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India Seeks Stronger Ties with Burma

Burmese military leader Than Shwe began his trip to India on a quiet note with a visit to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya in Bihar. Tuesday he meets with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other senior leaders in New Delhi.

During the visit, India aims to deepen its engagement with Burma by signing a series of agreements on economic and military cooperation with General Than Shwe.

India was once a staunch supporter of Burmese pro democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. But, prompted by its strategic interests, India began engaging Burma's military rulers about a decade ago.

New Delhi needs Burma's help to counter insurgent groups that are active in several northeastern states, and that have set up bases across the border in Burma. The two countries share a 1,680 kilometer long border. India, an energy deficit nation, also wants to tap Burma's vast reserves of natural gas.

But perhaps most importantly, India wants to counter-balance China's growing influence in Burma, also known as Myanmar, said Bharat Karnad, a strategic affairs expert with the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

"It's trying to consolidate its position and basically I think garner more goodwill with senior general Than Shwe," said Karnad. "Because of our inattention and wrong policies in the past, we lost Myanmar to China and we are trying to recover ground there, and we are succeeding."

Indian leaders are likely to discuss plans by Burma's military rulers to hold the country's first elections in two decades later this year. Many Western nations have dismissed the polls as a sham. But controversial topics such as human rights will not be on the table despite protests and calls by rights activists to discuss the issue.

Human Rights Watch has urged India to send a message that Burma's failure to respect human rights and establish genuine democracy retard Burma's development and create political difficulties for India.

Burma's military government is accused of widespread human rights violations, and many Western countries have imposed economic sanctions on the country to push its rulers toward democratic reform. But India says it cannot afford to isolate a country in its neighborhood.

The Burmese military leader will also visit India's information technology hub, Hyderabad and the industrial city of Jamshedpur.