Sonia Gandhi, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Quest for Democracy in Burma (Part: III)

Sonia Gandhi’s visit to Burma in December 1987, with her husband Prime Minister – Mr. Rajiv Gandhi was a year of gathering storm in Burma, which soon engulfed the country in forthcoming months with many nationwide protests against unpopular military rule. The country had witnessed large scale demonstrations three months before the visit of Sonia Gandhi to Burma,  after the large scale demonetization of Burmese currency in September 1987.(17) And even before 8.8.88 democratic revolution; in March 1988, the streets of Rangoon turned into a battle field of anti-government protests for democracy after a teahouse brawl between supporters of pro and anti groups of Ne Win regime, with as many as three hundred demonstrators killed and while being carted off to jail, 41 detainees suffocated in a police van. 18  However, whether Sonia Gandhi was aware of the deteriorating political situation of
Burma in late 1987 and 1988 has been not asked to her and not known to the world.  Rajiv Gandhi’s firm belief in democratic aspirations of the people of Burma, and Sonia’s faith in the values of Rajiv Gandhi♣, made her close to Burma’s democratic questions. Although despite similarities towards democratic aspirations of Burmese people, Sonia Gandhi and Daw Suu Kyi have different role models in their life. As it is well known that, Daw Suu Kyi has Gandhi and Nehru as her inspiration apart from Bogyoke Aung San, whereas Sonia Gandhi considers – Mrs. Indira Gandhi (Her Mother-in-Law and Indian Prime Minister from: January 24, 1966 – March 24, 1977 and from: January 14, 1980 to October 31, 1984) as her role model. Sonia Gandhi’s admiration to accept Mrs. Indira Gandhi as a role model rests on – Indira Gandhi’s complete dedication to her people, her tremendous compassion particularly for those who suffered, the poor, children, women and particularly her undying spirit to come out of crisis. (19)


In the year 1988, her husband and his representative diplomatic team at Rangoon led by Indian Ambassador –Dr. I.P. Singh, were worried person for the prospect of restoration of Parliamentary democracy in Burma. So, when August 1988 people’s revolution took place in Burma, the Indian government comes out openly for the support of restoration of democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, contrast to the present policy of constructive engagement with military regime. As then Indian ambassador to Burma, Dr. I.P. Singh recollects the events later on, “From the very start of the movement, the Indian Embassy, under instruction from Delhi, took a firm stand in support of Burmese people’s demand for democracy. Perhaps it was for the first time that the silly argument of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries even when vital issues affecting human rights are involved, was not resorted to. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was the first head of government to come out with strong and unqualified support for Burmese people’s demand for democracy. In Rangoon, the Indian Embassy played a leading role in ensuring that all democratic countries took a united stand on this matter.” (20)

Sonia Gandhi’s love towards Burma’s democratic questions like Rajiv Gandhi could be assessed from the fact, that it was Burma issue, which moved her in 1995 to first react on political questions, even before involving herself in Indian Politics and assuming responsibility of Congress President in 1998. In September 1995, while actively participating in the seminar on Burma organized by “Forum of Democratic Leaders in the Asia Pacific” (FDL-AP) at Seoul (Republic of Korea) together with leaders from twenty countries like –Mrs. Corazon Aquino (Former President of the Republic of Philippines), Mr. Oscar Arias Sanchez (Former President of Costa Rica), Dr. Kim Dae-Jung (Republic of Korea), Suthin Nophaket (Thailand), and Chee Soon Juan (Singapore) etc., Sonia Gandhi as a Co-President of FDL-AP signed a resolution to start a comprehensive political dialogue in Burma associating NLD and Daw Suu Kyi as well as an international arms embargo on the military regime in Burma. (21) However interestingly, at that time, Congress was in power under the Prime Ministership of – Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sonia’s involvement in Indian political scene was more related with social work as a President of Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.

Apart from urging arms embargo on military rulers of Burma, Sonia Gandhi was first among leaders of South Asia to express her deep grief over the death of Dr. Michael Aris, a noted Tibetan scholar and husband of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1999 together with reposing faith in her struggle. As Sonia Gandhi expressed her feelings in her condolence message to Suu Kyi, “The passing away of your husband has saddened your admirers and friends all over the world. It has caused particular grief in India, where he spent several years of his life and where our people hold you in the highest esteem.”(22)

Moreover recently in the year 2005, Sonia Gandhi sent a message of felicitation and greetings to Daw Suu Kyi on her 60th birthday congratulating her for following examples of sacrifice and courage of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of equality, democracy and non-violence and expressed Indian people’s admiration for her struggle as well as wishing her every success in her noble struggle for the people of Burma. (23)

