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Much warmth, some restraint at Manmohan's meeting with Suu Kyi

Aditi Phadnis  |  Yangon 

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) won 44 of the 46 by-elections it contested earlier this year, was warm. However, both parties were careful not to go overboard.

On behalf of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Singh invited Suu Kyi to deliver the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi. He recalled Suu Kyi’s family relationship with India and said it was “an honour and a privilege” to interact with her. He said Myanmar was undergoing a process of national reconciliation, led by President Thein Sein, and wished Suu Kyi and her party success in the process.

Suu Kyi recalled her fond memories of Delhi, saying her parents had asked her to address Jawaharlal Nehru as Panditji. She said Myanmar and India were bound by deep ties and hoped she would be able to visit India “before too long”. Suu Kyi, known widely as the most famous political prisoner and a touchstone of Western liberal conscience, studied in Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College in the 60s, when her mother was posted in Delhi as ambassador. Now, at 67, Suu Kyi knows she has little time at hand. If Myanmar misses its 2015 deadline for democracy, it may never return from the grey zone.

In his biography of Suu Kyi, The Lady and The Peacock, journalist Peter Popham says she went to Oxford University in 1964 to get “out from under the thumb of her very fierce mother”. When she failed to secure admission into the programmes of her choice, English and forestry, she studied philosophy and “ended up with a very poor degree, a third.” He says during her years at the university, “she fell in love with a Pakistani,” a relationship that “ended in tears.” She then moved to New York for a job at the United Nations and stayed there for three years, living with a family friend who was once a famous Burmese pop singer.

This caused her mother great despair. In 1972, she married a British scholar, Michael Aris, who was “not a natural politician.”

Popham says when driven to it, Suu Kyi is implacable to the point of stubbornness. Though her husband was dying of prostate cancer, she did not leave Myanmar because she was afraid the government would not let her return.

Now that she is in active politics, she might have to think harder about Myanmar’s future. With the Army permeating every layer of society and politics here, the task before her is not easy.

Suu Kyi, however, has indicated she would break the structure apart, brick by brick. In the few statements she has made, she has said she wanted to amend the constitution that guaranteed sweeping powers to the military, scrap the separate tribunal for military officers and do away with a clause that stated to amend the constitution, 75 per cent of the legislature had to agree to it. This is despite the fact that 25 per cent of the seats are reserved for the military.

The military is conscious of how much it stands to lose. So, if the NLD asks for too much, it might panic and roll back even the baby steps it has taken towards democracy, put Suu Kyi back in prison and return to status quo ante.

However, diplomatic observers here say it is likely Suu Kyi and the military would strike a deal before the general elections in 2015. This could involve some ‘sacrifices’ on the part of the military. Just what these would be, NLD, and India among others, is keen on finding out.

This is one reason why despite the warmth at the meeting between Prime Minister Singh and Suu Kyi, there was no unconditional endorsement of Suu Kyi as Myanmar’s sole political leader. India is conscious of the fact that Myanmar must find its own level of democracy. It is also aware that the country might be able to take Myanmar out of the Army, but residual elements would remain, however disappointing this may be for the West.

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First Published: Wed, May 30 2012. 00:54 IST