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Shekhawat set for Myanmar trip

New Delhi, Oct. 31: Sixteen years after Rajiv Gandhi’s 1987 visit, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat will be travelling to Myanmar to nurture India’s growing ties with that country’s junta.

“The visit reflects the significant consolidation and expansion of India-Myanmar relations in recent years and will provide an opportunity for deepening our dialogue with the Myanmar leaders at the highest level,” an external affairs ministry statement said.

During the five-day visit starting November 2, Shekhawat will hold talks with Senior General Than Shwe, the chairman of the State Peace and Development Council ruling Myanmar.

He will meet top military leaders and also visit Bagan and Mandalay, where India opened a consulate last year. An agreement on visa exemptions for official and diplomatic passport holders of both countries is likely to be signed.

India had played a significant role in the democracy movement in Myanmar till 1991. After that, it switched sides, refusing to publicly criticise the military leaders who jailed Aung Sang Suu Kyi after her party won the parliamentary elections in 1990.

Earlier, when hundreds of pro-democracy supporters fled to India — at one time All India Radio was the only station Suu Kyi loyalists could turn to for information on the goings-on in their country — they were warmly welcomed. Defence minister George Fernandes has been an ardent supporter of the democracy movement.

The Narasimha Rao regime started engaging with Myanmar when it realised China was making inroads into the country in Delhi’s absence. Myanmar is strategically important and having China there was seen to be too dangerous to India’s security interests.

For practical reasons, Rao decided to turn his back on the democracy movement and engage with the junta. The Vajpayee government carried on from where Rao left off.

Bilateral ties have grown over the years. The neighbours are now aiming at an annual trade turnover of $1 billion by 2006.

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