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India hosts Burma's junta ruler in state visit
The leader of Burma's repressive military junta, Than Shwe, arrived in India on Sunday for a state visit, highlighting growing ties between the world's largest democracy and one of its worst regimes.
AFP - Myanmar's military ruler Than Shwe arrived in India Sunday for a state visit that underscores the growing strategic ties between the world's largest democracy and one of its most repressive regimes.
Shwe began his visit in Bodha Gaya, the temple town and pilgrimage post in eastern India where Buddha gained enlightenment. His ceremonial state welcome in New Delhi will take place on Tuesday.
The red-carpet reception planned for Shwe, who rarely travels abroad, has been sharply criticised by human rights groups as a betrayal of India's democratic credentials and an implicit endorsement of Shwe's junta.
Once a staunch supporter of Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, India began engaging the junta in the mid-1990s as security, energy and strategic priorities began to override concerns over democracy and human rights.
As well as needing the junta's help to counter ethnic separatists operating along their remote common border, India is eyeing oil and gas fields in Myanmar and fears losing out to China in the race for strategic space in Asia.
"India and Myanmar will work towards expanding engagements at all levels," an India foreign ministry official said of Shwe's visit.
"It is crucial for India to cement its relationship with Myanmar to deal with the insurgency that plagues the northeast and to counter balance China's influence," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The European Union, United States and other countries have targeted Myanmar with economic sanctions and travel bans, but their impact on the military regime has been diluted by support from China, India and Thailand.
"We would encourage India and other countries to send a clear message to Burma that it needs to change its course," US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Friday before Shwe's visit.
The junta, which has ruled with an iron fist for nearly 50 years, has promised to hold Myanmar's first elections since 1990 later this year.
Western nations have dismissed the proposed poll as a sham, and Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy is boycotting the ballot.
Keen to obtain international legitimacy for the vote, Shwe is expected to seek India's endorsement of the poll during his visit.
A senior Indian foreign ministry official said India would stress the need for the ballot to be free and fair.
"We will also offer our assistance in conducting the elections," the official said.
The International Federation for Human Rights, which represents 164 organisations across the world, wrote to Singh raising its concerns about his meeting with Shwe.
"The long list of the junta’s well-documented human rights abuses includes acts that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law," the letter said.
Maintaining relations with Myanmar's military leaders "without due regard to universal human rights is unbecoming of the world's largest democracy and a responsible world power," it added.
Some Indian analysts defend what they see as New Delhi's "pragmatic approach" that is dictated by national interest.
"Engagement is not an endorsement," said C. Uday Bhaskar, director of National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi.
India is eager to boost its investment in gas and hydroelectricity projects in Myanmar and earlier this year its largest vehicle manufacturer, Tata Motors, agreed a deal to establish a heavy truck plant in Myanmar.
"Economics is the key driving point and India does not enjoy the luxury to deal only with regimes with the same political, social values," Bhaskar said.
However, critics of Myanmar's military regime say India's strategy is ill-conceived and damaging to its international profile.
"India is basically hooking up with one of the world's most brutal dictatorships," said Benedict Rogers, author of "Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant."
"India will not benefit in the way it hopes. And it could risk losing out in terms of its reputation on the world stage," Rogers told AFP.