India and Burma Get Down to Business

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Saurabh Das / AP

Burma's General Than Shwe, left, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh witness the signing of agreements in New Delhi on July 27, 2010

In Amitav Ghosh's novel The Glass Palace, the connection between India and Burma, two countries with a long shared colonial history, is romantic: a resourceful Indian orphan braves war and treachery to find the exiled Burmese princess he loves. In real life, the bond between India and Burma is all business. General Than Shwe, leader of the junta that has ruled Burma since 1988, arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday as part of a five-day state visit. He traveled there to talk about trade and security — and to not talk about free elections or the imprisoned pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

India's official policy on Burma remains unchanged: it supports democracy. The large Burmese refugee community in India is a product of that support; most arrived during the 1988 military crackdown. But since 1993, New Delhi has cultivated closer ties with the ruling junta in the hopes of getting Burma's help in cracking down on insurgent groups on their shared border and striking deals for Burma's rich reserves of natural gas. "It's a pragmatic kind of policy," says Sreeradha Datta, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. "There is a consensus, even among the left, that we need to engage with the junta."

Than Shwe, who has led the military regime since 1992, got the full state-visit treatment this week. He met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other top officials, and was the guest of honor at a banquet at the President's mansion. While Singh is not expected to make any personal statement, the warm welcome signals the implicit support of the world's largest democracy to Burma's military dictatorship.

This irony has not been lost on the handful of dissenters in the Indian Parliament. Thirteen MPs (all but one from the ceremonial upper house) signed a letter criticizing the government for "lending legitimacy" to the junta, which will be holding elections later this year. The elections have been widely criticized as a sham, the letter notes, but not by India. "We should not send [the] wrong message to the world by focusing primarily on military and economic cooperation with the military dictatorship in Burma."

And yet that's exactly what this visit is about. Indian state-owned energy companies recently announced a new $1.3 billion investment in gas-field development and pipeline projects in Burma — an unusual deal in which India will have a stake in a pipeline that is majority-owned by China, its regional rival. The joint statement issued on July 27 by India and Burma singled out oil and gas as a particularly ripe field of cooperation, pledging to encourage more investment by public and private Indian companies.

The two countries also signed five agreements, the most important of which is the Treaty on Mutual Assistance on Criminal Matters, a cross-border anti-insurgency pact. They "resolved not to allow their respective territory to be used for training, sanctuary and other operations by terrorist and insurgent organizations and their operatives."

India is hoping that this treaty, similar to earlier efforts with Bhutan and Bangladesh, will help end the persistent ethnic insurgencies in the seven small states of India's northeast, a region that also abuts Burma's western border. The strategy has had some effect. Terrorism-related fatalities in the northeast have fallen from 1,051 in 2008 to 207 so far in 2010, according to figures compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Security experts believe there are some groups in Burma but that they are operating in regions where the junta's control is weakest.

India, on the other hand, has already proven itself an ally in Burma's fight against the Karen and Arakan separatist groups. India has detained 34 rebels for 12 years on gun-running charges, which were dropped earlier this month. How they got to India is a murky story: the rebels allege they crossed into India at the behest of Indian intelligence operatives but were then arrested. They will eventually be eligible for repatriation to a third country, but in the meantime they remain in Indian custody. "We always cooperated with Indian military intelligence but they betrayed us," Arakan separatist leader Khin Maung told the BBC. India's romance with the junta, on the other hand, is still going strong.