Ignoring International pressure, India prepares for a Burmese port deal

Ignoring International pressure, India prepares for a Burmese port deal

Nava Thakuria

Ignoring the continued international pressure to boycott the ruling military junta of Burma (Myanmar), India has geared up for signing of a deal to develop a port in western Burmese coast for the benefit of its restive Northeast, where secessionist movement had inspired a number of insurgent outfits to declare a war against New Delhi even after 60 years of India's independence.

Come April 4 and New Delhi will unfold the red carpet for the 'second man in command' of the Burmese junta, Maung Aye, who supposes to arrive in India for finalizing many business deals, primarily the Kaladan project. The project includes the development of Sittwe port in the Bay of Bengal and then connects it with the landlocked Northeast India through the Kaladan river and road transport.

The connected Indian state will be Mizoram, which is adjacent to Chin province of Burma (also known as Myanmar). Vice Senior General Maung Aye, the deputy commander-in-chief of Defence Services and a hardliner, is expected to arrive in New Delhi for signing the much discussed Kaladan Multi-Model Project.

It will be an important visit of a Burmese high profile leader to New Delhi after Senior General Than Shwe, the head of the State Peace and Development Council paid a visit four years back. The project includes the up-gradation of the seaport in Sittwe, widening and deepening of the Kaladan river that flows from Mizoram, and development of a road to connect Mizoram's capital Aizwal. Sittwe is hardly 400 km away from Aizwal, a less crowded beautiful hill city.

"The Kaladan project will include shipping, riverine and road transport," said Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of State for Commerce. Talking to media persons during one of his recent visits to the region, Mr Ramesh also added, "New Delhi wants to connect the Northeast with the commercial sea routes. Moreover, with the development of Sittwe port and the Kaladan river as a navigation efficient, the region is expected to have another viable access to the South East Asian counties."

India is reportedly spending nearly $ 100 million for the project. The junta, though assured free land for the project, had shown reluctance to invest money in the project, which finally compels New Delhi to extend a soft loan of $ 10 million to the SPDC leaders. The Kaladan project is anticipated to be completed within four years and the project will be executed by India's public sector Rail India Technical Economic Services organization.

But the signing of the deal will not be out of repercussion, as the international communities have been raising voices against the military junta for its continued repressive policies on the pro-democracy activists including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and of course its poor human rights record in Burma. The public memory remains fresh for the political observers worldwide, where thousands of agitating monks in the streets of Rangoon were subjected to torture during last September.

The junta controlled the movement with strong hands killing nearly hundreds. While Burmese exiles irrespective of their organizations have come out heavily against New Delhi for initiating for a business deal, there are few supporters for the Kaladan project for the benefits of the Northeast. The supporters of pro-democracy movement in Burma have raised a single point that India should not invest money at this moment in Burma as the money will not reach the common people, but the pockets of the Generals.

They unanimously point out that it is not the suitable time to invest in Burma, even if one does not endorse the pro-democracy movement led by the Nobel laureate Suu Kyi. "It is not the suitable time to do business with Burma," argues Kyaw Than, the leader of All Burma Students' League (ABSL), a conglomeration of Burmese students' organizations in exile. Another Burmese exile, Dr Tayza Thuria, now based in London, debates that 'India's doing business with Burma and engaging with Burma's de-facto military government is not wrong in itself'. But the Indian government needs to be careful to maintain a balanced and ethical approach towards Burma; i.e., while engaging with Burmese government in business and security affairs, New Delhi must also try to persuade, advice and guide the junta to make the systematic democratic reforms in due course of time.

He however admitted that India needs Burma's cooperation and Burma needs India's, regardless of which party is in power in India or which regime is ruling Burma. "India's Burma friendship is good. Burma and India are neighbours, and since the colonial era Burmese and Indian national leaders maintained good relationship and close co-operations," added Tayza Thuria. But Deepak Parvatiyar, a former journalist and now based in Kuala Lumpur, comments that the mounting pressure on the military rulers of Burma 'should be maintained at a diplomatic level but not at the cost of development'.

Speaking to this correspondent from the Malaysian capital, Mr Parvatiyar stated, "Contribution to development is always welcome, even after taking consideration to the recent happenings in Burma and the continued regressive policies by its military rulers." He concluded, "By participating in the development of the port in Burma, India has shown maturity in dealing with her troublesome neighbors. Opening bilateral trade with Pakistan was the beginning that considerably helped smoothening relationship between the two countries. By participating in development of Burma, it will enhance the reputation of India as a country that cares for its neighbours irrespective of political differences.

Moreover, the Kaladan project will help the backward Northeast region to have an access to the commercial sea routes." The largest democracy in the globe earlier received brickbats following its Petroleum minister Murli Deora's visit to Burma during September, 2007, the days world media witnessed massive protests against the junta in the country. The Indian minister certainly though witnessed hundred thousand agitating people in the streets of Rangoon, did not make a single statement or observation. During his visit, three bilateral agreements for deep exploration in oil blocks were signed. Indian state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Videsh pledged to invest nearly US$ 150 million for gas exploration in the Rakhaine coast of Burma.

"Nothing revealed better than the Burma visit of Murli Deora to sign a gas deal, just when the repression peaked," claimed Soe Myint, a Burmese political activist living in exile. This sent a terrible message, Soe Myint asserted. He added, "Democratic India won't lift its little finger to restrain the Burmese regime." The pro-democracy activist stated, "India should hold a special responsibility for Burma. The two countries share a modern legacy that of the Freedom movement, where the Burmese Independence hero Aung Sang (father of Suu Kyi) was inspired by MK Gandhi (fatter of Indian nation) and J Nehru (the first prime minister of India)".

Thin Thin Aung, a leader of Women's League of Burma, now living in exiled in New Delhi, also echoed the same views, "The people of Burma and India were together culturally, historically and politically. We fought the British together. And four states of the Northeast are bordering Burma and share associations with many ethnic groups in both the countries. We need to work and act together for lasting peace in the Northeast and Burma." Meanwhile, a recent public meeting in Aizwal resolved to appeal New Delhi to snap all ties with the military junta as 'the economic cooperation with them would never benefit the people unless democracy was restored in Burma'. Organized jointly by the Mizoram Committee for Democracy in Burma and the Campaign for Democratic Movement in Burma, the meeting also resolved that New Delhi should work with the UN to find amicable solution to the Burmese imbroglio.

Dr Tint Swe, a leader of National League for Democracy led by Suu Kyi, who is living in exile in India, was also present at the meeting and argued that dealing with Burma 'would only have a meaning after restoration of democracy' there.

Nava Thakuria is a senior journalist from North-East India