India and Myanmar discussed ways to increase connectivity and opening more border points between them, even as New Delhi urged the junta to expedite political reforms and make these more broad-based to include the release of imprisoned pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Thousands took part in last year's pro-democracy protests in Myanmar
Maung Aye, the second-highest ranking general in Myanmar's ruling military junta, began his five-day India visit with a series of meetings with the Indian leadership. He held talks with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee followed by a call on President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The current situation in Myanmar came up for discussion in all meetings with Indian leaders, with the Myanmerese general briefing his hosts on recent initiatives of the military regime, including its decision to hold a referendum on the new draft constitution in May and general elections in 2010.
New Transport Link
The highlight of his trip is an agreement to link India's north-eastern states to Myanmar's port of Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal.
Prof Ganga Nath Jha from the School of South East Asian Studies of Jawaharlal Nehru University explains the importance of this transport link:
“India is thinking of having a transport corridor, the Sittwe port development as well as Kaladan river project in which India is willing to spend its money for upgradation of the transport system and linking Myanmar with the north east.”
The transport corridor, when it comes up will allow the north-eastern states access to the sea, bypassing Bangladesh.
Besides signing a framework agreement on the project, India and Myanmar are also expected to ink pacts on a protocol for transit transport, bilateral investment promotion and protection and double taxation avoidance
Myanmar in SAARC
Despite western rights groups' criticism of Myanmar's handling of pro-democracy demonstrations six months back, India has maintained contacts with the ruling military junta. India's intensification of ties with Myanmar has been partly a result of the military junta cosying up to China, which had rung alarm bells in New Delhi.
Prof Jha explains why India is not averse to allowing Myanmar into the SAARC grouping.
“For political reasons also, there are certain MPs who want to bring Myanmar into SAARC. As has happened in the case of Afghanistan, so there is an idea to bring Myanmar into the SAARC fold so that Myanmar is not dependent on the Chinese.”
To coincide with the visit, Myanmar's exiled pro-democracy activists have been on a sit-in here since March 31 to protest the policies of Myanmar’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
Thin Sanga of the Burma Campaign says India should do more to persuade the junta to take the road to democracy instead of looking at its strategic interests.
“There will always be self interest. So common interests India shows with Myanmar are that of containment of north-eastern insurgency and Look East policy and obtaining natural gas from Burma and to minimise the Chinese influence on Burma’s military generals. These are the common reasons. But they should always consider from the moral point view of the democratic movement.”
India has opposed the imposition of sanctions on Myanmar by the US and the European Union. It has instead called for a dialogue with the junta to persuade it to take the road to democracy and free pro-democracy leaders, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.