Why India Courts Myanmar's Military Junta?
India's continuing policy of 'constructive engagement' with Myanmar, even after the brutal crackdown on protesting Buddhist monks and despite pressures from the US and the UN to adopt a tougher line against the military junta, is driven exclusively by its strategic and economic interests.
Opposed to Myanmar's military administration after it seized power in 1989 and a firm supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi and her movement to restore democracy, India performed a swift U-turn in 2000 to blunt nuclear rivals China's and Pakistan's burgeoning defence and strategic links in that country.
India is also looking at Myanmar's vast oil and gas reserves to meet its galloping energy needs, expected to double over the next decade.
"India has long ignored China and Pakistan's growing influence with Burma's military government at its peril and is now anxious to neutralise it," a senior Indian military official said.
China and its military and nuclear ally Pakistan, the official added, were amongst the handful of countries that had disregarded international opinion and forged close military ties with Rangoon's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) - renamed the State Peace and Development Council - cleverly complementing their strategy of encircling India.
China is helping Myanmar modernise its naval bases at Hainggyi, the Coco's islands, Akyab and Mergui by building radar, refit and refuel facilities capable of supporting Chinese submarine operations in the region.
The Chinese are also believed to be establishing a Signals Intelligence facility on the Coco's islands, not very far from the Andaman islands, reportedly to monitor Indian missile tests off the Orissa coast.
China is also reportedly training Myanmar naval intelligence officials and helping the country execute surveys of its coastline contiguous to India.
Indian fears over Beijing's ambitions in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) gained credence in 1994 after the Coast Guard detained three Chinese trawlers with Myanmar flags. The trawlers were equipped with sophisticated tracking and surveying equipment. The crew was arrested on charges of spying.
Despite the navy's protests, bolstered by the security agencies, the crew was released by the government a few months later under pressure from Beijing, ahead of the annual meeting of the symbolic Sino-Indian Joint Working Group to work out the long standing unresolved territorial dispute between the two neighbours.
Chinese ambitions in the IOR also led to India raising the military's first joint command on the Andamans with headquarters at Port Blair in 2001.
"Till now China has been a land neighbour, but through Burma it may soon become our maritime neighbour," a naval officer said. Such moves by Beijing of encircling India merit serious attention, the officer said.
Pakistan, for its part, has for over a decade been fostering military ties with Myanmar by quietly supplying it several shiploads of ordnance and other military hardware like 106 mm M 40 recoilless rifles and various small arms.
It also regularly trains Burmese soldiers to operate a slew of Chinese equipment like tanks, fighter aircraft, howitzers and tanks.
Myanmar military officers regularly attend Pakistan's Military Staff College at Quetta. Others are reportedly undergoing training to operate 155 mm howitzers and a range of tanks such as T 69, T 63 and T 53. Myanmar has acquired all these tanks from China.
Pakistan is also believed to be training Myanmar Air Force (MAF) officers to operate the two-seater Karakoram 8 or K 8 jet trainers which can double as ground attack aircraft. MAF has acquired 14 such trainers since 1998.
While the K 8s are built in China, Islamabad has a 25 percent interest in the project, thereby complementing Pakistan's level of involvement in Myanmar's overall defence establishment.
The MAF also has a proliferating fleet of Chinese F 7 interceptors and A 5 ground attack craft that Pakistan too operates. Myanmar naval officers are also reportedly undergoing training at Pakistani naval establishments.
Intelligence sources said Pakistani military cooperation with Myanmar began in January 1989, shortly after SLORC took power.
Senior Pakistani military officials then arrived in Yangoon, hawking a range of weaponry. Later, Myanmar defence officials led by MAF chief Major General Tin Tun visited Islamabad and reportedly bought machine guns, 50,000 rounds of ammunition and 5,000 120mm mortars.
Shipments to Myanmar of rocket launchers, assault rifles and ammunition worth around $20 million followed. This was mainly thanks to diversion by the Pakistani intelligence from the arms the US gave to the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Weapon sales to Myanmar are believed to have ceased briefly under then prime minister Benazir Bhutto's administration. They resumed under her successor Nawaz Sharif and the military government thereafter.
After 9/11, two Pakistani nuclear weapon scientists, anticipating arrest and questioning by US officials about their alleged links with the Taliban, are believed to have taken sanctuary in Myanmar at the request of Islamabad soon after the Washington-led assault on Afghanistan in October 2001.
Western intelligence sources said that Suleiman Assad and Mohammad Mukhtar, both in their late 50s, arrived in Yangon in late November 2001 and were "secreted" by the military administration in Sagaing, a Mandalay suburb in central Myanmar.
Assad and Mukhtar left Pakistan when the US was investigating two other Pakistani nuclear scientists for their links with the Taliban and possible help they may have provided it to build a "dirty bomb" or crude radiological weapon capable of being detonated conventionally by explosives.
They are believed to have made their way to China from Myanmar after which their whereabouts are unknown.
Meanwhile, to countervail this burgeoning military cooperation, the Indian Navy is in the process of transferring two British-built Islander maritime surveillance aircraft to Myanmar, an add-on to the pair it supplied the military junta in August 2006.
Like the earlier two, these Islanders would be stripped of all armaments and deployed exclusively on relief and humanitarian missions.
The Indian Navy is also training Myanmar pilots to operate the Islanaders as well as to establish a domestic naval aviation training facility for the military regime.
India has also agreed to supply Myanmar varied military hardware like T 55 tanks, artillery guns, radar, assault rifles, light machine guns and ordnance.
In exchange, New Delhi is seeking to jointly conduct military operations against Indian separatist groups waging insurgency for decades from inside Myanmar in the contiguous northeastern states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur across the 1,600-km long common border.
Alongside, India is building and upgrading Myanmar's roads, modernising its ports, setting up a hydroelectric station, a satellite communication centre and an elaborate IT project as an element of its broader 'Look East' policy of forging commercial and trade ties with Southeast Asian states.
(Rahul Bedi can be contacted at email@example.com)
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