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India strengthening economic ties with Myanmar

Despite intense US pressures to change tracks, India is going ahead with work aimed at building roads in Myanmar.

business Updated: Apr 12, 2007 12:12 IST

India is steadily deepening economic and strategic relations with Myanmar, convinced that this is the best approach to engage with a military regime despised by the West.

Despite intense American pressures to change tracks, India is pressing ahead with work aimed at building or developing roads in Myanmar, besides setting up a hydroelectric station and a communication and IT project.

Keeping in mind the Indian insurgents who use Myanmar's long and rugged border with India as a sanctuary and the influence of China on the military junta, New Delhi feels only economic links will finally help that country and its people.

Indian officials are also convinced that the military rulers only entrench themselves more and more every time the US and other Western powers put pressure on the junta in the UN and other world bodies.

The most ambitious of New Delhi's ventures is a link between ports on India's east and Sittwe Port in Myanmar that would further connect Mizoram through river transport and road.

This is the $100 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project. It is expected to provide an alternate route for transport of goods to northeast India.

The other project is upgrading the 160-km long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo Road in Myanmar across Manipur. The Border Roads Organisation completed this in 1997. India decided in 2006 that the road needed to be resurfaced and repaired.

India is also building more roads in Myanmar, which is woefully poor in infrastructure and communication, and a highway from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand through Bagan in Myanmar.

Besides, New Delhi is setting up an IT Park a Mandalay in Myanmar and two e-Learning centres in Yangoon and Mandalay. It is also conducting an e-governance project to train Myanmar government officials.

A hydroelectric project is coming up with India's support on river Chindwin in Myanmar's northwest, parallel to Nagaland and Manipur.

All this is to the intense dislike of the US, which in 2003 enacted a Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act to apply sanctions against the military rulers in its quest for democracy there.

Backing the US are other Western nations, including the European Union. American officials argue that India, as the world's largest democracy, ought to put pressure on the Myanmar administration, not give it oxygen.

Indian officials say while they too would want Myanmar to be a democracy, they don't share the American assessment that isolating the military junta is the way to go about it.

On the contrary, each time the US mounts stifling pressure on Myanmar in the UN, China comes to Yangoon's rescue and ends up tightening its embrace of the regime - something that goes against Washington's interests.

Sharing India's broad perspective about Myanmar is ASEAN, which had included Yangoon as a member despite some opposition from within the grouping. Of course, Beijing actively courts Myanmar.

India shares a nearly 1,700-km long land border with Myanmar. Four of its states - Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh - border that country.

India's policy of treating Myanmar as if it did not even exist began to change in the 80s. And as part of the Look East policy of 1992, India's engagements with the military junta went up though its sympathies were with the pro-democracy forces led by its New Delhi-educated now jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Indian understanding is based on hard realities: the junta has come to stay, and it is best to deal with them directly.

For decades, Naga insurgents, and also others, have had bases in Myanmar. And for long, the junta refused to crack down on them. The situation has changed now although there is collusion between the insurgents and junior Myanmar troops.

In interactions with the military rulers, India makes it a point to state, quietly and gently, that it would be best for the junta if it sheds it anathema for democracy.

Myanmar's military gets the message. And those in the junta known to prefer India over China argue that it would be easy to move away from Chinese influence if only the US stops isolating them. The US is not getting the message.

First Published: Apr 12, 2007 10:13 IST