India's Modi heads to Myanmar as Rohingya refugee crisis worsens

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will discuss rising violence in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state during a visit that begins on Tuesday, and push for greater progress on long-running Indian infrastructure projects, officials said.

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India seeks to boost economic ties with resource-rich Myanmar, with which it shares a 1,600-km (1,000-mile) border, to counter Chinese influence and step up connectivity with a country it considers its gateway to Southeast Asia.

Two-way trade has grown to around $2.2 billion as India courted Myanmar following the gradual end of military rule, but Indian-funded projects have moved slowly.

Modi’s promises to “Act East” and cement ties with India’s eastern neighbor have slipped even as China has strengthened its influence.

His first bilateral visit comes amid a spike in violence in Rakhine, after a military counter-offensive against insurgents killed at least 400 people and triggered the exodus of nearly 90,000 villagers to Bangladesh since Aug. 25.

The violence could hit development of a transport corridor that begins in Rakhine, with the Indian-built port of Sittwe and includes road links to India’s remote northeast, analysts said.

“It’s going to be a very vexed and complex issue,” said Tridivesh Singh Maini, a New Delhi-based expert on ties with Myanmar.

“You need to play it very smartly. You need to make it clear that Rakhine violence has regional implications... but India will not get into saying, ‘This is how you should resolve it.’”

Last month, India said it wanted to deport 40,000 Rohingya refugees who left Myanmar in previous years.

Modi arrives from China late on Tuesday in the capital Naypyidaw to meet President Htin Kyaw on a three-day visit.

New Delhi believes the best way to reduce tension in Rakhine is through development efforts, such as the Kaladan transport project there, said Indian foreign ministry official Sripriya Ranganathan.

“We are very confident that once that complete corridor is functional, there will be a positive impact on the situation in the state,” she told reporters.

Modi will meet Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and visit the heritage city of Bagan and a Hindu temple. The countries share close cultural ties, and several in Myanmar trace their roots to India.

Modi will also talk up a trilateral highway project connecting India’s northeast with Myanmar and Thailand.

“There is a fear that China is already going full steam ahead,” said Udai Bhanu Singh of Delhi think-tank, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. “From the Indian side, there has been some laxity.”

Singh said India could offer Myanmar help in building its navy and coastguard, while Myanmar would seek assurances that India was a reliable economic partner and an alternative power to Beijing.

Reporting by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez