By Anirban Roy
In October 2004, when the Chairman of Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council Senior General Than Shwe visited India, a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues was signed with a lot of fanfare.
During the visit, Shwe had committed to enhance cooperation against terrorism, arms-smuggling, money laundering, drug trafficking, organized crime, international economic crime and cyber crime. He had also assured that Burma would not permit its territory to be used by any hostile element for harming Indian interests.
Unfortunately, after more than five years of Than Shwe’s historic visit, India’s Home Secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai reached Naypaytaw during the last week of January, with the request to flush out insurgents from Burma.
After the three-day meeting, Burma’s Deputy Minister for Home Affairs Brigadier-General Phone Swe promised Pillai that a joint operation will soon be launched in Kachin State of northwest Burma to flush out insurgent outfits from northeast India.
The last such meeting between Brigadier General Phone Swe’s delegation and the then Indian Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta was held in New Delhi in March, 2008 when both the countries had agreed to strengthen cooperation in areas of security and border management for smuggling of arms, drugs and counterfeit currency.
This time, Pillai had no other option but to bow down before the ruling military junta as the separatist insurgent outfits from northeast are now a cause of serious concern for New Delhi. The Indian security forces are not in a position to enter the Burmese territory to flush out the insurgents. Moreover, the terrain along the international border is in fact somewhat difficult.
The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) and the insurgent outfits from Manipur, at present, run more than a dozen training camps in Upper Burma. The northeast India insurgent groups, during the last six decades, have been using Burma for safe sanctuary and training. The Naga National Council (NNC) cadres first took shelter in Sagaing Division in Burma. Slowly, the other groups, taking advantage of the 1,700-km-long porous frontier, set up bases there.
Some of the top insurgent leaders like ULFA’s commander-in-chief Paresh Baruah, NDFB chief Ranjan Daimary, UNLF chief R.K. Magen and NSCN (K) chief S.S. Khaplang are now based in Burma, and mastermind explosions and hit-and-run operations in the northeastern states, always causing a great harm to India’s development process.
During the last 15 years, New Delhi has been trying to pressurize Burma to cooperate in flushing out the insurgent outfits from northeast India.
But, why did Senior-General Than Shwe’s soldiers fail to flush out the northeast insurgents? Or, will Brigadier-General Phone Swe’s recent promise to G.K. Pillai to flush out northeast insurgents be fulfilled?
“The Burmese security agencies will never flush out the insurgents,” Lalngheta Sailo, a retired Director-General of Police of Mizoram said, adding that the guerillas from northeast India always pay monthly “protection fee” to a section of officials in the Burmese Army.
Sailo said that a section of the Burmese Army officials, who enjoy financial support from the insurgents lead a lavish life. Otherwise, Burmese Army personnel don’t enjoy a large pay package, “So, why will they kill the golden goose?” he said.
New Delhi is more worried now as the guerillas from Assam, Nagaland and Manipur still maintain a working relationship with the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO). “Isn’t it surprising as to how the Burmese government is allowing the KIO to still hobnob with our insurgents?” Sailo said.
The KIO has been in a peace mode for more than a decade now, and ethically, they are not supposed to hobnob with any other insurgent outfits.
“The Burmese government can never succeed in flushing out our insurgents,” Oinam Sunil, a journalist from Manipur said, adding that the Burmese Army has no control over the territory where the northeast insurgents have set up their training bases.
Sunil, who has been following Burma for more than two decades, said the Burmese Deputy Minister for Home Affairs’ promise to Pillai has been primarily a “feel-good assurance to maintain a close diplomatic relationship with New Delhi”.
“The Burmese government, and especially the security agencies are more engaged in curbing the pro-democracy movement, and they don’t have much time for trans-border movement of our insurgents,” Sunil said, adding that the terrain in Burma’s in Sagaing Division is difficult.
In fact, the Burmese junta is not committed to flush out the insurgents. Rather, it is trying to use the issue of flushing out insurgents as a tool to get more and more benefits from New Delhi.
To appease the junta, and above all, to counter Chinese influence, New Delhi has already been spending huge funds for development of modern roads, including the India-Burma-Thailand Trilateral Highway project and ports in Burma.
“But, in return, the military junta is giving us tensions and problems,” Anjan a doctorate fellow on Indo-Burma Studies said, adding that New Delhi should now be more assertive on its bi-lateral issues with Naypaytaw.
As New Delhi has miserably failed in capturing Burma’s gas reserve against Chinese and Korean companies, India is again fighting a losing battle in Burma even in the security front.
The Burmese junta definitely has many more reasons to hoodwink New Delhi on the security issue. After the military coup in 1988, it had sought India’s help to rebuild the country. But, New Delhi, the torch-bearer of global democracy, then, had thought not to align with the junta and continued to extend moral support to Aung San Su Kyi and her National League for Democracy.
But China understood the money-making prospect in Burma, and took advantage of India’s total absence there.
After some persuasion, in 1995, the Burmese Army agreed to help the Indian Army during the Operation Golden Bird. The operation was launched to intercept a party of the NSCN, ULFA and the NDFB which was ferrying a large arms consignment from Bandarban in Bangladesh through the Chin Hills of Burma to Manipur.
Surprisingly, the Burmese Army had abruptly called off the operation after New Delhi had announced the Nehru Award to Aung San Su Kyi. Why will the junta support it if New Delhi honors the torch bearer of Burma’s pro-democracy movement?
After 1995, the Burmese security agencies never showed any interest in cooperation on security-related issues. Rather, it helped insurgents and gun-runners to destabilize peace in the eastern theatre. In December 2003, the Burmese Army had captured more than a hundred cadres of the UNLF, including its chief R.K. Megan, in the Kebaw valley.
It has already been documented that the Meitei cadres were released after a payment of Rs. (Indian) 2.5 crore, two boxes of gold and more than three-dozen weapons. The Burmese Army refused to hand over the militants to India. R.K. Megan is a “most-wanted militant” and the Interpol has also issued a red-corner notice against him.
Almost all the states in northeast India are seriously worried about the Burmese government’s triviality on the security issue. Effective joint operations, if implemented in good faith, can only help India. New Delhi has already succeeded in making Bhutan and Bangladesh carry out flush out operations against the northeast insurgents.
Arunachal Pradesh Home Minister Tako Dabi recently raised serious concern over the issue of smuggling of Chinese weapons along the Burmese border. Prior to Pillai’s visit to Naypaytaw, Tako Dabi had specially briefed the Indian delegation on the arms smuggling network. It is believed that a section of Burmese military officials are also part of the gun-running network.
The Assam Rifles, which has only 16 battalions deployed along the 1,700 kilometre border, is also finding it difficult to guard every inch of the frontier. The Assam Rifles is planning to set up over 100 helipads along the border for swift mobilization of its forces.
Security experts in the northeastern states are still unable to understand as to why Naypaytaw is playing a hide-and-seek game with New Delhi on security issues? Is it because India is a global torch-bearer of democracy and supports pro-democracy movement in India, or is it a trick of the Burmese junta to please Beijing?