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India keen to build bridges with Suu Kyi


India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Photo: NDTV screenshot

India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Photo: NDTV screenshot

India is keen to build bridges with democracy icon and Myanmar's new Foreign Minister Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Indian external affairs ministry officials told Mizzima they have received instructions from the Prime Minister's office to 'find a suitable opportunity' to invite Suu Kyi to India. They said India is considering some special arrangements for Myanmar pilgrims to Buddhist sites like Bodh Gaya and Sarnath.

"Maybe if we get a big enough project for them, we could invite Madam (Suu Kyi) to inaugurate it. But it has to be big enough to suit her stature," said a top MEA official, on condition of anonymity.

India is keen to augment its presence in Myanmar and its embassy has recently organised conferences to boost trade and investment.

“But our top priority is now to cultivate Suu Kyi because she is the real power in the present government," the MEA official said.

India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and its external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Chief Rajinder Khanna have a major influence on the Myanmar policy of the Modi administration.

Khanna has worked in Myanmar and Doval was an Intelligence Bureau officer on Myanmar's border early on in his career.

Though both have a security focus and containing Chinese influence is uppermost in their minds, Doval and Khanna see Myanmar as India's land bridge into Southeast Asia.

In a recent review of India's Myanmar policy during the last two decades, top shots of the Modi administration were very critical of the Devegowda-Gujral-Vajpayee policy of shunning Suu Kyi and staying away from supporting the democracy movement and placing all faith in developing strong ties with the military.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has voiced her reservations about the 'ill-conceived policy of putting all eggs in one basket.”

The review said India should build bridges with the 'forces of democracy" and revive its lost links with the movement and the party leading it, the National League for Democracy (NLD). 

The Rajiv Gandhi government (1984-1989) was the last Indian government that came out in open support of the democracy movement, providing shelter to Myanmar refugees and even financially backing the democracy movement through covert channels.

Successive government after that focussed on repairing its ties with the military which had so far been left to the army.

"But India missed the winds of change in this century and the Congress government stuck to its policy of only courting the army. The Chinese were doing that much better but they kept their channels open to Suu Kyi," says former deputy chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency Maj Gen Gaganjit Singh.

"Our ambassadors were not even wishing her on her birthday." 

That is all set to change. The BJP is not making a serious effort to develop party-to-party relations with the NLD but the Modi administration is making an effort to rebuild bridges with Suu Kyi.

"Indian diplomacy is all about losing out on obvious advantages, as we have seen in Nepal. Suu Kyi was educated in India and our democracy is her role model. But instead of backing her movement strongly which we should have done, we started avoiding her. Successive ambassadors were stupid in doing that," says a retired R&AW officer who served in Myanmar under consular cover. He was not willing to be named. 

"These ambassadors even resented the secret contacts we maintained with NLD." 

One R&AW officer who lashed out openly against this policy was the late B B Nandi who insisted India must strongly back both the democracy movement and also the struggle of ethnic nationalities to help Myanmar emerge as a successful democratic federation.

“Or else we will lose both the mango and the sack," Nandi would say, quoting a Bengali proverb. 

R&AW is now at the forefront of influencing change in India's Myanmar policy, led by a chief who knows the country and enjoys the confidence of his Prime Minister and his National Security Advisor.

“Some impact of these initiatives may not be visible, but you will soon see how it pans out," said a top official in the NSA office. 

India's outgoing ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay has done much to boost India’s profile in Myanmar, though many of his projects (like an exchange of parliamentarians) failed to find support with his MEA bosses in Delhi.

But he may be inducted into the new Modi team to handle Myanmar.

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