Although Delhi and Yangon have a tacit understanding on insurgency, ground realities must govern Indian operations
Even as India promotes regional connectivity and economic integration across its land and maritime borders, there is very little understanding of the importance of relations with Myanmar. We seem to forget that Myanmar borders four of our insurgency-prone States — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.
When Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao introduced the country’s ‘Look East’ policy, Myanmar assumed a key position as India’s land bridge to the fast-growing Asean economies. Recognising that Myanmar itself was concerned about its increasingly close embrace of China, India supported its quest for membership of Asean. New Delhi also fashioned a multi-faceted framework of dialogue to enhance economic and border security cooperation.
A wide ranging dialogue with Myanmar on trans-border border cooperation followed. Both India and Myanmar faced problems from the propensity of the Khaleda Zia government in Bangladesh to fund, train and arm separatist terrorist groups from across Indian’s North-Eastern States.
After careful preparation and security exchanges, the armies of India and Myanmar launched coordinated operations in 1995 against a large group of armed separatists being infiltrated from Bangladesh into India’s North-East. Myanmar quietly permitted Indian forces to operate on its territory. The infiltrators were largely eliminated. The Narasimha Rao government wisely avoided public comment, but the message worldwide was that India and Myanmar had cooperated in a massive anti-terrorist military action.
There have been subsequent instances of counter-terrorism military cooperation between India and Myanmar, involving action by India against the NSCN (Khaplang). In recent months, the situation has deteriorated along the India-Myanmar border, with the NSCN (Khaplang) entering into a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government. At the same time, relations between Myanmar and China have deteriorated, with Myanmar cancelling project approvals for major Chinese projects.
China, in turn, is backing ethnic armed groups of Han Chinese origin (Kokang and Wa) along its borders with Myanmar’s Shan state. Matters escalated when an attack by the Myanmar Air Force killed Chinese nationals in the bordering Yunnan province. Closer to India’s borders with Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, Kachin tribals of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are involved in an armed insurrection against the Myanmar government. China, which has a cosy relationship with Kachin separatists, is attempting to play mediator.
Leaders of Indian insurgent groups from Assam, Manipur and Nagaland who were maintaining links with the Chinese were backed by the KIA. They made regular visits across the Myanmar-China border to Ruili, in Yunnan province. These groups have now come together under the umbrella of an NSCN(K)-led and evidently Chinese-backed group calling itself the United National Front of West Southeast Asia (UNWSA).
There are also credible reports that ULFA leader Paresh Barua is emerging as a kingpin and major arms trader. Interestingly, all this comes at a time when an Indian is playing a discreet role in brokering peace between ethnic armed groups and the government in Myanmar. The former Mizo insurgent who became chief minister of Mizoram (1998-2008), Zoramthanga, has been seeking to facilitate a peace process which could bring even the Kachins, Wa and Kokang, despite their close links with China, to the talks.
The recent attacks on the Indian armed forces in Manipur and elsewhere in the North-East have to be seen in the context of these developments. The NSCN(K), which had observed a long-term ceasefire in Nagaland and Manipur, has evidently been given the lead position in the UNWSA. The NSCN (K) took the lead in the June 4 attack in which 18 Indian soldiers were killed. The Indian response was swift, measured and decisive, with an airborne commando night raid on NSCN camps in Myanmar.
The attack was necessarily carried out without prior intimation: Indian Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyaya informed the Myanmar foreign office only early in the morning. Keeping in mind Myanmar’s sensitivity regarding its sovereignty, the Indian Army came out with a measured statement, indicating that it had acted decisively in an attack “along” the India Myanmar border, carefully avoiding mention of crossing the international border. The corps commander in Srinagar noted rightly that the situation along the LoC and the international border with Pakistan was very different from the India-Myanmar border.
Reacting to this,, the office of Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, stated that what had transpired was “coordinated cooperation between Indian troops and the Myanmar armed forces based in the area”. He added that while no Myanmar soldiers were directly involved, “we will never allow or support insurgents, whether they are against Myanmar, or against a neighbouring country”.
In the meantime, a junior minister of the Indian Government contradicted what the army had said earlier about the operations being “along” the India-Myanmar border, by asserting they involved special forces “crossing the border and going deep into another country”. This was contrary to a long established practice with Myanmar. It also contradicted the Indian Army’s statement that the operation was along the India-Myanmar border. Moreover, all this occurred when Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was commencing a high profile visit to China, which signalled growing Chinese unease with its traditional supporters in the present dispensation.
The ministerial statement from Delhi could well be used by opponents of the government in Myanmar to signal that the government had compromised the country’s sovereignty by allowing a foreign military force to intrude into its territory.
With National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visiting Myanmar, these issues will hopefully be addressed. There is little to be achieved by disregarding sensitivities in a friendly neighbouring country. It also needs to be borne in mind that for the foreseeable future, the army in Myanmar will continue to play a significant role in that country’s national life. It would be useful if India’s army chief, like some of his predecessors, pays an official visit to Myanmar soon.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan