Myanmar activists protest Indian oil minister's visit

NEW DELHI, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Dozens of Myanmar pro-democracy activists protested on Monday against an Indian minister’s visit to Yangon, urging New Delhi not to put energy and economic ties ahead of democracy and human rights.

The demonstration in the Indian capital came a day after Petroleum Minister Murli Deora began a visit to the country’s eastern neighbour to boost energy cooperation.

The protesters, who included school children, shouted slogans and held placards which read “Hey, Murli Deora, Don’t Go For Gas, Go For Democracy”, “India Stop Supporting Burmese Military Rule”.

Deora is due to hold talks with Myanmar officials to step up energy links and witness the signing of contracts between Indian and Myanmar oil firms for three deep-water exploration blocks.

“It is a shame for the world’s largest democracy to send its cabinet minister to Burma for reasons of exploiting more natural gas from the country at the time people and monks are protesting against the fuel shortages and economic hardships in Burma,” the protesters said in a statement.

Since August, Myanmar, formerly called Burma, has sought to stamp out public protests sparked by fuel price rises but reflecting frustration at the military’s rule.

The crackdown has been one of the harshest since the army crushed a nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

The poor southeast Asian nation has been hit by fresh protests since last week, this time by Buddhist monks in what appear to be the biggest demonstrations yet against the ruling generals.

While the West has imposed sanctions on the country and stepped up pressure, India has boosted its relations with the junta since the mid-1990s in what is seen as an effort to counter rival China, a long-time supporter of Yangon.

New Delhi initially supported Nobel laureate Aung Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the early 1990s, but changed strategy to court the military regime.

It has invested in developing ports, building roads and railways and is also competing with Beijing for Myanmar’s oil and gas reserves.

Besides, Yangon is also helping New Delhi fight militants across the border in India’s troubled northeast.

India also hosts hundreds of Myanmar exiles and says the relationship between the two countries is “rooted in shared cultural and religious ties”. The two countries have exchanged several high-level bilateral visits in recent years.