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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Explaining India's silence over Burma
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

A Burmese pro-democracy supporter in Delhi, India
India has kept a diplomatic silence over recent Burmese protests
India has been slow to break its silence over street protests across Burma this month even though it has strong geographical, political and strategic links with its eastern neighbour.

On Wednesday, the foreign ministry spokesman expressed concern at developments over the border, calling for peaceful and "broad-based" political reforms.

But Delhi's unease over the protests was clearly illustrated when Petroleum Minister Murli Deora left for the troubled south-east Asian country at the weekend.

Before leaving, he ran into a protest by Burmese pro-democracy activists in Delhi.

The protesters carried placards reading "Deora, don't go for gas, go for democracy" and "India stop supporting Burmese military rule".

As Mr Deora reached Burma, the huge street protests against Burma's military rulers were beginning to peak.

'Watching developments'

India's reticence over developments in Burma dates back as least as far as 1988, when the military brutally crushed student protests.

Nandita Haksar
We cannot have democracy at home and support military tyrants in the neighbourhood. India must do all it can for the restoration of democracy in Burma
Nandita Haksar,
Human rights lawyer

A senior Indian external ministry official said on Wednesday that India was "closely watching the developments in Burma".

But he was quick to add: "We have no desire to interfere in the internal affairs of Burma."

An official statement on Mr Deora's visit said: "He had wide-ranging discussions to explore the possibilities of enhancing bilateral co-operation in the hydrocarbon sector with Burma's Energy Minister, Brig Gen Lun Thi."

Mr Deora was also present on Monday at the signing of Production Sharing Contracts (PSC) for three deep-water exploration blocks between India's ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) and Burma's Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) .

"These contracts are a happy development and augur well for expanding the co-operation between the two neighbours," Mr Deora said on his return to India.

When it comes to Burma, the priority for the world's largest democracy under economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is now quite clear.

With a fast-growing economy, India is desperate to access any major source of energy in the neighbourhood from Iran to Burma and beyond.

'Vital for the economy'

Burma's huge natural gas reserves in the country's western province of Arakan and the adjoining seaboard, estimated at more than 30 trillion cubic feet or even more, is a great attraction for energy-starved India.

"India and not China should be getting this gas. It is vital for the economy of eastern India," said Nazib Arif, former secretary general of the Indian Chamber of Commerce.

India says it is getting help from the Burmese army to fight insurgents in its troubled north-east, many of whom have bases in Burma's Sagaing Division.

Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee
We have strategic and economic interests to protect in Burma. It is up to the Burmese people to struggle for democracy
Pranab Mukherjee,
Indian foreign minister

"We value our growing military relations with Burma," said India's outgoing army chief, Gen JJ Singh last week. India has given Burma some military hardware and may give more.

But in the 1980s, India wholeheartedly supported the Burmese pro-democracy movement - both in the region and in the UN.

It opened its doors to the refugees who fled the brutal military crackdown in 1988.

And Burma's military rulers even accused India of funding dissident groups including the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) and the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) .

But while the West imposed sanctions and stepped up pressure, India has been boosting its relations with the Burmese military junta since the mid-1990s.

'Double standards'

"India is desperate to counter Chinese influence in Burma. This, more than anything else, explains India's complete reversal of its Burma policy in the 1990s," says Rene Egreteau, author of an acclaimed book on India's Burma policy, Wooing the Generals.

India is now developing ports, building roads and railways and is competing with China for Burma's oil and gas reserves as part of its "Look East Policy".

India-Burma map

Civil society activists and human rights campaigners in India are very critical of Delhi's silence on the mounting pro-democracy protests in Burma.

"We cannot have democracy at home and support military tyrants in the neighbourhood. India must do all it can for the restoration of democracy in Burma," said the country's top human rights lawyer, Nandita Haksar.

"India's Burma policy is full of double standards and it must change now," agreed leading editor Sumit Chakrabarty.

Former spymaster and Burma specialist BB Nandy says the Burmese military junta has done nothing to make India beholden to it.

"The gas from the explored blocs in Arakan have been given over to the Chinese. The Burmese army has not undertaken a big operation against our north-eastern rebel groups like Bhutan did in 2003. The junta has taken us for a ride, so we have no reason to support their survival," he said.

But two months ago, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee defended the country's Burma policy at a meeting in the north-eastern town of Shillong.

"We have strategic and economic interests to protect in Burma. It is up to the Burmese people to struggle for democracy, it is their issue," he said.

But with the situation fast changing in Burma, pressure may mount on India to act.

"We have to take a stand, we cannot merely wait and watch," said Mr Nandy.

"India has to use all its influence to get the Burmese generals in a dialogue with the leaders of the pro-democracy movement. If we don't do it, that's the end of all our pretension as a regional power," said Anasua Basu Roychoudhury of Calcutta University's Southeast Asian Studies department.

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