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Myanmar dictator awaits warm welcome in India
Published on 19 Jul. 2010 11:00 PM IST
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A month and a half after Chinese premier Wen Jiabao travelled to Myanmar to meet the military leadership and reaffirm traditional "pauk phaw" (friendship), that country's top general, Than Shwe is visiting India from July 25-29.
Interestingly, Gen. Than Shwe will begin his Indian journey in Bodh Gaya, where he will spend time praying and meditating around the Buddhist icons associated with the Buddha's attainment of nirvana, reported Business Standard. The devout general will then travel to New Delhi for two days to meet the top Indian leadership led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and onwards to Hyderabad to take a first-hand look at IT (information technology) -related and pharmaceutical projects that he wants India to assist his country with.
General Than's visit caps an annual string of high-level exchanges between India and Myanmar over the last decade before Myanmar goes to the polls in November, for the first time in 20 years. The general himself had come to India in 2004, followed by a visit by former president A P J Abdul Kalam to Myanmar in 2006, after which Myanmar's second most important general, Maung Aye, came to India in 2008 (he had earlier visited in 2002), while Vice-President Hamid Ansari went to Naypidaw in 2009.
The visit confirms India's foreign policy re-orientation as a "pragmatic state," in pursuit of the belief that New Delhi must deal with all its neighbours "in keeping with the way things are, rather than how they want it to be".
Foreign Office sources shrugged off the characterisation by the prestigious Foreign Policy newsmagazine (a division of Washington Post and Newsweek) of Gen Than Shwe as the "third worst dictator in the world", after Kim Jong-il of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. "If India can deal with Pakistan which has just emerged from a military dictatorship, but baulks at taking action against India-related terrorism, India can certainly talk to a dictator in the east which is willing to look at India's strategic and economic interests," an official source said on the condition of anonymity.
From the manufacture of Tata trucks as part of the $20-million credit line to the 2007 award of the multi-modal Kaladan project to Essar for Rs 535 crore - India was given the right to "build, operate and use" the Sittwe port on the Arakan coast and make the Kaladan river navigable all the way up to the adjoining Indian state of Mizoram - India's footprint in Myanmar has been increasing significantly in recent years. The Kaladan project, expected to be ready by 2013, will establish an Indian presence on the Bay of Bengal, allowing much closer access to the north-eastern states with Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina government also allowing India to develop the Chittagong port, India's presence in that region will likely be enhanced.
Even when India lost out to China in the laying of an oil and gas pipeline from the Shwe gas fields (bigger than any gas field in India) in 2004 - because Bangladesh refused transit, following which Myanmar offered the fields on a 30-year lease to a Chinese consortium - India's Oil & Natural Gas Corporation continued to have a 30 per cent stake in the field. "Relations between India, Myanmar and China are not a zero-sum game," an official pointed out, conceding that India had lost ground on this matter. But he pointed out that when the gas begins to flow from the Kyaukpu deep sea port on Myanmar's Arakan coast in the Bay of Bengal all the way to Kunming in China's southern Yunnan province, as much as 12 billion cubic metres annually, India's $1 billion investment by ONGC would "certainly yield a profit."
Smiling, the official added, "If Myanmar is the gateway to India's 'Look East' policy, and if the Than Shwe visit underlines Myanmar's interest in using India as a counterpoise to China, equally Myanmar is a country where India and China can meet in a win-win partnership."
In fact, Myanmar withdrew an Indian offer to build the Tamanthi hydro-electric project on the Chhindwin river because of inordinate delays by NHPC, offering it to the Swiss and the South Koreans. But when they refused the bait, the Myanmarese offered it back to NHPC last year, on the condition that a detailed project report be submitted in 12 months.
Meanwhile, New Delhi continues to push transport links between Mizoram (from Tamu to Kalewa, via Kalemyo, besides sections at Rhi-Tidim, where Mizos believe their souls come to rest, and Rhi-Falam) and Nagaland. An optical fibre link has been laid from Mandalay to Yangon and onward to Kolkata, an IT centre was set up last as was an industrial training centre.
But more than anything else, it is perhaps the setting up of a facility to manufacture Tata trucks in Monywa, a major Buddhist pilgrimate site, that bridges the distance between the ancient relationship between India and Burma and India and Myanmar.
For the first time in recent decades, Myanmar's traffic, dominated by Chinese-built trucks and buses, will be sprinkled with Indian-built trucks.
Indian officials admitted that the government had failed to take advantage of the opening of Myanmar in the last decade, but insisted it was "better to be late than never".
Meanwhile, Myanmar's November elections are also being closely watched in New Delhi as elsewhere in the world, not only because it is rumoured that Than Shwe and his number two general, Maung Aye, may step down, but also because changes in the State Peace & Development Council, as the military junta describes itself, will be an indication of future power structures.
Jim Della-Giacoma, director of the International Crisis Group's South-East Asia Project, agreed that the results of the elections will be "seriously flawed," but also pointed out that for a "country silenced for 20 years, an imperfect vote will be better than no election at all. The international community should be ready to take advantage of this, regardless of who's in power," he added.
Indian officials point out that New Delhi is doing precisely that. Even though the military leadership peremptorily dispensed with Aung San Suu Kyi when she won a landslide victory in the elections 20 years ago, putting her under house arrest, Than Shwe and his compatriots have succeeded in cutting peace deals with 17 out of 18 armed ethnic groups in Myanmar - many of which tribes also live in India.
"Just like India, Myanmar has a troubled periphery; we understand what they do," the Indian official added.

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