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Mainstream, VOL L, No 49, November 24, 2012

Not the Friends in Need

Saturday 1 December 2012


If India had stood solidly by the forces fighting to restore democracy in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi may have made this country her first stop when she travelled to receive encomiums around the world. Considering the strong influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings in her life, and her stay here as a student when her mother was Burma’s ambassador to India, it was the obvious first choice. This did not happen, mainly because India shied away from speaking plainly for democracy and non-violence to the Burmese military regime during its harshest avatar. The stiff establishment aura at the Jawarharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture at Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan demonstrated the government’s inabilty to understand the true meaning of democracy.

Indians of all shades who had actively raised their voices for democracy in Burma for over two decades were as eager to see and hear Daw Suu as the struggling refugees from all parts of Burma who had fled here from the prospect of jail and death. Sadly, Vigyan Bhavan’s officialdom saw to it that all such activists, both Indian and Burmese, were shunted upstairs to the over-crowded balcony, and that too under duress. Elite spaces were reserved for safe establishment faces, most of whom had never bothered to utter a public word in favour of democracy in Burma. Among the many relegated to oblivion were retired Foreign Secretaries, prominent human rights lawyers and civil rights activists, prominent political figures, and the bulk of the Burmese population who have spent their years marching and shouting “We want demo-cracee!” to the world. Many who had occupied Parliament Street or demonstrated outside the Burmese embassy, presenting petitions on behalf of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, eluded official consciousness. This fiercely committed and passionate crowd, whom Daw Suu would have considered the real “people” of India and Burma, was considered too unimportant to be invited. They were clearly the forgotten torchbearers of the Burmese democracy movement in India.

Soe Myint, among the most committed political activists, now a journalist, returned to Burma recently. He had lived for many years at the residence of George Fernandes who had thrown open his house to Burma’s refugees to shelter them from deportation. His home became their home; his address, their address.

Arakans, Chins, Karens, Burmese, artists, journalists, children, women, at one time or another, occupied some part of his sprawling home at 3 Krishna Menon Marg. He conducted meetings on democracy, struggle and unity. He convened a major inter-national conference at Mavlankar Hall in the late 1990s to call for the restoration of democracy in Burma. It was the first public message of its kind by a neighbour and by any other major country in the world. Former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral remarked at its inaugural session, with a touch of amusement, that Fernandes had always been a fighter for lost causes. The conference resolved that a cause is lost only when people give up fighting. Many like Soe Myint have now become middle-aged. They have become excellent political workers capable of leading their people and contributing positively to their country’s future. They were at Vigyan Bhavan, unnoticed by our establishment. However, Soe Myint was not one to forget his Indian friends. He and other Burmese activists protested and obtained invitation cards for them. One said “George Fernandes, c/o Vikaspuri” which is where most Burmese in Delhi now live. That the ailing Fernandes’ address had once been theirs, and now their address had been made his, was a piece of irony too stark to ignore, notwithstanding the fact he would have happily sat in the back row with his Burmese “children”. Apart from individuals, the organisers failed to ensure India’s Opposition leaders were invited and seated in the front row, to demonstrate the value of dissent and differing ideologies in a democracy.

A film on Nehru was shown inside the imposing main hall. It mentioned that Nehru especially loved children and that November 14 was celebrated as Children’s Day in India. At the gates, on the same occasion, Burmese families who brought their children for a glimpse of their icon were not allowed to enter the building.

In her speech, Daw Suu remained true to herself as she gently, gracefully, but honestly took various Indian governments to task for not standing by her people’s fight against an undemocratic and oppressive regime. Though she tempered it by saying that while governments come and go, as they do in a democracy, the people of India and Burma continued to support each other, the organisers of the show at Vigyan Bhavan, not surprisingly, had not thought of this.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author is a former President of the Samata Party.

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