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    Southeast Asia
     Jan 11, 2008
Myanmar deal right neighborly of India
By Brian McCartan

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - India, in the face of Western criticism, continues to economically engage Myanmar’s ruling generals, providing the junta a much-needed investment lifeline at a time when the US and European Union have imposed new punitive sanctions against the rights-abusing regime.

The Indian government earlier this week committed US$120 million to rebuild Myanmar’s western Sittwe port and construct road and water links through the facility, which will connect Myanmar’s western Arakan State to India’s northeastern state of

Mizoram. The build-transfer-use Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project comes on top of a previous $27 million investment to improve the 160-kilometer road from Mizoram to Kalewa, in Myanmar’s Sagaing division, northeast of Sittwe.

Final agreement for the Sittwe project, which has been under consideration for more than six years and will take nearly three years to complete, is expected to be signed during a visit of high-level officials from Myanmar to India in April.

The agreement highlights divergent strains in India’s policy towards Myanmar. Since the Myanmar military regime’s crackdown last year on peaceful street demonstrators, New Delhi has gently indicated its support for political change and national reconciliation in its neighbor. That position was seemingly underscored in December by India’s unofficial halt of arms transfers to Myanmar. Yet India’s state-owned companies continue to sign business deals with the regime and the government, while tacitly supporting political change, has declared that it does not support Western-led new sanctions, preferring dialogue and negotiations to promote change.

India voted in favor of a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning the regime’s violent crackdown and calling for the release of detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. However, India’s support for the resolution was watered down by an official reservation that the final text of the statement was not in accordance with India’s preferred approach of constructively engaging Myanmar.

India gained some mileage out of a January 2 meeting between prime minister Manmohan Singh and visiting Myanmar foreign minister Nyan Win. According to Indian foreign ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna, the foreign minister was told that there was "greater urgency in bringing political reform and national reconciliation" and that "this process had to be broad-based to include all sections of society including Aung San Suu Kyi and various ethnic groups in Myanmar." At the same time the prime minister also affirmed India’s desire to build on the two sides’ already strong relationship.

India's approach has attracted criticism from both outside and within India. There is widespread local support for Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, judging by the well-attended protest rallies held in New Delhi coinciding with Nyan Win’s visit. All of India’s major political parties, including Congress, the Communists and Bharatiya Janta Party, have called on the government to change its policy on Myanmar. Civil society groups have joined this call, especially those representing ethnic groups located in India’s northeastern regions, which share a border with Myanmar.

In late December, it was reported that India had quietly stopped all arms sales and transfers to Myanmar. Although the policy was not officially announced, a Washington Post article cited "diplomatic sources" who said that it "had been privately confirmed by New Delhi to top US officials". If so, it would represent a major turn-around in policy since military contacts had increased during 2007, with India offering large quantities of military hardware to the junta.

India is currently one of Myanmar’s two main military hardware suppliers, the other being China. India came under sharp media criticism in 2007 for its sale of weapons that would possibly violate European Union arms embargoes now in place against Myanmar. In August, Myanmar took delivery from India of two BN-2 Defender maritime surveillance aircraft. The deal was done over the objections of the British government, which originally sold the aircraft to India.

In July, a report by UK-based rights group Amnesty International and several other EU nongovernmental organizations condemned India for the possible sale of advanced light helicopters to Myanmar. The aircraft, made by Hindustan Aeronautical Ltd. (HAL), can be equipped with rockets and machine guns, and human rights groups fear they will be used against insurgent ethnic minority groups and possibly future street demonstrators. The report noted that the weapons and many of the systems within the helicopters originated in EU countries and thus could violate the arms embargo.

In a November 2006 meeting between Indian Defense Secretary Shekhar Dutt and Myanmar Vice Senior General Maung Aye, India offered the helicopters along with T55 tanks it was retiring from its inventory, 105mm artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers, ammunition and avionics upgrades for Myanmar’s Russian and Chinese-made aircraft. Although it is unclear whether any of this hardware has reached Myanmar, reports indicate that shipments of aircraft, artillery, armored personnel carriers, tanks, ships, small arms and ammunition are expected to be sent in 2008. During the same meeting, India also offered counterinsurgency training to Myanmar’s military.

Rights groups have in the wake of last year’s bloody crackdown called for a United Nations Security Council-enforced arms embargo against Myanmar. Support for such a measure is high in the United States, although any resolution would have to overcome likely vetoes from China and Russia, which have in the past come to Myanmar’s defense. India’s quiet halting of arms transfers may be a way of staving off a full-blown arms embargo and resuming transfers when the international clamor has died down. Indeed India had for years sent arms, ammunition and other military equipment to Myanmar with very little international criticism or attention until 2007.

