India looks to Burma to slake growing thirst for gas

Critics say India's economic engagement will help prop up Burma's military junta.

Burma's military junta is widely lambasted for allegedly sponsoring rape, torture, and forced labor of its opponents, yet India - the world's most populous democracy - is forging closer links with its notorious but gas-rich northeastern neighbor as Indian thirst for energy grows.

India's policy has triggered sometimes searing criticism, including a protest last week in the capital, New Delhi, by scores of demonstrators opposed to cooperation with Burma, also called Myanmar.

A number of countries, including the US, have imposed sanctions on Burma (Myanmar) to signal their disapproval of its autocratic rulers, who continue to detain the iconic democracy advocate and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

But India's very different approach highlights the debate between those who say engagement with Burma could edge it toward change, and critics who decry any collaboration with the oppressive military junta.

"India's engagement is purely self- interested," says David Steinberg, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University. "But, along with the engagement of the rest of the world, it could help to change things in Burma, though it will take a long time. Sanctions and isolationism just mean that the military backs into itself and gets xenophobic."

India signed a long-term deal to draw supplies from Burma's Shwe gas field during the visit of Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam to the troubled country last month.

State-controlled Indian utilities had previously acquired a share in the giant gas field, though South Korean firm Daewoo is the biggest stakeholder. A $1 billion to $1.5 billion pipeline is set to be constructed to send to the gas to India, with another slated to link the field to China.

Activists say the Burmese junta could earn as much as $3 billion annually from gas sales, strengthening its grip on power. They criticize the Indian government, which officially wants democracy in Burma, for being publicly soft on the junta.

"What's been astonishing about India's policy toward Burma is the complete lack of any moral aspect to it," charges Mark Farmaner, a representative of the Burma Campaign, a London-based human rights group. "In the early 1990s, it was a lone voice calling for action. Now it's the lone uncritical voice. India's aims are just to counter Chinese influence and get gas."

Mr. Farmaner says the junta's revenues from the Shwe field will be "particularly damaging because the regime will be even less dependent on its people." Rumors of forced labor in the field's development are emerging too, he adds.

Saurabh Bhattacharjee, a New Delhi-based volunteer activist for the Shwe Gas Pipeline Campaign Committee (India), argues that engagement and investment in Burma over the past decade have failed to trigger any democratic reforms.

"There hasn't been any visible change," he says. "In fact, increased militarization has followed increased investment. Wherever you have a new gas pipeline, for instance, you have new military camps and abuses of the local population."

Yet others see positive long-term consequences from India's energy diplomacy with Burma, which analysts say is part of a broader "Look East" policy to forge tighter links with East Asia, including greater coordination with Burma to improve cross-border security, infrastructure, and trade.

Mr. Steinberg says a percentage of the funds invested in Burma could be earmarked for humanitarian aid, which would help the local population - though he stresses that the junta's record on health and education spending thus far is "inexcusably bad."

P.S. Bami, president of the New Delhi-based India Energy Forum, says international energy deals can boost economic development, cross-border relations, and regional stability.

"International pipelines can be a win-win proposition," Mr. Bami says. "And we have to engage people. Nobody is going to bring about a change of government in Burma by ignoring the country."

The cheapest and shortest, 530 to 590-mile routes for the Burma-to-India pipeline, for instance, run through adjoining but impoverished Bangladesh, which is bargaining hard for multimillion-dollar transit fees and trade concessions.

Muslim-majority Bangladesh has a prickly relationship with India over the latter's concerns about illegal immigration and cross- border militancy, but analysts say relations would improve if the pipeline is to run through Bangladeshi territory. The two countries have yet to agree to a deal.

Experts say an alternative route skirts Bangladesh but could benefit India's insurgent, lawless, and underdeveloped northeastern states, which border Burma and Bangladesh.

"A lot of disaffection in India's northeast is [caused by] a relative lack of economic opportunity," says Sudha Mahalingam, a New Delhi-based senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. "So if you do bring that pipeline, and a focused development policy, then there could be increased stability."

India is also looking at building two pipelines that would cross into its territory from Pakistan, one originating in Iran, the other in Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan. These projects, like the proposed Burmese link, are controversial, but some experts feel they too offer the potential for greater regional stability - by sparking development and aligning economic interests in a fractious part of the world.

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