Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Long Road to Democracy

(THe New Indian Express Nov 19, 2012)

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Aung San Suu Kyi’s long journey to democracy brought her to the country that shaped her personality and inspired her to fight for freedom for her people. Rising to deliver the Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi was one of the finest moments of her life perhaps next only to receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace. It was also a poignant moment, as she had to come to terms with India’s policy of befriending the very military junta, which kept her in a cage for more than twenty years.

“I was saddened”, she said, “by the fact that India had drawn away in our most difficult days but always had faith in our lasting relationship. Even more significantly, she observed, “Friendship should be based between people and not governments: governments come and go.” This was a masterstroke on her part. In a way she justified the Indian action by attributing it to compulsions of governments, or realpolitik, from time to time. If there were to be an opinion poll in India during the period of her incarceration, she would have been voted more popular than any of the military leaders in Myanmar. The people of India were with her throughout, while the government had to deal with the people in power. India’s position has always been that it recognizes states, not governments and that it deals with every government that has control over territory.

At no time in history has an authoritarian regime permitted a democratic leader to campaign for democracy abroad even before democracy becomes a reality in that country. Nor has an American President ever visited a country in which the US has sought, but not accomplished a regime change. The military leadership, Suu Kyi and Barack Obama are taking calculated risks with implicit and explicit motives, which are not mutually complementary. The military, which has penetrated every sector of the society of Myanmar has much to lose if full democracy is restored and it will struggle hard before conceding any ground to democracy. At the same time, the army needs to get the sanctions lifted and foreign investments facilitated. Suu Kyi has to watch her steps and words carefully to ensure that the army is not offended and the pro-democracy movements in Myanmar and outside are not disillusioned. Obama must have satisfied himself that the democratic reforms in progress will not be reversed, even while enjoying the hospitality of the junta. All the three have a stake in the future course of Myanmarese history.

Suu Kyi has been impeccable in her pronouncements on democracy abroad. In Delhi, she said: “We have not achieved the goal of democracy. We are still trying and we hope that in this last, I hope, and most difficult phase the people of India will stand by us and walk by us as we proceed along the path that they were able to proceed many years before us.” She is not unaware that he path ahead is different from the path India took, but she clearly hinted that the path ahead was hard and unpredictable.

In 1971, Suu Kyi arrived in Bhutan as the young bride of Michael Aris and was mistaken initially in the social circles as one of the Bhutanese princesses. She was friendly with us in the Indian Embassy in Bhutan because of her long association with India, which she narrated with exquisite charm and nostalgia, this time in Delhi. She gave a subtle hint of her father’s path being different from that of Gandhiji and that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was a greater hero than Pandit Nehru in the eyes of the Burmese. The generosity that Pandit Nehru showed to Aung San’s family after the latter’s death was particularly significant against that backdrop.

India’s policy towards Burma under the long reign of Ne Win and his successors took several twists and turns. Ne Win, who once took over power by invitation and later by a military coup, had an ambivalent attitude to India. While he was ruthless in depriving the fleeing Indians of their wealth, he maintained good relations with the Nehru family and the Indian leadership. His isolationist policy kept us away from Burma, except for cultural contacts, though we tried to open up trade contacts by importing rice from Burma. But among all our neighbours, Burma made the least demands of us and caused us no embarrassment internationally. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Ne Win flew to an unnamed destination to meditate in grief. I accompanied him to Delhi when he went on a condolence visit and saw for myself the love he showered on Rajiv Gandhi as the “uncle”, who came calling at the time of grief.  India was a sentimental link even for Ne Win, but it never translated into a meaningful relationship.

Right through the elections, the bloodshed and the consolidation of the junta, India remained committed to Democracy and showed our attachment to Suu Kyi. We blocked the return of Myanmar to the Nonaligned Movement at a Ministerial Meeting in Bali. The subsequent decision to do business with the military regime in Yangon was an effort by India to wean Myanmar away from China and to seek some economic benefits for us at a time when western sanctions were in effect. Myanmarese saw in our overtures an opportunity to diversify their external relationships and to gain respectability. As for the benefits, which accrued to us, these have not been significant, essentially because we ourselves have been negligent of follow-up action to many proposals for cooperation.

One welcome indication out of the visit of Suu Kyi even before the advent of democracy is that she carries no grudge against India for its proximity to the military government. But how soon she will become the leader of a democratic government and pursue policies friendly to India is a matter of speculation. In fact, she would be beholden, first and foremost, to those who stood by her and brought her back to the reckoning and that is the signal that she is giving to China by not going there before her trips to the US and India. We too will have to take our turn to benefit from the opening up of Myanmar.
The limited agenda of seeking cooperation in dealing with the insurgents on the India-Myanmar border, sharing some of the energy resources of Myanmar and establishing the base for a beneficial trade relationship can be pursued even during the transition to democracy. But whether democracy will eventually give us immense benefits is a matter to be seen. China and the United States are likely to call the shots even in a democratic structure.

