NEW DELHI/BANGKOK: As Myanmar's military strongman Senior General Than Shwe started his six-day visit to India this week - the first such trip in over 25 years - U Than , a 71-year- old Myanmar parliamentarian in exile talks about his dream for democracy in the homeland he left behind.

"We are struggling for democracy in Myanmar, there's so much international pressure that's building up - so we are going to have democracy soon," U Than, also a leader of Arakan League for Democracy (ALD), told IPS.

The tall slim leader elected from Burma's Arakan state, bordering Bangladesh, moved to India from Thailand 10 years ago to join the larger Burmese community in exile here.

U Than is hopeful a transition to democracy in Myanmar would mean an end to human rights abuses and "an environment for the Burmese people to exercise their inalienable rights and freedoms."

But of late, optimism and on-the-ground realities in Myanmar and India seem to be at completely opposite ends.

On Sunday Gen. Than Shwe arrived in the Indian capital, five days after he sacked his prime minister, accompanied by a high- level delegation of eight cabinet ministers whose portfolios include industry, energy, rail and communications.

On Oct 19, the prime minister, Khin Nyunt, was replaced by military hardliner Lt-Gen Soe Win in a move many say will perpetuate the climate of fear and repression in the country.

The brief announcement said the prime minister was "permitted to retire for health reasons", a euphemism used in the past for the forced removal of cabinet members.

The removal of Khin Nyunt, who was also military intelligence chief, appeared to end a long struggle between his so-called moderates and an army faction uninterested in negotiating political reconciliation between the junta and the pro-democracy opposition.

On Saturday, around 150 protesters, mainly women and children, held a demonstration in Delhi against Than Shwe's visit.

"It's a national shame to roll out red carpet for murderer Than Shwe," read one banner they held.

According to Soe Myint, editor-in-chief of the New Delhi- based Internet publication 'Mizzima News', Than Shwe's visit sends the wrong signal to the Myanmar people.

"It won't contribute to democratic changes in Myanmar," he told IPS.

But India, too, has been tangoing with Myanmar - using political brinkmanship with Rangoon in the interests of national security.

The world's largest democracy that once openly supported opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has been quietly wooing the military leadership in recent years - reversing the strains of 1988 when Myanmar's military rulers violently crushed a pro-democracy uprising.

Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest by the military junta in 1989, months before the 1990 general election where her National League for Democracy (NLD) won the majority of seats.

In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights. She was released briefly in 1995, but her movements outside the capital Yangon were restricted by the junta.

But the Nobel Peace Laureate has spent the last year in detention after pro-government thugs attacked her convoy, and her NLD has since endured a renewed crackdown.

India wants cooperation from the Myanmar regime to contain its insurgency problem in the north-east, as some of these Indian separatist militants have well-known links to the Chins and Kachins in neighbouring Myanmar - allowing them almost free movement in the heavily-forested contiguous border area.

The Indian cooperation is also in Myanmar's own interests as the Kachin Independence Army and the Chin Liberation Front - both groups formed to fight for self-determination - have camps inside India.

"There have been joint military efforts between the two armies to counter insurgency across the border. For example, a joint operation code-named Operation Golden Bird was launched between the Indian and Myanmar armies against the Indian insurgents in the north-east in July 1995," said Soe Myint, who is also a specialist on Indo-Myanmar ties.

Another important factor in India's engagement with the junta is the growing Chinese presence and interests in Myanmar, particularly after 1988 - when the country was beginning to be shunned by the West due to its human rights abuses.

"Strategically, Myanmar controls one of the most important land routes from China southwards. India is worried about China's strategic attempts to use Myanmar as an access to India's north- eastern states," said Soe Myint.

So where has this warming of ties between New Delhi and Yangon left the pro-democracy exiles in India?

"India continues to extend shelter to a number of Myanmar democratic activists and members of parliament on Indian soil. But that's about all," said Soe Myint.

But the president of the All Burma Students' League, Myind Aye was more forthright. "We have not got any assistance from the Indian government.. We have been totally ignored," he said.

During the Cold War, Indo-Myanmar ties hit a low point in 1977 when Yangon nurtured its friendship with China while New Delhi veered closer towards the Soviet Union.

Although Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Myanmar in December 1987, his trip did not contribute much to the improvement in relations.

But the clamour for democracy in the Southeast Asian country seems to be gaining ground in India, and the recent Second International Convention on Restoration of Democracy in Myanmar brought together nearly 150 delegates from 14 countries.

"Once the military regime gets international recognition, then it will be very difficult to restore democracy in Myanmar," said former Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes, the convenor of the convention.-Dawn/The InterPress News Service.