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Indian Prime Minister Heads to Burma to Strengthen Ties

  • Anjana Pasricha

India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (January 10, 2012 / AFP).

India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (January 10, 2012 / AFP).

NEW DELHI - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Burma Sunday, becoming the first Indian leader to travel there in a quarter century.

Although Singh will be the first prime minister to visit the country since 1987, it is not the first time that India is engaging Burmese leaders.

New Delhi established relations with Burma’s military junta despite international criticism in the mid-1990s, and there has been a steady stream of high level visits between India and Burma in recent years.

And as Burma becomes less isolated following its efforts to end military rule, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said New Delhi’s approach to Burma , also known as Myanmar, has been vindicated.

“It certainly is a vindication of our policy of engagement that we have been able to keep a good dialogue with the Myanmar government," he said. "The president [Thein Sein] when he came to India last October had spelt out his vision for opening up and this has now accelerated. This is a welcome trend.”

India wants to strengthen the bridges it has already built with its eastern neighbor and deepen ties in a range of areas, said Mathai.

“The new political environment in Myanmar also provides fresh opportunities to take our bilateral relationship to a new plane. The visit thus provides an opportunity to enrich the substance of our relations both qualitatively and in scope, and lays down a road map for cooperation in a wide range of areas, including security, connectivity, infrastructure development, trade and investment promotion, capacity building, culture and people-to-people contacts,” he said.

During his visit, Singh will meet with Burmese President Thein Sein, pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and sign a range of agreements.

His talks with Aung San Suu Kyi on Tuesday are being seen as a sign that New Delhi wants both to reaffirm its ties with the democracy activist and to quell criticism that it had abandoned its commitment to a return of democracy in Burma.

Trade and investment will top the agenda. India ranks behind China and South Korea in investment in Burma, but it wants to change that.

The two countries are also discussing the possibility of trading in each other’s currencies to facilitate direct trade. At present, trade between India and Burma is around $1.5 billion and is expected to exceed $3 billion by 2015.

The two sides will also discuss road projects that will boost links between India and Thailand and other East and South East Asian countries.

India, hungry for energy, will hold talks on getting greater access to Burma’s vast gas and energy resources. The two sides will announce a new bus service between Imphal in India’s northeast and Mandalay in Burma.

Leaders will address deepening security cooperation along their common border. Burma has been cooperating with India in cracking down on insurgent groups in India’s northeast that often find refuge inside Burma.

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