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India's Low-Key Response to Burma Protests Driven By Security Concerns

India's guarded response to the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in neighboring Burma has drawn criticism from those who want the world's largest democracy to speak more loudly against the Burmese military junta. But, as Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, analysts say India is walking a diplomatic tightrope to protect its own strategic interests in the region.

While much of the world has adopted a tough posture to the recent violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Burma, India's response was brief and carefully worded.

In a statement, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee expressed hope that all sides will resolve their issues peacefully through dialogue, and "all sections of people will be included in a broad-based process of national reconciliation and political reform."

The statement disappointed human rights groups and many in Western countries who want India to demonstrate regional leadership and nudge the military junta toward real political reform.

"India is expected, as the largest democratic country, to issue a harsher statement," said Suhas Chakma, the director of the Asian Center for Human Rights, based in New Delhi. "It is very unfortunate."

But foreign policy analysts are not surprised by India's low-key response. They say it is in line with New Delhi's policy of engaging Burma's military junta to meet its own strategic interests.

The reversal of India's strong support for Burma's democracy movement and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi began in the mid 1990's. It was triggered by three factors: New Delhi wanted the military junta to act against rebels who were using bases in Burma to wage insurgencies in India's northeast. India also wanted to counter China's growing influence in the region and secure a stake in Burma's rich energy resources.

India's decision to do business with the military junta culminated in 2004, when New Delhi hosted a visit by Burma's military leader, Than Shwe.

Analysts say India's policy, like that of many other countries, is driven by realpolitik. International relations expert former Major General Ashok Mehta says Western countries also work with military regimes in the pursuit of larger security interests, such as the war against terrorism.

"You take the case of the United States, I am only giving one example. [The] United States has strategic interests in areas bordering Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and therefore, while it talks about restoration or revival of democracy and human rights, there is very little it does to ensure that happens there," he said.

India's naval and air force chiefs have visited Burma in the past year as New Delhi has steadily deepened its military cooperation with its neighbor.