NAYPYIDAW: India’s prime minister begins a historic visit to Myanmar on Sunday, stepping up efforts to woo the resource-rich nation and seizing the chance to counter the influence of regional rival China.
Manmohan Singh will hold talks with Myanmar President Thein Sein as well as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the three day trip, the first by an Indian premier to the Southeast Asian nation in a quarter of a century.
Energy-hungry India is eyeing Myanmar’s large oil and natural gas reserves and is eager to boost trade after a half-century of military rule left Myanmar isolated and heavily reliant on its other giant neighbour China.
New Delhi, once a staunch supporter of Suu Kyi’s struggle for democracy, changed tack in the mid-1990s as it sought closer ties, and drew international criticism for its engagement with the former junta.
But India has pointed to recent dramatic reforms under a new quasi-civilian regime, including Suu Kyi’s election to parliament in April by-elections, as a validation of its stance.
“We may have had differences but we wanted always to be able to continue a dialogue as friendly constructive partners, I think that has been vindicated,” Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said in New Delhi last week.
He said a new political environment in the country since the end of direct military rule last year “provides fresh opportunities to take our bilateral relationship to a new plane”.
Singh will meet Thein Sein on Monday in the capital Naypyidaw and then travel to the main city of Yangon for talks with Suu Kyi on Tuesday, in a move seen as a sign that India wants to reaffirm ties with the veteran activist.
Suu Kyi, who has a strong personal tie to India where she studied while her mother was ambassador there, said after she was released from house arrest in 2010 that she had been “saddened” by a lack of support from New Delhi.
“We welcome that India now has a more open relationship with us,” Nyan Win, a spokesman for her National League for Democracy (NLD) told AFP.
The Indian foreign secretary said the country hoped to sign several memorandums of understanding during the talks, which will focus on security, trade and investment.
India sees Myanmar as the springboard to a closer connection with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc as well as a key partner in counter-insurgency and economic development drives in its northeast border areas.
Its infrastructure projects in Myanmar include a port at Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal in western Rakhine State, but New Delhi’s activities in the country lag that of Beijing, which is behind a host of major developments.
Indian trade with Myanmar stood at $1.2 billion in 2010, far short of the $4.4 billion between China and Myanmar.
Vibhanshu Shekhar of the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi said Myanmar was crucial in “limiting China’s growing presence in Myanmar and the Bay of Bengal”.
“For me, the real question is not whether India has fallen behind China or not. Rather what does India do from here,” Shekhar told AFP, adding that the visit could be of “great significance for the future of India’s presence” in the country.
Myanmar is already seeing a surge of investor interest from a long list of nations as reforms raise hopes that the impoverished nation could be the next big frontier market.
Singh will be accompanied by a high-powered business delegation, including telecom tycoon Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman of mobile giant Bharti Airtel.