Asia-Pacific

Burma leader expects silence from India visit

As Burma's top leader, General Than Shwe, pays a five-day state visit to India, the BBC's Hindi Service editor Amit Baruah asks what reaction the military ruler can expect from the world's largest democracy.

Image caption The general is unlikely to face open diplomatic pressure in Delhi

Silence. And the absence of disapproval.

That is what Burma's Gen Than Shwe will be looking for from Delhi, after touching down in the Buddhist pilgrimage town of Bodh Gaya on Sunday morning.

And he will get it.

As Burma's junta prepares to hold much-criticised elections later this year, the silence of the world's largest democracy on Than Shwe's plans will be good enough for the ruling generals, many of whom are shedding their military stripes ahead of the polls.

When Than Shwe meets Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Hyderabad House in Delhi, there will be no press conference, not even a sound bite. Silence will be guaranteed.

After giving its full-throated support to the democratic movement after the 1990 elections in Burma, India has studiously wooed the generals - who first lived in Rangoon and now reside in the new capital of Naypyitaw - for over a decade.

With the one-party state of China by its side already, Than Shwe will be keen to ensure India's silence - and possibly by extension, support - for the elections, which will not see the participation of jailed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's now disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD).

As China's strategic shadow looms large over Burma, India will allow Than Shwe to pay homage for the second time in six years at Mahatma Gandhi's memorial in Delhi during his visit.

Amar Kanwar, a Delhi-based film-maker who sneaked in to capture Than Shwe paying floral tributes at Gandhi's memorial in a short five-minute film during his October 2004 trip, said before the visit that a handful of Burmese activists would be protesting.

In his film The Face, Kanwar said he wanted to show the man who has kept democracy icon Ms Suu Kyi in prison all these years.

"I felt that the world knew Aung San Suu Kyi but did not know what the guy who held her in detention looked like," he said.

Also, in Mr Kanwar's words, he wanted to show "one of the world's most brutal men" offering his respects at the memorial of the apostle of peace and non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi.

"It's a shame that there will be no protests from India's civil society, though some posters have sprung up in Bodh Gaya," Mr Kanwar told the BBC.

'No choice'

Image caption Protesters are angry India is not doing more to force change in Burma

In recent years, India has built roads in Burma, provided satellite data, supplied military equipment and avoided any public criticism of the regime.

In March this year, the Tata group announced it would be setting up a heavy truck manufacturing unit in Magwe, Burma, under a line of credit extended by Burma.

Neelam Deo, a former Indian Foreign Ministry official who has dealt with Burma, feels that Delhi has no choice but to talk to the generals.

"If there is no fundamental change in Burma following the elections, it makes no sense for the government of India not to engage with the military government. And there won't be," she told the BBC.

India, which shares a 1,600-km land border with Burma, faces several ongoing insurgencies in its north-eastern region, where it believes that the generals could be of help.

Indian officialdom has long believed that Burma not providing any oxygen to these insurgencies is a good enough reason to keep channels open with the junta.

Neelam Deo, however, admits it is difficult to judge whether or not India is gaining in the battle against insurgency from Burmese help. In a sense, India is engaged in "preventive diplomacy" to ensure matters in the north-east do not get out of hand.

She also believes that Western nations have not delivered on dealing with Burma. "[US President Barack] Obama has shown no staying power on Burma or on Iran. Being consumed by an economic crisis doesn't mean you don't pursue issues like Burma seriously."

'Courageous torchbearer'

Thin Thin Aung, a Delhi-based Burmese activist who will be out protesting against Than Shwe's visit, said India should be helping the process of change in her country.

"They should help the people achieve democracy rather than help the generals," she said.

Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told the BBC that Delhi should convey to Than Shwe the need to restore parliamentary democracy in Burma.

After the 1990 elections, where Ms Suu Kyi's party scored a convincing win, India welcomed with open arms Burmese students fleeing from repression at home.

In 1993, a Congress party government, currently also the leading party in India's ruling coalition, conferred the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding on Aung San Suu Kyi.

The award citation read: "Amid the turbulence of an era in transition, Aung San Suu Kyi adhered strictly to a peaceful struggle in her espousal of democracy in her country Myanmar [Burma].

"India pays tribute to a courageous torchbearer of this tradition of peace and non-violence; and to a luminous example of the indomitable human spirit that can change the course of history."

Ironically, Than Shwe will travel from Bodh Gaya to Delhi where he will once again pay tribute at the Mahatma's memorial, while Ms Suu Kyi remains under detention in her own house in Rangoon at his orders.

For a rising India, the wheel has come full circle on Burma.