Suu Kyi’s pursuit of democracy could be long and arduous, but she has shown remarkable skills in managing the military so far. She has the potential to get on with governance, whatever role she assumes in the years to come. She has refused to take sides in the conflict between the Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingyas on the plea that her role would be to bring about reconciliation rather than to take sides. The same spirit may prevail in Myanmar if she succeeds in sending the military back to the barracks.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Malayalee Mindset

Speaking the last word on the theme of transforming mindsets, I would like to look at the Malayalee mindset and see what transformation is needed to make ourselves more modern, productive, and closer to universal norms of behavior. We are generally sharper in intellect, more creative and more innovative than many people. We have had the opportunity to interact with many cultures for centuries and even today we have greater global reach than many others. But the paradox is that there is much in our mindset that needs attention and correction, much in our ways that baffles others. It is said that any observation you make on India, the opposite of it will also be true and we should bear in mind that this is so also about Kerala.

The paradox is explained in a story of a bane and a boon. The bane of the Malayalees at the time of their creation was that they were dull, disorganized and lazy, although they were in an enchanting land. They complained bitterly to the Almighty, who gave them a boon that they would be perfect once they took off from Kerala and settled abroad. So we have two kinds of Malayalees, according to this tale, one that remains with the bane in Kerala, undisciplined and lazy, the other, the beneficiaries of the boon, courteous and industrious, in other lands. The story may be apocryphal, but it underlines the fact that the Malayalees are capable of changing their mindset and mend their ways to be successful outside Kerala. They are trusted and depended upon in countries from Mauritius to Malaysia, from the Gulf to the Americas. The joke in Malaysia was that the name of their airline, MAS, stood for “Malayalees Are Supreme.”

The story of the Kerala crabs is well known. They are exported in open cans, as no crab will allow another to climb up in any circumstance. We are highly individualistic, incapable of working as a team. Our superb intellect and creative energy are frittered away in internal squabbles. We are all chiefs, not Indians, as Americans would say. For a society to develop, it has to operate within which each of us has a niche. We have to learn to wait for our turn, whether we are entering an elevator or waiting to help ourselves to a buffet. We must learn from our brethren, who patiently wait in line at the beverage corporation stalls.

Social graces are generally absent in our society. We may be the only people in the world, who do not greet each other as a matter of routine. Most societies develop set phrases, to greet when they meet. Japan has a whole set of traditional expressions for every occasion to show courtesy and humility. But among us, the greeting is, at best, a smile or, at worst, a personal comment, which often shows lack of sensitivity. Gratitude is rarely expressed in Malayalam and, at best, we resort to a casual “thank you”. No Malayalam word exists even for “cheers”, though we drink Indian made foreign liquor in huge quantities. The British talk about the weather to break the ice, but we do not do it, perhaps because we have no variety in weather conditions. We need to cultivate social graces within our own society, not just outside it.

Kerala women are liberated and control the purse strings in the family, but their place is in the home. Wives are not seen or heard in public. Given a choice, we will still make them walk 30 yards behind us. True liberation will come when women are able to come out of the homes safely and occupy positions beside their men in any area of activity. Michelle Obama should be the role model for Kerala women.

Malayalees have gone global, but we remain insular in our own state and resist the winds of change. Outsiders are uncomfortable here because we tend to ignore them on social occasions after an initial introduction and resume our gossip in the vernacular. Partly, it is the inadequacy of language; partly it is lack of confidence. For a people, who have been successful abroad in various professions, we are often tongue-tied when the conversation is in English. Our students have no opportunities to speak in English, not at home, not in class, not among friends and so we remain perpetually handicapped in articulation. Finishing schools and instant English courses do not seem to have raised the general level of proficiency in English. I have seen our people, not being able to express themselves adequately even after living abroad for several years. This is more a matter of mindset, which can be changed, not a mental block. We are not poor in learning languages; we remain poor in using them.

Swami Vivekananda’s “lunatic asylum” is alive and well in Kerala even today. Religions, castes and sub-castes still divide us and the trend is to perpetuate and deepen the divisions, not to discard them. How come that education, economic development and social growth do not erase caste prejudices and practices? Caste, which was once a tool to protect the social fabric and to foster traditional professions, appears to have penetrated the psyche of our being. It strikes at the very root of democracy. We do not cast our votes, we vote our castes. The caste mindset will stay with us as long as it determines our social status, our job opportunities and our loyalties. But Kerala cannot become an egalitarian society, unless we get over our caste mindset.

