February 19, 2001


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The rocky road to Mandalay

Ramananda Sengupta in New Delhi

Burma pledges to destroy Naga rebel bases: Asian Age
George's 'soul' won't let him meet general: Asian Age
A Policy that is foreign: Asian Age
Myanmar to continue anti-Naga rebels help: Hindustan Times
India, Myanmar discuss ways to expand tourism industry: The Hindu
India, Myanmar discuss security ties: The Hindu
Myanmar assures steps against insurgents: The Times of India
Good ties with Myanmar spell better security: The Times of India
George skips Aye reception: The Statesman
Junta is in town, rebels with George: Indian Express
Govt embraces Myanmar junta in `national interest: Indian Express
Advani justifies upgrading ties with Myanmar: The Pioneer

These were the headlines in New Delhi's newspapers on the morning of November 18, 2000, a day after the arrival of Gen Maung Aye, Myanmar's Chief of Army Staff and Vice-Chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, in the capital on an official visit.

Earlier this week, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh became the first senior Indian official to visit Myanmar after the visit by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987.

Among other things, he inaugurated the 130 km Tamu-Kalemyo road link which connects Tamu, close to the Indian border, with Kalemyo in Myanmar's Sagaing division. Apart from boosting trade with Burma, the road, built by India's Border Roads Organisation, is seen as India's gateway to the Southeast Asia.

India happens to be Myanmar's largest export market, with exports to India in 1999-2000 to the tune of about 141.14 million dollars. Imports from India were worth 75.36 million dollars.

This road will obviously step up the economic exchange dramatically for both sides.

But the road to reconciliation has been rocky. India's policy towards its northeastern neighbour, with whom it shares a 1,600 km long border, has been ambiguous ever since the overthrow of the Aung San Syu Kyi government by the military junta in 1988, a year after Rajiv's visit.

At the time, India made the usual noises. And in 1995, Su Kyi, then under house arrest, was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding (for 1993).

But since then, New Delhi has quietly sacrificed her at the altar of practicality. And efforts to woo the Yangon junta seem to be finally bearing fruit. As a senior official would explain later, "The Indian government has stressed that the rule of the military in Yangon will not become a hindrance in the growing economic and political relationship between the two countries. India does not believe in interfering in another country's internal affairs."

So how does India explain it's refusal to talk to Gen Musharraf in Pakistan while extending a friendly hand to another military regime? Simple. "The military regime in Pakistan actively aids and abets cross-border terrorism. The Yangon government, on the other hand, has been helpful in fighting militant activity along India's northeastern borders," explains an official.

Apart from the fact that Myanmar was being used as a base by many rebel outfits in the northeast, one of the chief reasons for this shift in strategy was the increasing Chinese presence in Myamnar, and Yangon's increasing defence cooperation with Islamabad. In fact, general Musharraf visited Yangon late last year, much to the consternation of South Block.

According to one estimate, Chinese assistance to Myanmar is in excess of $ 2.5 billion, including $ 60 million in military aid. In return, the Peoples Liberation Army was given permission to mount a 250 km range surveillance radar on Myanmar's Coco Islands, just north of the Andamans, and more importantly, strategically situated to monitor and track the trajectory of all missiles tested from Chandipore on the Orissa coast.

Beijing has also helped Yangon build the Haiggyi Naval Base there, which can accommodate cruiser-class ships and some say even submarines. And the Za Det Kyi naval dockyard and air base is also being built with Chinese assistance.

Realising that India's moral position on the issue was actually a boon for Beijing, New Delhi hastily reviewed its Burma policy. In 1995, India reopened border trade with its neighbour and initiated talks with the Junta to check the inflow of arms and extremists from Myanmar into the northeast. These proved extremely successful. Within days, the junta smashed major rebel hideouts on its soil. Then, last year, Myanmar's Home Minister Col Tin Hlaing paid a nine-day visit to India, the first by a senior official in more than a decade.

He was closely followed by Gen Maung Aye, who sought Delhi's help for the 750 MW Yeywa hydroelectric project, which was being "sympathetically considered." India has already taken up as a joint venture the development of Tamanthi hydel project located north of Tamu. When completed, this power-project is expected to generate 110 MW, of which 75 per cent is supposed to be used by India. It also extended a $15 million credit to Yangon to purchase industrial and electric equipment from India.

In turn, Myanmar's Foreign Minister Win Aung, who accompanied Gen Aye, said "with all the authority" at his command, that his country will not let any part of his country, whether mainland or island, to be used as a military base by any power against India.

But these signs of a return to cordiality were somewhat offset by Defence Minister George Fernandes, who pointedly refused to meet Gen. Aye. The minister is known for his overt support to the Burmese pro-democracy movement. In fact, Burmese students protesting against the junta operate from his official residence. "He is a man of conscience, that is why he stayed away from welcoming the general. He listened to his soul," a Burmese student was quoted as saying.

On Tuesday, during the inauguration of the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road, Jaswant Singh said India considered it a ``privilege'' to be a partner in the socio-economic development of Myanmar, and the road was an ``important milestone'' in India-Myanmar relations.

This time, however, the defence minister has stayed quiet. At least so far.

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