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“Gas” what? India is “engaging” Myanmar too

Updated On: Mar 10, 2006

Indian President Abdul Kalam arrived at Yangonon Wednesday (8 March 2006) for a three-day trip.

So far he has signed 3 agreements and even had time to meet with a group of Myanmarese students.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told reporters in New Delhijust before the visit that bringing natural gas from Myanmarwas at the top of Kalam’s agenda. Saran denies that the trip was to counter Chinese influence but said that Indiaregarded Myanmaras the “gateway” to ASEAN. Saran also assured reporters thatIndiastill cared about democracy in Myanmar.

On Thursday (9 March 2006), 3 Memorandum of understanding (MOU) and agreement were concluded between the two countries. One MOU on Cooperation in the Petroleum Sector pertained to the transport of natural gas from Arakan portof Myanmareither through a pipeline via northeast Indiaor through Bangladesh. The other MOU was in cooperation in Buddhist studies and a Framework Agreement on mutual cooperation in the field of Remote Sensing was signed for the establishment of a ground station in Myanmar. This station will receive remote data from satellite to survey soil and mineral for agricultural purposes.

Kalam’s visit comes just after Yudhoyono’s visit to Myanmar. Yudhoyono is seen as possibly being able to earn the trust of the military leaders in Myanmar. As a retired general later democratically elected to be the President, Yudhoyono has the credibility both internationally as a democrat and in Myanmaras a military man. The MOU signed between Indonesiaand Myanmarlast week is likely to be a way for the Indonesians to show the Myanmarese military how to withdraw from the political and economic scene peacefully.

Ironically, the Indians’ attempt to engage Myanmarcoincides with reports of more dissatisfaction within ASEAN on the lack of progress of democracy in Myanmar. There is increasingly frustration over the Myanmar’s refusal to allow ASEAN’s representative, Malaysian Foreign Minster Syed Hamid Albar to visit Myanmaras agreed at the last ASEAN summit in December 2005. Earlier on Wednesday (8 March 2006), ASEAN ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong told Kyodo News that, “for the sake of ASEAN’s credibility, Myanmar should facilitate this trip as soon as possible.”

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers are likely to spend time discussing this issue of Myanmarat their annual retreat in April.  Senior ASEAN officials have stated that stronger measures will be taken if the visit cannot be conducted by the time of the retreat. However, ASEAN is unlikely to suspend Myanmaror to impose sanctions. Ong explained, “We don’t believe in those measures because it will not help to resolve the situation, we want to continue to engage Myanmar.” 

This is this desire of engagement that both ASEAN and now India have given for pandering to Myanmarthus far. It is ironic that while the former is increasingly losing its patience, the latter is now willing to stand in to try the same strategy. Saran has rejected claims that Indian’s attempt to woo Myanmar away from China was weakening ASEAN’s efforts to push Myanmartowards democratisation. Saran said, “There are very good reasons why Indiahas to remain engaged in Myanmar. It is not accurate to describe the visit in these terms.” 

In the meantime, conditions within Myanmarare likely to deteriorate. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro recently wrote in a report to the UN Human Rights Commission, “In a region that has experienced significant development in recent years, it is unacceptable that the people of Myanmar are denied their inherent rights” He also said that “the procedures and principles which govern the National Convention remain fundamentally anti-democratic.” Pineheiro had last met with Suu Kyi at her Lakeside residence in Yangon in November 2003 but has since been denied entry to Myanmar.

Sources:

IndiaMyanmarsigns MoUs on petroleum, space, education, The Times of India, 9 March 2006

ASEAN Ups Pressure on Myanmarto Set Date for MissionJapanEconomic Newswire, 9 March 2006

An Indonesian General’s Lesson on Democracy, Straits Times, 9 March 2006

Indian Leader Cosies up to Myanmar Junta, Straits Times, 9 March 2006

Kalam Charms Myanmar Student, Deccan Herald, 9 March 2006

Myanmar Junta’s Reform Process ‘Anti-Democratic’: UN Expert, Agence France Presse, 8 March 2006

Kalam Reaches Myanmar on a Three-Day Visit, HindustanTimes.com, 8 March 2006

Indian President Arrives in Myanmarto Boost Business Ties, Agence France Presse, 8 March 2006