Many of the reports concerning sales and transfers of Indian military equipment have been linked to joint operations along the India-Myanmar border against insurgents based on the Myanmar side of the border. Myanmar’s northwest Sagaing Division and Chin State insurgencies are small, but the army has shown a marked lethargy and lack of commitment in its suppression operations.

At the same time, India has made no shift in its economic policy towards Myanmar, which critics say is providing the ruling junta with much-needed cash flow to stay financially afloat and buy weapons. For instance, during Nyan Win’s recent visit to New Delhi, trade and cooperation in oil-and-gas were reportedly discussed. Bilateral trade between the two countries is estimated at nearly $1 billion and Indian investments in Myanmar include gas, oil, agriculture, fisheries, pearl cultivation, infrastructure projects, mining and tourism ventures.

Those outlays mark a controversial policy u-turn. India initially supported Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement after the popular uprising of 1988 and general elections of 1990, serving as the first nation to condemn the military regime when it annulled the 1990 elections it resoundingly lost. Suu Kyi was later awarded the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding and successive Indian governments allowed refugees and political activists to reside in India.

In the mid-1990s, the policy shifted and official criticisms of the Myanmar regime stopped while business and military delegations made increasingly frequent visits to the country. Since, over $100 million has been extended to Myanmar in the form of credit, including $27 million for road improvements for the link connecting the town of Tamu on the border with Mizoram State and Kalewa in Sagaing Division.

India has since grown into Myanmar’s second-largest market, trailing only Thailand. Top Indian officials, including the president, government ministers and senior military officers, have all in recent years made high- and low-profile visits to Myanmar. Senior General Than Shwe, the chairman of Myanmar’s ruling State Peace and Development Council, last visited India in 2004. Indian President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam visited Myanmar in 2006 and reportedly avoided mention of the country’s political problems or the detention of Suu Kyi during his stay.

Myanmar has become a key component in India’s "Look East" policy, which strategically views the neighboring country as a geographical springboard to markets in mainland Southeast Asia. Myanmar’s membership in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) grouping makes it a key partner in the development of regional projects in trade energy and tourism, as well as in the economic development of northeast India.

India’s real politik policy is also aimed at diluting China’s regional influence. China, which has border disputes with India and with whom it fought a brief war in 1962, views Myanmar as an outlet for trade from its remote, landlocked southwestern Yunnan province. It is also eager to secure oil, gas and other natural resource concessions from Myanmar to fuel its rapidly surging economy.

While protests in Yangon and other towns reached their height last September, Indian Petroleum Minister Murali Deora signed a $150 million gas exploration deal with the SPDC and the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise on behalf of Oil and Natural Gas Company (ONGC) Videsh. As part of the deal, the state-controlled Indian company was granted rights to explore in three separate offshore blocks.

Myanmar, for its part, appears to play the two countries off against each other. India was reportedly disappointed by Myanmar’s decision last August to give the nod to Chinese state-owned PetroChina for highly coveted gas concessions in the large Shwe fields off the coast of Myanmar’s Arakan State. China edged out South Korea’s Daewoo International and India’s two state energy companies, which are currently developing the field. The Shwe gas field reserves are estimated to be worth between $37 billion and $52 billion, with the SPDC scheduled to receive $12 billion and $17 billion over a 20-year period.

Meanwhile, on December 12, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed to set up a center for the sharing of information technology skills in the old Myanmar capital of Yangon. The agreement to set up the India-Myanmar Center for the Enhancement of Information Technology Skills (IMCEITS) was signed by deputy foreign minister Kyaw Thu during the first official visit to India of a Myanmar official since the crackdown.

India’s increasingly cozy relations with Myanmar come at a cost. Armed groups including the United Liberation Front of Asom, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland and the United National Liberation Front are all involved in a decades-old insurgency in India’s northeastern areas and have traditionally used base areas in Myanmar’s jungle-covered northwestern territories. Although joint operations are periodically announced, very little is reportedly actually done on the Myanmar side, with some speculation that at the local level the insurgents have good relations with Myanmar army officers and intelligence officials.

While these contacts may not extend to the top of Myanmar’s leadership, the insurgency is often used as a bargaining chip by the Myanmar regime to gain India’s support and military hardware in exchange for proposed offensives against the insurgents.

India’s northeastern border problems go beyond the insurgency, with rampant drug trafficking, arms smuggling and an increasing HIV/AIDS epidemic all contributing to instability. Other than close the border periodically when local trade disputes arise, Myanmar does little to stop the smuggling.

Refugees fleeing human rights abuses on the Myanmar side of the border have also become a problem for India and communal disputes have frequently broken out in border communities between Myanmar refugees and Indians. At least for now, though, India seems willing to look the other way as long as commercial profits and fuel flow from the other side of the border.

Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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