NEW DELHI - Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi arrives Tuesday in India - a country that disappointed Burmese pro-democracy activists by building close ties with Burma's military rulers in recent years. The visit will help India counter criticism that it had abandoned its commitment to the return of democracy in Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi is no stranger to India. She attended college in New Delhi while her mother served as ambassador to India about 50 years ago. She has described Indian independence leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as great influences on her.
New Delhi joined the world in calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi during the initial years of her detention by the Burmese military rulers. But it made a dramatic turnaround in its policy toward its neighbor in the mid 1990s, and began engaging Burma’s military rulers.
Photo Gallery: Aung San Suu Kyi
As India dropped its earlier condemnation of human rights violation in Burma, Burmese pro-democracy activists stopped seeing New Delhi as a force for democratic change in their country.
“In the past, pro-democracy activists were so disappointed. I really expect that India can do more, India should do more," says Alana Golmei, coordinator at the Burma Center, Delhi. "There are lots of questions…what will come out of this. Will India be sincere enough?”
India’s courting of Burmese military leaders was influenced by its neighbor’s strategic importance. Burma is rich in resources such as oil and gas that India needs. New Delhi wanted to counterbalance China, which had reached out to the isolated regime and made deep inroads into the country. New Delhi also needed Burma’s help in controlling insurgent groups that operate along the common border in India’s northeast.
But as Burma undergoes a political transformation, New Delhi wants to repair ties with the pro-democracy movement. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on a visit to Burma in May, met Aung San Suu Kyi and invited her to deliver the prestigious Jawaharlal Memorial Lecture in New Delhi this Wednesday.
Her five-day visit to India will also include meetings with top Indian political leaders, and a brief meeting with Burmese activists in New Delhi.
The Indian foreign ministry has called her visit an opportunity to build upon the positive momentum in bilateral relations. It says the visit is part of India’s policy of hosting high-level Burmese leaders.
Bharat Karnad at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research says that India is likely to do a fine balancing act.
“It is going to be very, very warm, very personal, extremely effusive, but the Indian government is not going to get into taking positions on Aung San Suu Kyi’s own political future or that of her party," notes Karnad. "I don’t think the Indian government will want to risk once again alienating the Burmese generals by going over the top as it were.”
However, Burmese pro-democracy activists hope that Aung San Suu Kyi's visit will not just be part of an image makeover by New Delhi. They want India to play a larger role in helping Burma along the long road to political change.
India has offered to assist Burma's democratization process, train its parliamentarians and build the capacity of institutions like the National Human Rights Commission. Burma has sent local journalists to India to see how a multi-ethnic, Asian democracy can function.
A former member of parliament of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League of Democracy, Tint Swe, has lived in New Delhi in exile for the last 20 years. He feels the visit provides a ray of hope.
“Why not Indian government approach to Burma change? We want the best things from India including business, including trade, including investment," Swe says. "Number one is the democracy ideas. India’s business in Burma should be more transparent, more responsible for Burma. We need good education from India.”
This is the message that Aung San Suu Kyi is also likely to give in India. Her visit will also be tinged with nostalgia. She will visit her former college in New Delhi - now one of the country's most prestigious. She will also travel to India's information technology hub, Bangalore, and rural areas of Andhra Pradesh to look at rural development and women's empowerment programs.