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Wednesday, 14 February, 2001, 02:20 GMT
India's road to Rangoon
Jaswant Singh
By Larry Jagan in Bangkok

Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh has begun an official visit to Burma, the first by a senior Indian official since the current military regime took power in 1988.

He is due to meet several Burmese leaders on Wednesday, including the head of state, General Than Shwe.

Mr Singh has also opened a new major access road between India and Burma at the border.

Government officials say the trip will help improve bilateral relations and boost trade between the two countries.

Thaw

Analysts believe the visit is a clear indication that Delhi is anxious to establish good relations with the Burmese military junta.

Rangoon street
Delhi is looking to build new links
India is keen to further improve relations with Burma as part of its efforts to find friends in East Asia.

For years Delhi has viewed Rangoon with great suspicion, fearing that China was developing a strong commercial and military base in the country.

But seven years ago India's policy changed, with Delhi starting a series of exchange visits by junior ministers and government officials.

India's change of heart was prompted in part by the fear that by isolating Rangoon, India was merely forcing Burma's military closer to Beijing.

Delhi has also realised that they shared many mutual problems with Burma, including drug trafficking, cross border insurgency and smuggling.

Border road

During his visit, Jaswant Singh will put the finishing touches to a treaty to combat cross border drug trafficking and insurgency.

Captured arms
Arms smuggling is a huge concern in the north-east
Indian officials believe this will help stem the flow of drugs from the Golden Triangle - in Burma's north-eastern region - into northern India.

On his way to Rangoon, Mr Singh also officially opened a new highway linking Burma to India's northern state of Manipur.

Officials say the new road link will help promote tourism, trade and economic ties.

It was built within three years using Indian technology and design and Burmese labour.

Critics say much of this was forced labour, something the Burmese Government denies.

Trade

There are now plans to improve road links from the border right through to Rangoon.

Trade between the two countries has risen substantially in the last three years to the point that India is now one of Burma's most important export markets, selling mainly beans, pulses, gems and semi-precious stones.

The value of the two-way trade last year was more than $200m.

Rangoon and Delhi hope this trade will flourish even further with the improved road links.

But international aid organisations warn that the same routes will also encourage a larger flow of illegal drugs.

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See also:

18 Nov 00 | South Asia
India hosts top Burmese general
01 Nov 00 | South Asia
Burmese army 'attacks' Indian rebels
04 Jul 00 | South Asia
Indian army chief in Burma
07 Jan 00 | South Asia
India seeks Burma border help
20 Aug 99 | South Asia
Burmese refugees flee to India
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