Indian president inks tech deals with Myanmar in key state visit

Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, left, with his Myanmar counterpart Win Myint join hands after witnessing the signing of a memorandum of understanding during a ceremony at the presidential palace in capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday. — AFP

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — India inked science and tech deals with Myanmar on Tuesday, as well as pledging to train judges and build houses in crisis-hit Rakhine state, as Delhi cozies up to the strategically important Southeast Asian country.

Both China and India covet Myanmar’s growing domestic market, natural resources as well as access to key ports.

Delhi has helped finance a deep-water port in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, as money flows in from partners across the region eager to gain a foothold in Myanmar’s poor western state, which has a long coastline facing the Bay of Bengal.

On Tuesday, India’s President Shri Ram Nath Kovind was greeted with the full pomp and circumstance of a guard of honor before meeting Myanmar’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

The two countries discussed how India would help with the return of Rohingya refugees, after a brutal military crackdown last year forced some 720,000 over the border from Rakhine state into Bangladesh.

“India is building 250 houses in Myanmar’s Rakhine province as part of a developmental project,” India’s president tweeted, adding that 50 houses were formally handed over.

The repatriation process for refugees was supposed to start last month but the Rohingya are refusing to come back until their safety and rights are guaranteed.

In November, Myanmar and China signed off on a deal for another Rakhine port off Kyaukphyu town, at the scaled-down cost of $1.3 billion.

Myanmar plays a pivotal role in China’s One Belt One Road initiative, a project to develop Chinese investments across Europe, Asia and Africa. But the country is also of key strategic interest to its western neighbor India.

With a 1,600 kilometer-long (1,000 mile) land border and a maritime border in the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar is India’s only adjoining member of ASEAN — a bloc of Southeast Asian nations.

The two countries have been working together for a decade on a $484 million project to link India’s eastern seaport Kolkata with Myanmar’s Chin and Rakhine states.

Two further deals were inked on Tuesday, one focusing on the training of Myanmar judges and the other in the science and technology sector, both presidents announced. Myanmar’s judicial system came under heavy global criticism during the trial of two Reuters journalists and their sentencing to seven years in jail for reporting on the Rohingya crisis.

The presidents also discussed security, visa on arrival for Indian citizens and other investments, according to a statement by the Myanmar president’s office. — AFP