Timothy Garton Ash: Step Up, India

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.]

If we want to help pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the cause of freedom in Myanmar (also known as Burma), we must hope that India rediscovers the spirit of its better self. The world's largest democracy needs urgently to review its approach to one of the world's worst tyrannies, which squats like a toad on its very doorstep. Otherwise, it seems highly unlikely that the weak, divided opposition forces inside Burma and Western support outside can generate the leverage needed to help to success the nonviolent, negotiated revolution that the liberated heroine has again evoked. So long as Burma's generals can rely on China's strategic and commercial realpolitik, and on the trade and energy-hungry equivocation of Thailand and other ASEAN countries, the only external power that can change the balance of forces in and around Burma is India.

Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong. But a cool analysis suggests that the Burmese buck stops in New Delhi. Heavy-handed lectures to India from former colonial powers or the United States are clearly out of place and may well be counterproductive. This is not a matter of asking India to snap into line with Western policy. On the contrary, we in the West should be looking to the regional democratic giant to tell us how best to facilitate change in the miserable dictatorship next door. That is how things should work in an increasingly post-Western world. And who better to point the way than the country of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru?

Fortunately, there now are a few important Indian voices raising the necessary questions about Indian policy more authoritatively than any Western commentator can. In a recent column, Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian minister of state for external affairs and United Nations undersecretary general, recalled his country's course from perhaps excessive idealism to unprincipled soi-disant realism. Nehru was friends with Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, the leader of Burma's independence struggle. Suu Kyi herself lived and studied in New Delhi, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, India gave her and her National League for Democracy generous support.

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