India presses on with Myanmar defense supplies in show of support

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India is considering supplying arms to Myanmar’s government in a sign of strong support for a neighbor that faces criticism for its crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.

The arms were discussed during a visit by the chief of Myanmar’s navy, Indian officials said on Thursday. The two sides also talked about training Myanmar sailors on top of the courses taught to its army officers at elite Indian defense institutions.

India’s decision to discuss enhancing military cooperation with its eastern neighbor appears part of a push to counter Chinese influence in the region.

It comes at a time when Western countries are stepping up pressure on Myanmar’s government for violence against Rohingya Muslims in its northwestern Rakhine state.

Myanmar rejects the charge, saying its forces are tackling insurgents of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army who it has accused of setting fires and attacking civilians.

Britain said this week it was suspending its training program for the Myanmar military, demanding it take steps to end the violence against civilians.

On Wednesday, the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar navy Admiral Tin Aung San met Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitaraman and the chiefs of India’s army, navy and air force.

The two sides are discussing the supply of offshore patrol boats, a military official said. The Myanmar navy chief also visited the naval ship building site in Mumbai as part of the four-day trip that ends on Thursday.

“Myanmar is a pillar of our Look East policy and defense is a large part of the relationship,” said the official.

In 2013, India offered to supply equipment such as artillery guns, radars and night vision devices to Myanmar’s army. Since then, the focus has shifted to naval cooperation as India seeks to push back against Chinese influence in the region.

The two sides are expected to increase coordinated patrols in the Bay of Bengal that help the two navies operate together.

“The fact that the Indian government is receiving a high level military officer at a time when the international community is criticizing the military sends out a signal,” said K.Yhome who specializes on India’s neighborhood policy at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.

“The message is (that) India is with the Myanmar government so far as the Rohingya issue is concerned,” he said.

Since the crisis erupted in Rakhine last month, New Delhi has been supportive of de facto leader Aung Saan Suu Kyi, condemning insurgent attacks on security forces that prompted a military crackdown against the Rohingya.

Only later as international criticism mounted, India expressed concern at the flight of hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.

China has also stood by the Myanmar government. This week Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres that it supported Myanmar’s efforts to protect its national security and opposes recent violent attacks in Rakhine.

Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg