A US-led arms embargo against Burma's military rulers is to be breached by India, with New Delhi indicating yesterday that it will supply a range of military equipment to the regime in return for help in dealing with terrorism in the region.
The junta's request was made to India in December.
No specifics about what will be delivered to the regime have been disclosed, but reports have indicated that its wish list includes field guns, helicopters, mortars, submarines, submarine-detecting sonar equipment, Islander aircraft and spares for MiG fighters. India's actions in supplying arms need to be seen in the context of its strategic rivalry with China for influence in Burma, with Beijing the main military partner to the junta.
After his meeting in Nay Pyi Taw, Mr Mukherjee said the request for arms had been examined "and (we) decided to give a favourable response". While this will doubtless raise eyebrows in the US and Europe, which are seeking to isolate the military junta through an arms embargo and wider sanctions, the Indian response is clearly in the context of attempts to get Burma's rulers to crack down on terrorist groups that are causing serious problems in northeast India, especially in oil- and tea-rich Assam. Many of these insurgent groups are based in Burma, and their increased attacks are causing concern, to the point where making a deal with the military rulers, unpalatable though that might be to many in New Delhi, has become inevitable. The US and EU have been attempting to isolate the military rulers in an attempt to force them to agree to democratic changes.
But Indian officials point out that Washington and the European capitals are far from the reality of the terrorist fray in South Asia and are not confronted by the sort of problems India has with the growing insurgency in its northeast.
Canberra is not part of the arms embargo and sells no weapons to Burma, but Australian government agencies have been involved in providing counter-terrorist training for the Burmese as part of broader programs for ASEAN member nation officials. Last year, The Australian revealed that Burma had attempted to buy nuclear weapons technology from North Korea's rogue regime in an alliance that would present a frightening new threat to regional security.
During his visit to Burma, Mr Mukherjee is reported to have repeatedly referred to the country's membership of ASEAN. This is seen as an attempt to head off criticism that India is dealing with a rogue state. The deal agreed by Mr Mukherjee appears to be that the two countries have agreed to a major enhancement in their co-operation over terrorism, with arrangements for the exchange of information between military commanders on both sides of their border, as well as the fencing of the frontier. Details on implementing the arrangement had yet to be worked out, Mr Mukherjee said.
During their meeting, General Maung Aye said he would pass on instructions to Burmese commanders to work out with their Indian counterparts how to put the agreement into effect. Mr Mukherjee said India was prepared to offer whatever help was required - including the development of infrastructure and arms supplies - in dealing with Burma-based insurgents.
"Of course, we didn't mention joint operations because that is not possible," he said. General Maung Aye did not dispute Mr Mukherjee's contention that the insurgents fighting Indian forces in the northeast were using sanctuaries in Burma. This is unlike officials in Bangladesh, the other major country in which the insurgents have bases. Bangladesh consistently denies Indian claims that rebels are based in its territory. Mr Mukherjee, pleased with the result he achieved in Nay Pyi Taw, said he had found the authorities there "very receptive and responsive". He shrugged off questions about the "denial of democracy" in Burma, saying: "It is their internal matter." In his meetings, Mr Mukherjee also raised the issue of natural gas supplies to India from Burma, including the building of a pipeline. Such supplies are crucial for the booming Indian economy.
A number of insurgent groups fighting in India's northeast are believed to have bases in Burma. They include the United Liberation from for Assam, the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland and secessionist movements from Manipur.