There appears to be a new explosion of faith. Are we turning more and more to the Gods as we have no faith in our fellow men? Temples, churches and mosques have sprung up everywhere, as if in competition. Religious rituals are no more private between man and his God, but conspicuous display of devotion, a few degrees higher than the competitors. The aim is not to reach heaven anymore, but the Guinness Book of Records. Religious tolerance, a hallmark of Kerala in the past, is fast disappearing from our land. Even Mahabali is greeted with splurging, drinking and Bollywood talk.

The quest for leadership and public recognition must be a weakness of all human beings, but Malayalees seem to have an overdose of it. That explains the proliferation of political parties, organisations and associations. The saying goes that where there are two Malayalees, there is an association, where there are three, there are two associations, where there are four, there is a federation of associations. It is the pursuit of positions that prompts this pointless proliferation of institutions. The waste of energy and resources in our society must be phenomenal in our quest for visibility. We have an infinite infatuation for the camera at every level and the media exploits it merrily. The new tendency to put up huge flex boards of leaders, big and small, in every square and circle, must be curbed. When every one knows that the persons who are featured often finance the flex boards, what purpose do they serve? Thank God, we do not go for gigantic cut outs of leaders like in a neighboring state.

This is the same mindset that results in the immense waste of resources, time and money in our ritualistic public meetings. Any occasion is good enough for a public meeting at any time of the day and you find enough people to line up on the stage and even to occupy the front seats as fodder for verbal canons. Long welcome speeches and several felicitation remarks detract from the substance of the occasion. Speakers are selected to give them honorable appearances and not to make a contribution. Money is spent on flowers covered in plastic sheets and crude metal, glass and wood souvenirs. Unless a code of conduct is established for public meetings, much energy and resources will be wasted on them, as they do in authoritarian states. In Kenya, a hundred senior most officials would go to every meeting that the President addresses and the state machinery comes to a grinding halt. Should we have the same mindset? In the power hungry Kerala, do we need thousands of bulbs burning every time a festival passes by?

Civic sense is also a matter of mindset. Being clean ourselves, while polluting the neighborhood is classic hypocrisy. Same is the case with polluting rivers, destroying forests or turning streets into toilets. Cleanliness must be as much in the mind as in our surroundings.

Another bane of our society is the overdose of ideologies. Some of us still open our umbrellas as soon as it rains in Beijing. We are the only people who closed our shops when Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were killed. Strikes, hartals etc are still common and the consciousness is only of the rights of workers, not their responsibilities. The institution of “looking charges” should put any labour movement to shame.

Attachment to land is an obsession, not even a mindset. We kill each other for a strip of land. We are perpetually in narrow streets and inadequate civic facilities as no one parts with land even for the common good. The Malayalam University cannot get land in Ezhuthachan’s village. The same mindset thwarts proposals for industrialization. Every potential investor is suspected to be a land grabber. The lust for land skews land utilization. It is true, as Mark Twain said, land is not made any more, but judicious use of available land is essential for Kerala’s development.

In making my case for transforming the Malayalee mindset, I may have exaggerated facts, generalized isolated tendencies and caused offence. But I have not spoken as an outsider, but someone who may have the same mindset that I am seeking to transform. This was more introspection than criticism. Changes in mindset are hard to accomplish in a clean sweep. In the meantime Malayalees must be given tasks that suit their mindset and genius. Give them jobs that demand personal initiative, not collective action. Exploit them in ways that their intellectual talents and rich imagination is put to good use. Trust them to build a knowledge society and usher in a silent revolution. But if Malaylees can transform their mindset, the sky is the limit for them. If we add social graces such as courtesy, discipline and punctuality, social responsibility and industry to the other remarkable attributes of the Malayalees, we will get a productive work force, an impeccable society and a proud community. And then, as Mahakavi Vallathol said, “When we hear the name Kerala, blood will simmer in our veins.”

