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UN envoy to ask India for tougher line on Myanmar

A United Nations envoy will ask the Indian government to take a tougher line with Myanmar.
Reuters | By Simon Denyer, New Delhi
UPDATED ON OCT 22, 2007 07:45 PM IST

A United Nations envoy will ask the Indian government to take a tougher line with Myanmar on Monday but is unlikely to get much encouragement from New Delhi, which has courted Myanmar's generals since the 1990s.

Ibrahim Gambari is expected to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit, and urge India to join international efforts to push the military-ruled state towards democracy after it crushed a monk-led revolt last month, a U.N. spokesman said.

But India has made it clear it is keen to engage with Myanmar's rulers in a bid to access the country's gas reserves and counter Chinese influence.

"It is not as though him coming to have a chat is going to make much of a difference to India's policy," said independent security analyst C. Uday Bhaskar.

"I don't think we have the luxury of deciding who we will engage with in this region by the yardstick of democracy."

India sent its oil minister to Myanmar in the midst of last month's pro-democracy protests. Shortly after the bloody crackdown, it announced it was pressing ahead with plans to develop a port on Myanmar's northwestern coast.

After India, Gambari will visit China on a regional tour meant to drum up support for a united front against Myanmar's generals in Asia, where governments are loathe to impose sanctions because of trade and investment ties and a desire for the country's gas.

On Friday, U.S. President George W. Bush urged both China and India to step up pressure on their neighbour. He also expanded American sanctions against Myanmar's rulers.

But just last week Singh was quoted as saying India needed to "cooperate" with the government in Myanmar.

"We have to recognise that Myanmar is our next-door neighbour and sometimes it doesn't serve the objective you have in mind by going public with condemnations," the Indian Express quoted Singh as telling reporters on a plane back from South Africa.

Singh said insurgent groups from northeastern India could take advantage of any estrangement between the neighbours.

Critics say Yangon has done little to crack down on Indian rebels who have bases inside Myanmar, and in some cases those groups have close links with its army.

They say India has got little to show for its cosiness with Myanmar's rulers, and should take a tougher line not just on principle but also in the long-term interests of stability and prosperity in the region.

Singh said India supported political reform and reconciliation in Myanmar and he had told that to its military ruler General Than Shwe when he visited India in 2004.

"I had a very good discussion with him and we impressed upon the Myanmar leadership the need for political reform, to unite all political elements and he did not deny it," Singh said.

The government in Myanmar says 10 people were killed when soldiers crushed last month's monk-led demonstrations, but Western diplomats say the toll is likely to be much higher.

Thousands more were beaten and arrested, although state media said last week that only 377 were still detained.

India issued only a muted call for reconciliation after that crackdown.

"The only thing that India might like to say more emphatically is that engagement is not necessarily endorsement," Bhaskar said.

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