Burma pledges to rout Indian separatists

Indian separatists sheltering in northwest Burma will be purged and the shared border tightened to prevent arms and insurgents from crossing between the two countries, the Burmese government has told a visiting Indian minister.

Several rebel groups, notably the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), are believed to have bases inside Kachin state in Burma from which they can exploit the porous border. The two countries have signed counter-terror pacts aimed at stemming cross-border movement of rebels and weapons, and Delhi has bolstered security on its side of the border, but so far little has been done by Burma.

Indian external affairs minister, S M Krishna, who is in Naypyidaw for talks with the Burmese government, was given “firm assurances” that the mountainous frontier region will not be used as a launch pad by groups like the ULFA for attacks against the Indian government, according to the Press Trust of India (PTI).

Krishna met with both the Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo. He is the first high-level Indian official to visit Burma since the new government came to power in March.

India has long been attempting to court the Burmese government, both due to the country’s sizeable energy reserves and its strategic position as a gateway to ASEAN economies. Burma is the only country in ASEAN that shares a border with India.

A gesture of closer economic relations came from Krishna in the form of 10 heavy duty rice silos designed to protect grains during natural disasters, such as the powerful cyclone that destroyed southern Burma in 2008.

According to the Kolkata-based The Statesman newspaper, bilateral trade between the two countries reached $US1.2 billion in the last fiscal year, doubling from the 12 months prior. Although India is Burma’s fourth largest trade partner, the volume still falls well behind China, which invested up to US$12 billion in the same period.

India’s campaign to build closer economic ties with Naypyidaw 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.

But Burma is also known for its ability to play competing countries off against one another, and may be looking to economic investment from India as a countervailing force to its dependence on China, which is behind the vast majority of energy projects in its southern neighbour.

India has made moves towards developing its northeast region where four states border Burma, both to facilitate increased cross-border trade and to help boost security. The plans include the construction of a 1,500km road along the borderline, as well as 50 helipads that will allow quicker deployment of border forces to separatist territory.

The Indian government has also looked to expand on its transport routes along the border with China, also as means to more effectively deploy troops in the event of unrest. That frontier is undermanned as India’s 4.5 million-strong military focuses its efforts on the volatile Pakistan border, as well as tackling several insurgent groups.

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