Thursday, May 14, 2009

Burmese Brouhaha

On May 14, 2009, 63-year-old Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, was moved from her home to Insien Prison. She was charged with violating the terms of her house arrest. Her arrest grew out of a bizarre event in which John Yettaw, a Vietnam veteran from Missouri, swam across the Inya lake and spent at least one night on the grounds of her home, where she has been confined for 13 of the past 19 years. For the past few years she has been in frail health and it is believed being incarcerated under harsh conditions could prove fatal.

Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest was due to expire at the end of May. There is a legal requirement to charge her or else release her from detention. At this crucial juncture, this incident is being seen by critics as a pretext to put her behind bars. The charges against her of breaching the terms of her house arrest show that the military junta will not tolerate any challenge to its power and legitimacy. Despite international pressure and concern, the Burmese government seems intent on pursuing elections in 2010, which the generals think will legitimise their rule.

Once again there is outcry mostly from the west and not a sigh from the region. While US and UK contemplate sanctions India in the grips of an election does not seem to have even registered this major event. All the major media outlets and online publications are preoccupied with the "circus" known as the Indian election and Aishwarya Rai's red carpet strut at the Cannes film festival. BBC, New York Times and Al Jazeera have all given this event prime coverage, why this apathy from the region?

Aung San Suu Kyi embodies everything for our times that Mahatma Gandhi did for his. She is an inspiration to anyone who believes in the ideals of freedom and democracy. Her imposed silence is a powerful force for change and change is coming. Nations and governments who do not recognize this fail their people and the world. The 2007 mass uprising of the Burmese people (Burma VJ) against their oppressors could not turn the tide, lets hope this new development will. Lets hope good conscience and sense prevails in the region and the plight of the Burmese people triumphs over profit. It is what it is.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Impotent Superpower

War rages on in the south in Sri Lanka. In the west Pakistan and Afghanistan are entering yet another bloody chapter in their war for survival. In the east non-violent mass democracy movements are thwarted over and over again by the military junta of Burma. Political instability is an ever present danger in the north in Nepal. Surrounded by chaos India prides itself to be a strong stable political democracy and sees itself as a "superpower". But is it really worthy of being one?

Quintessentially India is a regional "superpower" without a doubt. A nuclear arsenal, a large standing well equipped army, navy and air force, a space program, software, 9% growth rate etc. all make it a nation worthy of the label. But when it comes to real seismic political and diplomatic influence India falls way short in its behavior as a regional power. When it comes to real tangible action in keeping peace in the region and promoting values that form the skeleton of its very being, India comes across as an inward looking parochial nation.

In 2007 when the Burmese people spilled onto the streets in a mass non-violent protest against the junta, none seen like since the Indian uprising against the British, the Indian government stood in the sidelines and watched. As the military regime put down the movement with brutal force (Burma VJ) India's voice was barely heard on the international scene. On the contrary in 2008 India signed several agreements with the repressive regime to explore petroleum and natural gas in the region. Joining China, Korea and Japan in inadvertently propping up the military junta.

According to the Worldwatch Institute in the last two decades the civil war in Sri Lanka has killed more than 60,000 people with another 20,000 missing. One of them being the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by a suicide bomber from Sri Lanka in 1991.

For the past decade Norway has played the role of the peacemaker between the Sri Lankan government and the rebels, only with limited successes. In the late 80's Rajiv Gandhi unlike other past and present leaders had engaged with the warring parties in a hope to be the peacemaker. The Indian army was sent in on a peace keeping mission which failed miserably. The mission was dubbed India's Vietnam. The leader of the Tamil rebel movement LTTE was invited to New Delhi to broker a peace deal, that failed as well. The Indian prime minister paid for it with his life.

Today as the Sri Lankan army fights to the finish, thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil civilians have been caught in the cross fire. There is a compete media black out. Reports coming out of the region can never be authentically corroborated. The United Nations once again proves impotent and powerless in stopping the carnage and the battle rages on taking with it women, children, the old and the young as collateral damage. India once again watches from the side line as the Tamils, whose origins are from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, face the brunt of this war. Demonstrations in Canada and London have reverberated on the international scene bringing the plight of the Tamils to the world, but the voice from India once again lies silent.

On the western front as Pakistan engages the Taliban in the Swat valley and beyond, civilians in the thousands have been displaced into rag tag tents. An estimated half a million people are on the run from the Taliban, the Pakistan army and the American drones. There is no end in sight to this war and prospects of it spilling into Kashmir and destabilizing the region are much too real. Once again India watches and waits from the sidelines.

What does this posture the Indian government takes decade after decade mean? On one hand India has many grave internal security problems that it has to contend with on a daily basis and an argument can be made that it does not need to pile on more on its back. Unlike the US, the only other sizable democratic superpower, India does not have aspirations of empire and does not make it its business to spread democracy around the world. America on the other hand sees itself as the "global police" and makes it a point to exert its influence on a global scale, with sometimes questionable motives. For better or worse America does engage and therefore can call itself a "superpower". There are a number of blunders America has made in the chess game of power but it has also had the reputation of finding solutions through diplomacy and engagement. To its own detriment, America often cleans up the mess when regional powers are not willing to step up to the plate.

While the American envoy Richard Holbrooke does damage control and trots around the region making deals, why cannot India take the lead for a change? Why cannot India behave like a "superpower" for the right reasons? There is only political and diplomatic capital to be gained. This is the time to work with Pakistan to build stronger bridges and mutual trust. This is time to stand up against repressive regimes and use the word "Gandhi" where we can. This is the time to help people. It is easy to say it is their problem and not ours. And look where that has brought us. It is what it is.