After Myanmar turmoil, India makes same old speech

NEW DELHI Tue Oct 9, 2007 3:22pm IST

Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee speaks during a joint news conference in New Delhi February 14, 2007. Appearing to ignore months of political turmoil in Myanmar, Mukherjee has come under fire for repeating word-for-word the same speech on the need for closer ties he first delivered four months ago. REUTERS/B Mathur/Files

Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee speaks during a joint news conference in New Delhi February 14, 2007. Appearing to ignore months of political turmoil in Myanmar, Mukherjee has come under fire for repeating word-for-word the same speech on the need for closer ties he first delivered four months ago.

Credit: Reuters/B Mathur/Files

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Appearing to ignore months of political turmoil in Myanmar, foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee has come under fire for repeating word-for-word the same speech on the need for closer ties he first delivered four months ago.

By failing to freshen up his speech, critics said Mukherjee appeared to ignore widespread pro-democracy protests in Myanmar and a deadly military crackdown.

India has been one of the staunchest allies of Myanmar's military government, and has made only a muted call for political reform there despite the violent response to the demonstrations.

On Sunday, with the uprising seemingly quelled for now, Mukherjee read the same speech to a seminar in the northeastern city of Guwahati on India's "Look East" policy that he had first delivered in the nearby city of Shillong last June.

In it, he set out efforts to work with Myanmar's government to boost trade and improve cross-border links on anything from roads and railways to telecommunications and power.

When the speech was first given "Myanmar was not in the headlines for all the wrong reasons", the Hindustan Times newspaper dryly commented in an editorial on Tuesday. "Somebody could have at least updated those lines."

Foreign policy expert Professor Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea called it a "bureaucratic slip-up" that nevertheless revealed that India had not changed its policy towards Myanmar's generals.

"I don't think it has changed, I don't think it will change and quite honestly I don't think it should change," she said. "But it doesn't have to be quite so unsophisticated."

India initially supported Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy but changed its strategy in the early 1990's to court the military regime in what is seen as an effort to counter rival China.

India shares a 1,645-km border in its east with Myanmar. As well as developing ports and building roads and railways, it has supplied arms and also competes with Beijing for Myanmar's oil and gas.

India is also seeking Myanmar's help in combating insurgent groups that have bases inside its neighbour, and hopes that cross-border trade will boost the economy of its troubled and isolated northeast.

But critics say India has little to show for closer relations with the Myanmar regime and needs to support global efforts to promote change there, both as a matter of principle and in order to promote longer-term stability and prosperity in the region.

"It shows the bankruptcy of ideas in the Ministry of External Affairs in its Look East policy," said Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi. "Their policy is absolutely misconceived, even for their own interests."

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