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Mauritius looks up to India

By T P Sreenivasan
03rd November 2012 12:00 AM
There could not have been a better venue for a regional conclave of the Indian diaspora than Mauritius. It is indeed the Indian diaspora capital of the world, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of the most concentrated presence of people of Indian origin per square kilometre. Mauritius also has the distinction of having elected a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) for the first time in history as a head of the government. “We planned a ‘mini’ Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), but there is nothing ‘mini’ about this PBD…. Next time, we should organise one, not in the Swami Vivekananda Hall (the largest facility on the island), but on the beaches where every Mauritian can join in”, said Indian high commissioner T P Seetharam. According to him, the registration had to be closed several days before the event as it had exceeded the target of 800 participants.
An African PBD had already been held in Durban earlier and so the Mauritius PBD was basically for the Indian Ocean islands, including Reunion, Madagascar and Comoros and quite naturally, Mauritius embraced it with warmth and enthusiasm. The Government of Mauritius worked with the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the High Commission of India to create a PBD to remember and one of the best-organised ones. It was an occasion for uninhibited celebration of the links with India and for demonstrating that India’s umbilical chord with the majority of Mauritius citizens is strong and durable.
In the early days of the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott talks in Washington following the 1998 nuclear tests, Talbott asked Jaswant Singh whether the latter could think of any country in the world, which would support India unconditionally if India faced a threat. While Jaswant Singh was still thinking of an answer, Talbott said, “I mean, excluding Mauritius and Bhutan”. Jaswant Singh said nothing. This may not be a true story, but it tells a lot of the truth. There is at least one resolution, Pakistan’s proposal for a ‘Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ) in South Asia’ which is tabled every year in the UN General Assembly against which only India, Mauritius and Bhutan vote. All others either support the resolution or, as a gesture to India, abstain at best. Our point that a NWFZ in South Asia is untenable when nuclear weapons are present in the near neighbourhood has few takers as they consider NWFZs as holy cows.
Mauritius supports the Indian positions in the UN more as a gesture of solidarity than on merit. It has not signed the CTBT till today, because of India’s difficulties with it. Some other countries, which are close to India, constantly plead with us to understand that they may have to vote differently from India on issues of no direct interest to India to establish their credibility in the international community, but Mauritius supports our positions unconditionally. We have come to expect it as a matter of course so much so that when Mauritius omitted to mention support for India’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council in the General Assembly debate this year, there was some commotion in South Block. Mauritius repeatedly explained that it was an omission on the part of the delegation in New York, which thought that it was not a live issue this year.
Indian diaspora in many countries help in the formulation of pro-India policies by their governments, particularly in countries, in which the community has a decisive say. However, there is no automaticity of support, except in Mauritius. Fiji, despite its significant Indian community, followed its own policies. In its quest to maintain special ties with the west, Fiji did not join the Non Aligned Movement on the ground that Fiji was so non-aligned that it could not join even the NAM. The Bavadra government, which came to power in 1987, was contemplating to join, but it was ousted in a military coup within 30 days. Indian Americans were very supportive of the nuclear deal, but they were the severest critics of the 1975 Emergency. Only Mauritius supports India, whether India is right or wrong.
Mauritius has 80 per cent PIOs in its 1.3 million population and there is no pressure from the others to distance it from India. Uninhabited till the Dutch took possession of the island in the eighteenth century; it has no indigenous people to claim special rights. The only Dutch contribution to the island was that they consumed to extinction the dodo, a flightless indigenous bird, giving the English language the expression ‘as dead as a dodo’. It is the most successful democracy in Africa, with stability and racial harmony and it is a social and economic success story. The Indian link is fully accepted by the population and the government does not have to balance India with any other power. France and China have influence, but even they do not challenge the Indian connection. In the debate on diaspora’s expectations of India, the overwhelming sentiment expressed was that children did not have to define their expectations of the mother. Mother India could be trusted to act in their best interests, as was evident in the various educational and cultural institutions that India had built. Their further aspirations like building a PIO University or tracing their roots in India at a reasonable cost are voiced with the expectation that India fulfil them, like a mother will do, when circumstances permit. There are no shrilling demands, no threats of disillusionment. Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam stressed that India-Mauritius relations transcended consideration of immediate benefits for either country.
Minister for overseas Indian affairs Vayalar Ravi pointed out that 40 per cent of the foreign direct investment (FDI) in India came through Mauritius. The treaty between the two countries on Double Taxation Avoidance is the reason for the emergence of Mauritius as the dominant channel of FDI. The situation immensely benefits Mauritius by way of employment opportunities and service fees, though alleged abuse of the facility by Indian resident investors has alerted Indian tax authorities to seek changes in the treaty. Mauritius is confident that the two countries can work together to remove the abuses without affecting bilateral links. “Let me state very clearly that we will collaborate to prevent any alleged misuse of the treaty. In view of the historical, cultural, political and diplomatic ties between the two countries, we need a global solution that will not penalise Mauritius”, said the then Mauritius finance minister Ram Sithanine in 2006. Such mundane matters were not allowed to vitiate the celebration of traditional ties. Foreign secretary Anund Neewoor admonished a journalist for raising the issue with me at a foreign office lecture on India-Diaspora relations.
Prime Minister Ramgoolam praised the PBD as a unique institution that brought India’s children abroad back to their mother’s lap. Vayalar Ravi responded equally warmly about India’s children abroad. Mauritians appeared to relish their mother’s embrace as they soaked in contemporary Indian paintings of Namboodiri, Santhana Krishnan, Subramanian and Devi Seetharam, the Rajesh Khanna show, the Kathakali and the Mohiniyattam, together with mutual vows of eternal friendship.
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India and governor for India of the IAEA.