Burma and India sign counter-terror pact

Joint measures will be taken to combat arms smuggling across Burma’s border with India where Indian separatist groups are known to operate, the two governments vowed this week.

The counter-terror pact was one of five bilateral agreements made between Burma’s ruling chief, Than Shwe, and the Indian government. Than Shwe is in India on a four-day visit aimed at strengthening ties, but the trip has been met with strong condemnation by international rights groups.

The junta chief on Tuesday met with Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and other government officials in Delhi, after which the two pledged to boost economic and security ties. This followed a widely criticised visit by the 77-year-old to the site of Gandhi’s cremation in Rajghat, where he laid a wreath to commemorate the global icon of non-violence.

The counter-terror pact will focus on “the pernicious problem of terrorism”, the agreement reportedly said. In particular India is concerned about the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) which operates along the porous 1,640-kilometre border between India’s northeastern states and western Burma. The ULFA is also believed to have several bases in Burmese territory, which the junta has vowed to remove.

But India is also hungrily eyeing Burma’s vast energy reserves, and has made an apparent u-turn on its open support for Burma’s pro-democracy movement in the early 1990s as it looks to secure access to the lucrative resources.

The relationship is seen as a wider attempt by Delhi to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia region, which will grow considerably once the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement starts bearing fruit. Burma is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and has opened its doors to substantial Chinese investment.

According to The Telegraph newspaper in Calcutta, Burma is also looking to economic investment from India as a countervailing force to dependence on China, which is rapidly becoming Burma’s top foreign investor.

India has openly acknowledged that its backtracking on Burma is for pragmatic reasons over ideological ones, although it still officially supports democracy in the pariah country. Even so, a group of MPs in India’s parliament signed a letter protesting Than Shwe’s visit and Delhi’s “lending [of] legitimacy” to the Burmese junta.

This came a week after the US ironically called on India to pile pressure on the regime, in an apparent acknowledgement of Washington’s own shortcomings in pushing for democratic change in the country.

As well as energy investment, India has offered a grant of US$60 million to build a road connecting Burma with the northeast state of Mizoram. India’s EXIM bank also agreed to provide a US$60 million line of credit to fund various railway projects, while Delhi pledged US$10 million for the purchase of modern agricultural equipment, AFP reported.

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