Balancing act: India tries to keep both Suu Kyi, junta happy

SAlman
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid's maiden visit to Myanmar is proving to be a subtle balancing act that seeks to deliver a clear message to the ruling military regime that regardless of the glowing welcome pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi got in New Delhi last month, India will press ahead with engaging Naypyitaw's government of the day.

So, nowhere in Khurshid's conversation with Myanmar's President Thein Sein on Friday did the issue of building democracy come up in a significant way, except when India's stated support to the transition process was mentioned. On the contrary, India pitched for a friendship foundation on the lines of the China-Myanmar friendship association in a bid to underline its strategic reliability.

Khurshid also announced $1 million for projects that will bring communities together in the Rakhine area where Rohingya Muslim refugees have been persecuted. India will also open a consulate in Sittwe, a port city in the same area, to expand its presence. Suu Kyi, incidentally, has come under criticism for her silence on the issue.

For India, Rakhine is important because the Sittwe port constitutes a crucial part of the ambitious Kaladan multi-modal transit project that proposes to provide alternate access to the Northeast, skirting Bangladesh. This is also the area through which China is planning to build a pipeline from Bangladesh.

Myanmar, for its part, expressed willingness to build a separate pipeline to India for which Bangladesh would have to be roped in. Similarly, defence cooperation is set to expand with Khurshid making the point that all three service chiefs have visited Myanmar and that Defence minister A K Antony is due to visit next month. Thein Sein himself will be in New Delhi soon for the India-ASEAN summit. He also conveyed his desire to host President Pranab Mukherjee whom he wants to get to know better.

While the breadth and pace of engagement, going by the sheer frequency of visits, is meant to underline India's commitment to the current regime, the other side of the balance is dealing with Suu Kyi in a manner that she is supportive of the Indian approach.

To that extent, Khurshid made his first diplomatic move, equating Suu Kyi to Nelson Mandela ahead of their meeting in Yangon on Saturday.

"I see shades of Nelson Mandela in her. He dealt with people who oppressed him and kept him under arrest. He did it with tremendous amount of sagacity and generosity because his priority was to rebuild South Africa rather than complain about the past and I see shades of that in her strategy and in the manner in which she is working with the government today," he said en-route to Myanmar.

In fact, according to him, she may still not be happy with the change that has taken place, but nevertheless she is engaging with the government. "That's exactly what we did," he added.

At the same time, Khurshid downplayed Suu Kyi's public expression of "disappointment" with India for its proximity to the military regime during her "difficult days". While conceding that there may have been a "degree of divergence" between her expectations and the Indian response, he said:

"This happens in many parts of the world because you balance the ground reality with your aspirations and principles and that's the way the real world works. If she looks at the balance sheet, she will find that we did stand by her at important moments."

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