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India Puts Security, Trade With Burma Ahead of Democracy

  • Daniel Schearf

Indian Foreign Minister S.M Krishna (file photo)

Indian Foreign Minister S.M Krishna (file photo)

India's foreign minister is in Burma for meetings with top leaders that are expected to focus on security and trade. New Delhi says the trip, the first since a civilian government took office, is an opportunity to "further vitalize" the relationship.

S.M. Krishna’s visit is India’s first high-level engagement since the country’s military government was replaced with a nominally civilian leadership in March.

India says the two sides will discuss security cooperation as well as trade and investment.

Krishna is not scheduled to meet with opposition and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was banned from participating in the election.

India was once a vocal Suu Kyi supporter but changed its policy in the early 1990s in order to have better cooperation with the military government.

Professor D.S. Muni at Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies says India realized there was a heavy security cost for supporting Aung San Suu Kyi and calls for democracy in Burma.

“Certainly as a result of change in New Dehli’s policy there has been considerable cooperation on the border, for instance," Muni said. "Lot of northeast insurgencies which have been earlier taking shelter in Myanmar - the Myanmar government’s cooperation is forthcoming.”

Muni says although there is cooperation, India has not been entirely satisfied with Burma’s border security and hopes to improve communications with the new government over the issue.

Critics say Burma’s controversial November election merely gave a civilian face to continued military rule.

A quarter of all parliament seats were reserved for the military and the military party won by a landslide amid widespread reports of voter fraud and intimidation.

Muni says although India is not pushing openly for democratic change in Burma, it has engaged in quiet diplomacy on the issue.

The engagement policy has also paid off economically for both Burma and India.

Bilateral annual trade volume shot from tens of millions of dollars in the 1980s to about a billion and a half dollars last year. Muni says Burma has also discussed brokering new deals for critical energy supplies including oil.

While that remains far less than the several billion dollars of annual Chinese trade and investment, Muni says India is more worried about Chinese naval activity in the region.

"Recently there were visit[s] of the two Chinese ships," Muni said. "Now there is a Chinese ship coming to Singapore. The Chinese are setting up a port development in Sri Lanka, they're planning a port development in Chittagong [Bangladesh]. So, I think this naval activity has suddenly alerted almost anyone who has concern for security in the Bay of Bengal.”

The Indian foreign minister’s visit coincides with a visit to Burma by a delegation from the European Union.

The EU group also met with government ministers and was to meet Tuesday evening with Aung San Suu Kyi.