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Burmese President Visits India as Ties Between Neighbors Deepen

  • Anjana Pasricha

Burma President Thein Sein, center, visits Buddhist pilgrimage site Sarnath, 13 kilometers (8 miles) east of Varanasi, India, October 13, 2011.

Burma President Thein Sein, center, visits Buddhist pilgrimage site Sarnath, 13 kilometers (8 miles) east of Varanasi, India, October 13, 2011.

The Burmese president is in India for a bilateral visit aimed at deepening a relationship that has been growing steadily in recent years. New Delhi wants to nurture ties with its neighbor, whose new, nominally civilian leadership has made tentative moves toward political reforms.

Burmese President Thein Sein visited Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India before arriving in New Delhi to hold talks with senior Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

It is the first visit by the head of Burma’s nominally civilian government, which took office in March this year. He is accompanied by several senior ministers.

Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash says New Delhi is pleased that ties with Burma are gaining momentum.

“Relationships are a process, it is a building process and I consciously did note that both in terms of content and substance and the sweep of the relationship, certainly it's an upwards trajectory, there is no doubt about that,” he said.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman says New Delhi will deepen ties with Burma in areas ranging from security, trade, energy, and infrastructure development, to education and agriculture. He called Burma an important partner in India’s quest for energy security. He says roads and a port being developed by India in the neighboring country will give remote northeastern Indian states easier access to port facilities and boost their economic development. The two countries also plan to increase bilateral trade from $1.2 billion at present to $3 billion by 2015.

Unlike Western countries, which have imposed sanctions on Burma for decades for its poor rights record, New Delhi has engaged with its neighbor since the 1990s because of its strategic importance to India. Burma, in turn, has promised India help in controlling insurgent groups in India’s northeast that often seek sanctuary on Burmese territory. Burma is also rich in resources that India needs, such as oil and natural gas, and provides India with a link to other Southeast Asian countries.

The Burmese president's visit to India comes after the new government in Burma has made tentative moves toward political reform. It has released some political prisoners, opened more dialogue with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and loosened some media controls. Analysts say the new leadership is trying to end its isolation.

C. Raja Mohan, a foreign policy analyst at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, says such steps will further strengthen the India-Burma relationship.

“What’s more exciting at this point, is the fact that Burma is changing," said Mohan. "The present leader, Thein Sein, has signaled a strong commitment to reform, so things have moved fairly fast. So, as some of the constraints, the international constraints, as they get removed, then there is even greater possibility for India and Burma to cooperate.”

Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash says India is supportive of Burma’s transition to democracy and hopes it will be “broad based and inclusive.”

Hours before the Burmese president arrived in New Delhi, Burmese pro-democracy groups based in India held a demonstration in New Delhi asking India to encourage Burma's new government to affirm its commitment to democracy by engaging in a meaningful dialogue with the people, including ethnic minorities.

Some analysts say that India is competing for influence with China, which has developed close links with Burma as it has been isolated by Western countries.