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SANJOY HAZARIKA
NORTH BY NORTHEAST

Sanjoy Hazarika is a columnist, author, filmmaker, Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair at the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.

India is losing the Burma plot; use NE as springboard

'India needs to strengthen bilateral relations with its old friend Burma.'

Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (L) talks to journalists during a press conference in Yangon earlier this month. AP/PTI

ssam's Rongali Bihu is here, so are Pongal and Baisakhi, including the Bangla Poila Baisak. In South East Asia, between Myanmar and Cambodia, stretching across the Buddhist heartland of Thailand and Laos, millions celebrate Songkran and Thingyan, the Buddhist New Year, with millions of gallons of perfumed water — or just plain water — poured over revellers in streets and homes, offices and marketplaces, in a joyous embrace of the colours of life and the advent of a new year.

In Myanmar — the old Burma — there is cause for celebration as Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady, storms even the bastion of the military junta that has ruled her country for 50 years (it's exactly half a century when General Ne Win ousted Premier U Nu in a coup and tossed him and thousands of others into prison, beginning Burma's long night of state oppression and isolation from the world).

Okay, so Suu Kyi hasn't captured power, but she has showed what an astonishingly empowering thing freedom is — especially to elect your representatives. In the new capital of Naypyidaw, staffed by government officers, their families and soldiers, she won all seats on offer. The sprawling metropolis is one of the fastest growing cities in the world with a population of about one million.

That means that she got the support of the foot soldiers of government and the most powerful institution in Burma: the army. This is an extraordinary achievement, but it is only part of a fairytale, which could still turn into a nightmare, so let us be aware, and beware of possible dangers and threats to a happy ending.

Today, thanks to a general who's turned civilian President Thein Sein, Burma can celebrate freedom and savour the heady aroma of a nascent democracy. This country of 50 million is beginning to find voice even as it begins an unsteady march into the future.

Businessmen from across the world are swarming here, especially after US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made her much-publicised visit, embraced Aung San Suu Kyi and shook hands with the President.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron is on his way to a former colony that his countrymen cheated and pauperised as they did many other colonies. I hope that Cameron has the good sense to review history and see the fraud that the British inflicted on the Burmese and reflect on that in his talks and interactions. But I doubt whether this will happen, given his record. Yet, the visit will probably pave the way for the eventual lifting of sanctions as the world watches and waits for the Burmese drama to unfold. In the wings, waiting too, is the Burmese military, which has, in reality, nearly two-third of the seats in Parliament. Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has a bare 6%.

In all this, we must ask, "Where is India?" Our officials and ministers hasten to Yangon and Naypyidaw for talks on security issues, bilateral ties, mutual energy and economic boosting projects. But we are missing the big picture. We haven't participated in the Burmese celebration of democracy as robustly as we should; our politicians and foreign office mandarins, generals and businessmen should have made a beeline for Burma years back. For too long, we've focused on the claptrap of "tackling northeastern insurgents", which the Burmese are totally disinterested in because these fellows don't pose the least threat to them.

We're losing the plot on our eastern front even as the world streams to Myanmar. We have too long wasted too much time on our western borders with intractable neighbours and implacable foes. Bangladesh and Burma are our friends and have always been.

Burma is a poor nation: it needs basic services still, not just high-end investment.

So, strengthen the eastern front, throw open the eastern gates, send in cultural diplomats, business barons, bankers and educators, health institutions and agricultural specialists like Dr M.S. Swaminathan.

If we are not to fail, then Delhi must use the Northeast as the natural springboard to launch an economic, cultural, health, diplomatic and education offensive with military collaboration to partner Naypyidaw.

 
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