at all.
Meanwhile, a court has reportedly rejected Suu Kyi’s petition for an end to her house detention. According to informed observers, she may still be released soon, but without being acquitted of the trumped-up charges against her.
India’s main opposition in Parliament, the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has berated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government for not defending India’s acquiescence in the junta’s attacks on democracy. Pleading practical grounds and including security interests, the party has clearly come out for a continuance of the present policy that includes ritual sympathy for Suu Kyi along with recently reinforced ties with Rangoon.
On the government’s behalf, anonymous “sources” were quoted in the media as saying about the same thing, sans the BJP feigned indignation over the freedom of India’s foreign policy. “Myanmar (Burma) is not a country on the dark side of the moon but a country on our borders with which we have to deal,” said one of these “sources.”
Several others, and not only of the Left, had uncomfortable questions of another kind for Obama and Washington. Were they driven by similar concern for democracy and the people’s rights elsewhere and everywhere? What has been the fate of democracy and pro-democracy movements in countries across continents – in the Middle East and Latin America, for example – under regimes that the US counts among its friends?
On July 5, 2010, in Paris, the Earth Rights International released an explosive, 49-page report titled “Energy Insecurity: How Total, Chevron, and PTTEP Contribute to Human Rights Violations, Financial Secrecy, and Nuclear Proliferation in Burma.” The report speaks of how the oil companies – Chevron (US), Total (France) and PTTEP (Thailand) have generated over nine billion US dollars, nearly US $5 billion of which has gone directly to the junta. Washington has taken no action whatsoever on the basis of this report, despite its well-advertised sympathy for the Burmese cause.
Washington has never concealed its attempt to keep New Delhi away from participation in an Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. But it has expressed no such explicit objection to India’s plans for a gas pipeline from Burma, through either Bangladesh or the eastern Indian States of Mizoram and Tripura.
With such friends of “democracy,” Burma’s junta does not stand in desperate need of support from its avowed allies, including China.