Although, India’s new Burma policy of constructive engagement with military junta initiated by Narasimha Rao unfortunately created hollowness in India’s commitment to democratic aspirations at international institutions and Sonia Gandhi’s faith expressed in FDL-AP resolution adopted in 1995 and her birthday greetings to Daw Suu Kyi in the year 2005. It also indicates nation’s foreign policy direction going against the historical tradition of internationalism and democratic aspirations of Rabindranath Tagore, Nehru and Gandhi, apart from futility of organizing international conference on Satyagraha on the theme of Peace, Non-violence and Empowerment from January 29 to January 30, 2007 at New Delhi, attended by delegates from ninety countries and 122 organizations. However, the speech given by Sonia Gandhi, at Satyagraha Conference,“The question is not whether Mahatma Gandhi is relevant for us, instead, it is whether we are ready to embrace him once again”, shows her renewed commitments towards democracy, freedom and truth like Daw Suu Kyi. (24)

Most unfortunate part of  the constructive engagement policy was the cooperation in defence related issues and supplying of arms and ammunition to the military regime in Burma through ‘Car Diplomacy’ started through Indo-Myanmar Army Car Rally in December 2006, on the pretext of curbing rising North-east insurgency problem and other issues. When Burma’s Quartermaster General, Lt. General- Mr. Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo, incharge of supplies of Burmese defence forces visited New Delhi in late April 2007, he presented a list of additional military hardware to tackle north-east insurgency problem of India. (25) Interesting part of the visit was to accept Quartermaster Lt. General’s view that Burma Army is in need of some conventional weapons to tackle and help India’s northeast insurgency problem, when the whole world knows that, at present day; Burma Army has got second largest standing army in Southeast Asia after Vietnam. And if the rulers of second largest army in Southeast Asia needs some more conventional weapons to cooperate India in its northeast problem, then it itself reflects their seriousness towards cooperation with democratic India? Moreover, the rising insurgency in India’s northeastern region, drug trade and smuggling of Chinese goods, even after Myanmar and India’s MOU signed on January 1994 of Cooperation between the Civilian Border Authorities to organize National Level Meetings (NLMs) and Sectoral Level Meetings (SLMs), in which NLM is led by the Home Secretary and SLM by the concerned Joint Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs to maintain peace and tranquility all along the border, unfolds different face of military junta in Burma.


The constructive engagement with military rulers of Burma not only provides legitimacy to the dictatorial regime of Burma at international forums, but it also delays the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest despite number of resolutions at UN General Assembly. In addition, India’s engagement with military junta also provides, a face saving diplomatic leverage to Russia to veto Burma cause at UN Security Council with China. It also symbolizes a conflict between the government and ruling political party structure in Parliamentary democracy in India, which goes against the ruling Congress Party President- Sonia Gandhi’s continued commitment to Daw Suu Kyi’s non-violent struggle for restoration of democracy in Burma vitiating from the task of great historical responsibility. 


(The End)



17. Susan Tifft, Burma Is It Time to Say Goodbye, Time Magazine, August 01, 1988.

18. Daniel Banjamin, Burma Under Bloody Siege, Time Magazine, August 22, 1988.

     Sonia Gandhi in her long interview with Neerja Chowdhury in The Hindu, English Daily, New Delhi Edition, March 14, 2004, p.14, says that She has faith and firm beliefs in the values of Rajiv Gandhi.

19. Ibid, p.14

20. I.P. Singh, India-Burma Relations, World Focus: Monthly Discussion Journal, South Extension, New Delhi, p.10

21. Burma Seminar Urges Immediate Dialogue, Arms Embargo, Forum of Democratic Leaders in the Asia Pacific, Press Release, September 4, 1995, from the website of : < > accessed on 2 April 2007.

22. Sonia Expresses grief to Suu Kyi, The Asian Age, 1st April 1999. taken from archives: < > Accessed on 22 April 2007.

23. Sonia Gandhi Sent Birthday Greetings to Aung San Suu Kyi, Democratic Voice of
Burma, Oslo, 22 June 2005.

24. Sonia Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s Message to the World: Peace and Non-violence, speech delivered at the Satyagraha Conference held at New Delhi on 29-30 January, 2007, Congress Sandesh, Vol. IX, No. 6, February, 2007, New Delhi, p.7 & 11.

25. Top Myanmar General in Delhi with Military Shopping List, The Indian Express, 24th April 2007.




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