Fri, 17 Nov 2000

India-Myanmar's better ties criticized

By M.V. Balaji

NEW DELHI (DPA): India has rolled out the red carpet for Myanmar (Burmese) deputy junta chief Gen. Maung Aye whose "friendship visit" to India this week has sparked criticism that New Delhi is turning its back on the democratic movement in that country.

It is Maung Aye's second visit to India this year and a clear sign of closer ties between what is often called the world's most populous democracy and one of Asia's most notorious pariahs -- Myanmar -- criticized internationally for its poor human rights record and suppression of a pro-democracy movement.

India forgets Suu Kyi ran the headline in the Asian Age newspaper after the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Vice Chairman and Army Commander in Chief arrived in India on Tuesday.

Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi heads the National League for Democracy (NLD) Party in Myanmar. Although the NLD won a 1990 general election by a landslide, the party has been blocked from power by the ruling junta for the past decade.

Maung Aye and his high-level delegation on Tuesday left straight for Bodh Gaya in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, the place where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

He will also visit India's Silicon Valley Bangalore, go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and to Udaipur in northwestern state of Rajasthan.

Maung Aye is accompanied by a delegation which includes SPDC Second Secretary Lt. Gen. Tin Do, Deputy Prime Minister for Military Affairs Lt. Gen. Tin Hia, Foreign Affairs Minister Win Aung, Minister for Industry Aung Thaung, Commerce Minister Pyi Sone, Finance Minister Khin Maung Thien and others.

India, with its porous, poorly guarded border with Myanmar in the northeast, needs Yangon's collaboration in fighting the drug menace and secessionist insurgency, Indian government sources said.

Many tribal secessionist militants like those seeking to make the northeastern Nagaland a separate nation operate from Myanmar. Similarly the Kukis, a tribe in India with roots in Myanmar wants a separate state there.

Drugs is another area for cooperation. Heroin and increasingly methamphetamines manufactured in the Golden Triangle region are easily brought into India across the border.

Heroin addiction is very serious in Manipur state bordering Myanmar, which also has one of highest incidence of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and AIDS caused mainly by the use of syringes previously used by others for injecting drugs.

India's diplomatic ties with Myanmar started to improve in 1997, after Myanmar joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a new regional grouping -- BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation) was born.

"India is committed to principals of democratic ideals as well as non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries," an Indian government spokesman said last week, in response to criticisms that closer Indian-Myanmar ties ran counter to New Delhi's pro-democracy stance.

While Maung Aye, who is in India at the invitation of Vice President Krishna Kant, will meet President K.R.Narayanan and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on Friday, there are expected to be many notable absentees.

First Lady Usha Narayanan, herself a Myanmar national, will reportedly not receive the visiting general and his delegation when they call on the president, the Indian Express newspaper said.

Usha Narayanan will also not receive the general's wife and daughters, claimed the paper.

Defense Minister George Fernandes, known for his staunch support of the pro-democracy movement headed by Suu Kyi, will also stay away from the general and his team.

Not long ago, Fernandes harbored some Myanmar rebels in his official residence. India remains a home for various Myanmar dissident groups.

India, like Thailand, has contradictory attitudes towards Myanmar. On the one hand it favors return of democracy but on the other cannot afford to rub the military regime on the wrong side as it needs its help to fight insurgency and drug menace, experts said.

For instance, in 1995 while in the midst of a joint operation with the Myanmar army against various insurgent groups in northeastern India, the Indian government announced that it was awarding a major civilian honor, the Jawaharlal Nehru Prize for Peace and Understanding to Suu Kyi.

As a result, in the middle of the operation, Yangon ordered a pull out of its troops.

Observers in New Delhi said while India's commitment to democracy in Myanmar has not changed, it has realized the importance of the Yangon military regime in terms of security interests.

The visit "certainly confirms India's concerns of China's large presence in Myanmar" academic Sanjoy Hazarika said.

Hazarika, an expert on northeastern India with the government- sponsored think tank Center for Policy Research, said the visit did not mean India was condoning Myanmar's military regime.

"It is a simple strategic device. Even if there had been a different regime in Myanmar, India would have done the same".