Myanmar's military ruler, Than Shwe, is set to receive the red-carpet treatment in India when he makes a rare overseas visit to further cement a controversial relationship that is increasingly vital to both countries.

The senior Burmese general, who has ruled the country with unceasing authoritarianism for the past two decades, will make the four-day official state visit next week to discuss military co-operation and a series of energy and business deals.

There was a time when the world's largest democracy might have thought twice about so enthusiastically playing host to a man whose regime holds more than 2100 political prisoners behind bars.

In the aftermath of a large democracy uprising in Myanmar in the late 1980s which the regime brutally crushed, India opened its arms to many activists and campaigners forced to flee.

In 1993 it awarded the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had lived and studied in India, the country's highest civilian honour, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award.

But times have changed and New Delhi has decided it needs to take a more "pragmatic" approach with its eastern neighbour.

With its economy growing at 10 per cent and with an aspirational middle class hungrily buying everything from air conditioners to washing machines, India, with growing energy needs, believes it cannot afford to ignore a country like Myanmar, which has large reserves of untapped natural gas.

Earlier this year it was announced that India was to invest US$1.35 billion ($1.9 billion) in gas projects on Myanmar's coastline.

Conscious of China's already considerable influence in the Southeast Asian nation and having lost out to its rival for a previous gas deal, India is keen to massively boost its investment in the country.

Already this year it was revealed that Indian officials had visited Myanmar to try to kick-start hydroelectricity projects, and that India's largest vehicle manufacturer, Tata Motors, had agreed a deal to establish a heavy truck plant in the country.

The plant is to be funded with credit provided by the Indian Government.

Dr Marie Lall, a South Asia expert at London's Chatham House, said the new approach by India was driven largely by its energy needs.

But she said there were other factors as well; ongoing conflict with insurgents in northeast India, many of whom had historically operated out of camps inside Myanmar, meant the need for increased military co-operation. India was also keen to counter China's general regional influence.

"I think officials in Naypyidaw [Myanmar's remote jungle capital] are also wary of too much Chinese influence," she said.

But some activists argue that India - which, unlike China, has no permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council - will always be chasing Beijing.

"India is trying to compete with China in terms of influence and natural resources but privately officials admit they are losing the battle. They are always going to play second fiddle," said Mark Farmaner of the Burma Campaign UK.

"It would make far more sense for them to back the democracy movement ... the generals are not going to be in Burma forever."

- Independent