(Adds protest, paragraphs 5-7)
By Frank Jack Daniel
NEW DELHI Oct 14 India promised Myanmar a $500
million credit line to improve infrastructure on Friday and
praised steps towards democracy by its reclusive neighbour,
which is tentatively opening up after half a century of harsh
The money and warm words came as Myanmar campaigns to shed
its pariah status. It freed about 200 political prisoners this
week, the latest sign of reforms in the poor and tightly
controlled Southeast Asian country of 50 million people.
The former British colony also known as Burma has large
undeveloped gas reserves and straddles busy Bay of Bengal
shipping lanes, making it strategically important for
energy-hungry emerging power neighbours India and China.
Myanmar President Thein Sein met Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh in New Delhi during a four-day state trip,
spending two days visiting religious sites.
About 100,000 refugees and migrants from Myanmar live in
India. A few dozen protested during Sein's visit to call for a
faster pace of reform and the release of prisoners.
"Kick-start genuine political dialogue," read one placard
held by a supporter of Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu
Kyi, who was freed from seven years of house arrest last
"We all have come here to support Aung San Suu Kyi and to
demand a democracy," said a 16-year-old protester.
Hours after the prisoners' release, Myanmar's first civilian
president in nearly 50 years flew to India's Bihar state to pay
homage at the site where the Buddha is said to have reached
"The prime minister of India congratulated the president of
Myanmar on the transition towards democratic government and
offered all necessary assistance in further strengthening this
democratic transition," they said in a joint statement.
India has long weathered criticism from international
partners for its accommodating stance to Myanmar's junta, which
was dissolved in April. New Delhi feels the signs of reform
vindicate its policy of engagement.
The United State, Europe and Australia are unlikely to
soften sanctions on Myanmar unless nearly 2,000 more political
prisoners are released. Other Asian countries, however, are keen
to access resources in the mainly Buddhist nation.
New Delhi put aside concerns about human rights in the early
1990s for fear of losing access to oil and gas as China stepped
in with military assistance and loans to help the regime
India's efforts have only been partially successful, with
planned roads and ports behind schedule. India part-owns two
natural gas projects off Myanmar's coast in the Bay of Bengal
but the gas is sold to China.
The $500 million credit line follows a similar $300 million
scheme last year. The money will be used on infrastructure
projects, particularly irrigation, the statement said.
India buys most of Myanmar's agricultural exports and wants
its neighbour to raise output further by planting on idle land.
(Additional reporting by Annie Banerji; Editing by Nick Macfie)