India slammed as Than Shwe visit looms

Burma’s ruling general will visit Hyderabad, India’s shrine to economic vitality, on the second phase of his trip this month after the self-styled devout Buddhist pays homage to Bodhgaya, the site where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

Than Shwe is due in the country for a four-day visit starting 25 July that includes a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil in Delhi, but rights groups have blasted the government for rolling out the red carpet for Burma’s dictator.

The 164-member International Forum for Human Rights (IFHR) said it was “deeply troubled” that India was welcoming the head of a junta that may be responsible for “war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law”.

The group said it was “unbecoming” of the world’s largest democracy, which shares a border with Burma where Indian separatist rebels are known to hide out. This thorny issue will likely be high on the agenda when Than Shwe heads to Delhi.

On Than Shwe’s mind during his trip to Hyderabad may be the help that India can give for Burma’s own nascent technological hub, Yadanabon, which is located close to the new capital, Naypyidaw. India has previously assisted in the development of an industrial training centre in Burma.

The recent warming of relations between the countries would suggest that India will continue its ‘Look East’ policy, which has seen it revert years of support for democracy in Burma and instead, as a ‘ring of pearls’ tightens around it neck, opt for unconditional friendship and healthy trade.

India it seems has a nagging issue of reining in countries on its periphery, such as Nepal to Sri Lanka, which are starting to look like less certain satellite states. Delhi is also concerned about China’s growing influence, which is spreading to Nepal and Sri Lanka, as well as China’s long-standing friendship with perennial rival and fellow nuclear power, Pakistan.

Added to this, India’s initially ambivalent stance towards Burma left it slow off the mark in countering Chinese influence in Burma. Recently however there has been a surge in bilateral relations, with trade between Naypyidaw and Delhi expected to reach US$1 billion this year.

The economic relationship has been assisted by a number of key state projects, such as a US$20 million credit line extended by the Indian government to the Burmese junta to develop the Kaladan multi-modal transit project.

This comes on top of a truck manufacturing plant constructed by Indian industrial giant, Tata motors, and resurgent investment in the Burmese hydropower sector, led by India’s state-owned National Hydro Power Company (NHPC). And last year an optical fibre link between Mandalay and Kolkata was ‘operationalised’ to improve connectivity between the two countries.

Despite such overtures, the devil as always is in the detail. For instance, India’s success in the vital gas sector has been less pronounced than China’s. The Chinese have a sovereign wealth fund, one of the largest investment ‘vehicles’ in the world estimated to be worth some US$300 billion, much of which is ploughed into strategic energy projects. India looks set to emulate this, however, and is considering a similar fund.

How India approaches Burma’s precarious ‘roadmap to democracy’ at this meeting will most likely remain unknown, but a timely prod from the US came last week as Washington obliquely called on the world’s largest democracy to help spread a political faith that is looking increasingly out of vogue in the neighbourhood.

In any case, vogue or not, the concern for India seems to be bedded in hard politics and economic concern, rather than the human rights and ideas of a richly endowed neighbour.

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