India-Burma relations gaining momentum of its own
Syed Ali Mujtaba
The Indo- Burma relationship is acquiring a positive momentum of its own despite western rights groups' criticism of Myanmar's handling of pro-democracy demonstrations some six months back. India had rolled out red-carpet for Burmese military junta’s top leadership who were on a five day visit to India that began from April 4, 2008.
The Burmese delegation was led by the second most senior military leader and Burmese army’s chief, General Maung Aye. His entourage included the junta’s number five General, Thiha Thura Tin Aung Myint Oo.
General Maung Aye is reputed to be anti-Chinese and has wanted to be the architect of stronger military and economic ties with India, ever since New Delhi set up its “Look East” foreign policy in the early 1990s in order to have close linkages with the Southeast Asian nations.
General Maung Aye held a series of meetings with the Indian leadership and held talks with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee followed by a call on President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He held extensive discussions with his counterpart, Vice-President Hamid Ansari, at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, followed by a ceremony to sign agreements.
“Several agreements were signed in the presence of the Honorable Vice President Hamid Ansari and H.E. Vice Sen-Gen Maung Aye, including the agreement and two protocols of the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project and Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement,” India’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
The statement by the Indian foreign ministry also said that Maung Aye had talked with Vice President Ansari over the forthcoming referendum in May and general elections in 2010 as part of the Burmese junta’s “political reform” and “national reconciliation” process.
The current situation in Burma came up for discussion in all meetings with Indian leaders and General Maung Aye briefed on recent initiatives of the military regime, including its decision to hold a referendum on the new draft constitution in May and general elections in 2010.
According to a statement of the external affairs ministry, Indian Prime Minister did note the 'positive steps' of the Burmese government but also 'underlined the need for Myanmar to expedite the process and make it broad-based to include all sections of society, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the various ethnic groups in Myanmar'.
Besides political issues, matters of trade also came for discussion and the two sides discussed ways to increase connectivity and opening more border points between them. Both agreed to open more border points in India's northeastern states connecting Burma to increase bilateral trade. They talked about intensifying cooperation in the hydrocarbon sector. India showed its commitment to support Burma’s IT and telecommunication sectors.
Both sides also discussed cooperation in security matters on the India-Burma border, particularly with regard to the northeast insurgent groups sheltering in Burma. India sought Burmese cooperation in controlling the insurgent groups which often slip across the border to set up camps when pursued by Indian police. The Burmese side assured New Delhi that it will take care of India’s sensibilities and do its best to rein the insurgent groups on its soil.
An agreement and two protocols on the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport project, which will allow sea access to the northeastern states, were signed. The Kaladan project includes upgrading the Sittwe port and Kaladan waterway and construction of a road from Setpyitpyin (Kaletwa) to the India-Myanmar border at a cost of Rs.5.3 billion.
The project is expected to be completed by 2011-12 would connect Kolkatta port with the Sittwe Port in Burma, a distance of 539 km. From Sittwe Port to Kaletwa in Burma, the transportation will be done by waterway along the river Kaladan, a distance of 225km. The Kaladan river is navigable from its confluence point with the Bay of Bengal near Sittwe up to Kaletwa. Beyond this the river is not navigable. From Kaletwa to India-Burma border transportation will be by road border another 62 km by road. This would provide access to Mizoram and to other north-eastern States, as well as an outlet to the sea bypassing Bangladesh.
Ahead of the signing of the Multi Modal Transit Transport project Indian Government had cleared a whopping Rs 535.91-crore as ‘Aid to Myanmar’ funds.
India and Burma also signed double taxation treaty that aimed checking tax evasion, and boosting trade and investments between the two neighboring countries. The Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement will cover taxes on individual income, company profits, dividends, interest and capital gains.
Hosting a banquet in the honor of the visiting Burmese General, India Vice President Hamid Ansari termed Burma as a natural bridge between the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
The Indian vice president confirmed India’s support for the efforts of the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, and conveyed that India did not believe that sanctions were helpful and could prove to be counterproductive. He urged the leaders of the Burmese junta to expedite political reforms and make these more broad-based to include imprisoned pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi..
However, the Burmese military junta, Maung Aye visit was marred by demonstration in New Delhi organized by Burmese, Indian and Tibetan activists against the Indian government’s policy on Burma. More than 1,000 people, including 200 Burmese activists, gathered in the demonstration quite far from the place where the state guests were staying.
Apart from New Delhi, Maung Aye visited Bangalore to see India’s progress in space programme and even evinced interest in satellite for Burmese usage. He also had good tour of economic, scientific, historical and places of religious interest in India. Amidst tight security he traveled to Boddhagaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
India's intensification of ties with Burma has been partly a result of the military junta coying up to China, which had rung alarm bells in New Delhi. However, following Burmese junta's brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in September 2007, India had put on hold the sale and transfer of all arms to the Burmese government.
The momentary pause that withheld Indo-Burmese relations seems to be over and the recent thaw tends to suggests that a new momentum is gaining ground in Indo-Burmese relationship.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is working journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org