The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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‘Open’ house for Myanmar

New Delhi, March 5: George Fernandes has finally answered the question that has been bothering many of his supporters for years. He has said there is no contradiction in championing the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar and engaging with its junta.

Fernandes was releasing Burma File: A Question of Democracy by Soe Myint, a Myanmarese journalist and a key member of the pro-democracy movement living in exile in Delhi for over a decade.

The defence minister said: “My house has always remained open for my Burmese friends and will remain so in future.”

Fernandes indirectly brought up the Tehelka controversy while talking of keeping an “open house” when he said “a gang” took advantage of it and tried to prove his house was being used for taking bribes in defence deals.

The minister recalled his first encounter with Burmese student activists when he was still an Opposition MP. The activists had sought his help when Indian authorities asked them to leave the country.

“I made arrangements for them to stay at my house as I knew the consequences of what would happen if they were forced to return to Myanmar,” Fernandes said.

His support for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, he said, did not contradict his engagement with the State Development and Peace Committee, the military regime in Yangon.

Fernandes emphasised close cooperation and regular interaction with the Myanmar government had helped India in dealing with the insurgency in the Northeast as many of the militants had camps in that country.

“If by engaging with them, it helps us in tackling the insurgents, and as the defence minister if I can save the life of my soldiers, I see nothing wrong in doing so,” he said. Fernandes was quick to say there might be some “constraints” when one was in government.

Emphasising that engagement with the committee can work out in everybody’s favour, Fernandes said: “We have to persuade them that democracy in Myanmar is not going to adversely affect the military in the country as, like the political leadership, the army also has an important role to play.”

Soe Myint, who was involved in hijacking a Thai Airways Bangkok-Rangoon aircraft and diverting it to Calcutta over a decade ago, is once again being “harassed” by the Indian authorities.

The hijacking, Soe claimed, was his attempt to draw the world’s attention to Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement.

Soe’s case was revived by the authorities last year though all charges against him were dropped earlier. He will now go on trial in the hijacking case next month.

Fernandes said like in the past, he would ensure Soe is “liberated” from his troubles. He, however, did not go into any details of how he proposed to do this.

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