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Indian journalists missing in Burma ‘alive’

Two Indian journalists who vanished in October after attempting to interview the leader of an Indian separatist group believed to be sheltering in Burma are alive, but their whereabouts remain unknown, the chief minister ofIndia’s northeast state of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, said.

News reports last week suggested the two have been detained, although no confirmation has been given by either government. Gogoi told reporters yesterday however that, “They are alive, but more than that I do not have any definite information,” according to the Press Trust of India.

Rajib Bhattacharya and photographer Pradip Gogoi, from the Seven Sisters newspaper in Assam, had crossed the border into Burma to meet with Paresh Baruah, head of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). The exact date of the trip is unknown, although they are believed to have set out sometime in mid October.

The ULFA, which is fighting for an independent Assam, has long been alleged to have bases in Burma’s northern Kachin state. India’s Maoist rebels are also believed to have trained over the border.

Several agreements have been signed between the Indian and Burmese over joint cooperation in routing the rebel groups operating along the porous border. New Delhi is alleged to have supplied the Burmese with heavy weaponry to tackle the groups, but has accused Naypyidaw in the past of showing reluctance in launching military operations along the border.

India for its part has sought to develop infrastructure, including roads and helipads, along its northeastern border in a bid to allow quicker deployment of paramilitary groups to tackle the separatists.

The potential for greater military cooperation between the two countries may get a boost this week when Shwe Mann, Burma’s powerful parliamentary speaker, leads a 30-strong delegation to India, scheduled to last six days.

While Indian press is billing the trip as a chance for Shwe Mann to study India’s democratic evolution, the former third-ranking general in the Burmese junta will likely be pressed on his country’s ability to clear out the rebels, which New Delhi believes are launching attacks on government positions from their bases in Burma. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the Maoists as the country’s “greatest security threat”, although they are not believed to have as significant a presence in Burma as the ULFA.

India has recently set a target of doubling trade with Burma to $US3 billion over the next five years and is keen to compete with China for influence over Naypyidaw. Given its proximity to both Burma and China, suppressing insurgency in India’s volatile northeast is an essential component of this goal.

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