Myanmar president finds a useful and uncritical friend in India

India seems willing to ignore the human-rights violations of its neighbour to secure access to Myanmar's energy supplies and land routes into the markets of South East Asia.

Powered by automated translation

NEW DELHI // Once denounced in India for their brutal authoritarianism, Myanmar's rulers now receive a red carpet welcome in New Delhi.

President Thein Sein held talks in the Indian capital yesterday after two days of touring Buddhist pilgrimage sites in other parts of the country.

Among the agreements he signed with the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, were plans to open border trade, speed up construction of natural gas pipelines and increase cooperation on hydrocarbon exploration.

India also offered Myanmar a US$500 million (Dh1.84 billion) credit line for infrastructure projects.

Recent years have seen India willing to ignore the human-rights violations of its neighbour to secure access to Myanmar's energy supplies and land routes into the markets of South East Asia.

"India's interest in promoting democracy has taken a back seat to its national interests in trade and security," said Professor Srikanth Kondapalli, of the China Studies department at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

A number of tentative reforms in Myanmar over the past year have helped ease India's conscience. Since the controversial elections which brought Thein Sein to power last November, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from prison and the country's strict censorship laws have been partly relaxed.

The announcement this week that at least 120 political prisoners would be set free was well-timed to show further progress towards democracy ahead of the president's visit to India.

Nonetheless, many question India's willingness to turn a blind eye to the continuing repression of minorities and opposition figures in Myanmar, given the limited benefits it has received in return.

"This totally uncritical attitude to Myanmar is really a lose-lose situation for India," said Benedict Rogers, East Asia director for Christian Solidarity World.

Recent energy and trade deals have not brought India close to matching China's influence over the country, said Mr Rogers. China has annual trade with Myanmar worth $4.4bn, compared with India's $1.2bn.

"By selling arms to the military junta and remaining totally silent on questions of democracy and human rights, India has suffered great damage to its international reputation," he said.

Even with improving relations, Myanmar has done little to help India track down insurgents from its north-east, who have long used the porous border as an easy escape route and source of arms.

"Myanmar has never given any significant cooperation on counterinsurgency," said Bertil Lintner, author of several books on Myanmar.

"The Burmese government just wants to keep India at arms length, and is therefore not against having a 'buffer of instability' between themselves and India."

From Myanmar's perspective, the improving relationship with India has many advantages, including a chance to curb Chinese influence.

The government recently suspended construction at a controversial, Chinese-funded dam, which Mr Rogers says can be partly attributed to "deep-seated racist views about the Chinese" among government officials.

"Myanmar wants to diversify its relationships. Sein knows that the current system in his country is unsustainable. They are desperate to reach out to the US and the EU to reduce the sanctions on the regime," he said.