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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 March 2008, 15:18 GMT
India's Burma charm offensive
Jyoti Malhotra
By Jyoti Malhotra
Indian diplomatic analyst

Burmese military leaders
Burmese junta leaders have made visits to India
India is quietly preparing a new diplomatic offensive with the military junta in Burma.

Recently India's Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon was in Nay Pyi Taw, the new Burmese capital.

And Gen Maung Aye, the second-highest member of Burma's military government, is expected to visit India in April.

Mr Menon's visit coincided with the announcement from the military junta that it will hold a referendum on the constitution in May this year, as well as elections in 2010.

Indian officials were silent about the timing of Mr Menon's visit, and unwilling to confirm or deny whether he helped persuade the Burmese junta to offer the referendum olive branch to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party.

But what is clear is that India and Burma are engaging in new diplomatic initiatives.

Recently, Burma awarded India the right to "build, operate and use" the port of Sittwe, strategically located in the Bay of Bengal. It is a $120m project.

Symbolism

The money is not the point, of course.

The reason Mr Menon, also a consummate Sinologist, has kept his joy under control these last days is because he knows it's far too easy to express happiness at the fact that India had put one over China.

In fact, the journey to Burma is all about reiterating the symbolism of power and responsibility.

When the monks came out in the streets of Rangoon [Yangon] last September to protest at the brutality of the military regime, they had their begging bowls turned downwards.

Aung Sang Suu Kyi
'Did India push Burmese leaders to offer the referendum to Aung San Suu Kyi?'

That was such a powerful symbol of self-denial and abnegation, the likes of which the world has rarely seen, on par with the fasts Mahatma Gandhi often undertook.

Their gesture of protest sent a collective shudder through India. The government came out with more than one statement of criticism of the military action.

So what does one make of the diplomatic billing and cooing that has since returned?

In the new year, Burmese Foreign minister Nyan Win turned up to meet Indian leaders.

Days later, India's commerce ministry announced it had won the right to develop the Sittwe port. By the end of January, UN secretary general's special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, was making a special trip to Delhi to meet the Indian establishment.

In a conversation with this reporter, Mr Gambari said he hoped "India would do more than what it had been doing so far. (India) should work on Burma to make the diplomatic process more inclusive and dialogue with the Opposition parties more dialogue-oriented".

Growing influence

Adding that he was impressed with India's "growing influence" on Burma, Mr Gambari said India should use this leverage to become a trustworthy and effective conduit to both source information as well as send messages to the Burmese government.

And so, the penny dropped.

Like China, India would not support the imposition of sanctions against Burma, just as the US and the European Union wanted.

Like the US and the EU, however, India would invoke its democratic credentials to put out that political reconciliation between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi's party was the only alternative to pressure-cooker outbursts within a divided population.

Buddhist monks protest in Ragoon
The strength of September's protests took everyone by surprise

Above all, India must maintain a fine balance on Burma.

China has already unveiled its "string of pearls" strategy across the Indian Ocean.

This envisages a series of bases and ports in friendly countries like Pakistan and Burma - Gwadar, off the Balochistan coast, and the Coco Islands, Hianggyi, Khaukhphyu, respectively - to protect its energy flows.

When India begins using the Sittwe port, it would help make Burma's Kaladan river navigable all the way up to neighbouring India's north-eastern Mizoram state.

This would, in turn, lead to India upgrading highways connecting Mizoram with the rest of the country to boost trade.

Last August, the Burmese junta withdrew the state-owned Gas Authority of India's "preferential buyer" status on certain offshore gas field blocks and declared it would instead sell gas to Chinese oil firm PetroChina.

But the Sittwe award indicates that Burma also wants to expand ties beyond China.

And the world seems to be happy with India carving out a bigger role in Burma, especially if it balances the other influential power, China.

Jyoti Malhotra is the Diplomatic Editor of NewsX



SEE ALSO
Country profile: Burma
08 Jan 05 |  Country profiles
Mass exodus from Indian islands
19 Jan 05 |  South Asia

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