Can India-Myanmar cooperation succeed?

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By Anil Bhat

The 46th India-Myanmar (Burma) border liaison meeting was held at Leimakhong near Imphal, where a mountain division of Indian Army is headquartered, on 22 August 2012. The Indian delegation of Army officers and some other officials was headed by GOC of the division Maj Gen Binoy Poonnen, welcomed the Myanmar delegation comprising 15 officers led by Brig Gen Ba Hla Aye, Commander, AOC (72), who had travelled by road via Manipur’s border town of Moreh.

This meeting, which came reportedly in the wake of Myanmar’s assurance of pushing out northeast rebel- terrorist groups from its soil and the subsequent vigilant measures being taken up along the porous India-Myanmar boundary by the Indian security forces in the tribal-dominated Chandel, Ukhrul and Churachandpur districts.

During this visit, Myanmar officials also visited Kolkata and Gaya, returning to Imphal to depart for their country.

Of the four Indian states Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, which share 1643 kilometres of land border with Myanmar, – the first two are plagued by insurgent groups, who have been getting shelter and support from Myanmar Army. At least eight groups of Manipur, Nagaland, including the so-called ‘anti-talks faction’ of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) have had bases in Myanmar for many decades.

When the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party came to power in Bangladesh, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) presence in that country was substantially increased. When Indian Army was called to deal with the menace of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in Assam in end November 1990, its top leadership under Paresh Baruah escaped to Bangladesh giving the ISI there the golden opportunity to enter Assam and other parts of the Northeast and woo other insurgent turned terrorist groups in Manipur and Nagaland, which also set up camps there. Following Awami Leagues massive electoral victory in December 2008, its government led by Sheikh Hasina began a crackdown against northeast militants, many of them returned to take shelter in the jungles and hills of Myanmar. From these areas in Myanmar, ULFA has been making trips to China, which has been providing it support and weapons for them and for supplying to Left Wing Extremists (LWEs)/Naxal-Maoists.

In 1988, India decided to stop openly supporting the Burmese democracy movement and began negotiating for bilateral cooperation with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)/ military junta. The junta always had a long wish-list of military hardware from India with a quid pro quo of putting pressure or chasing out leaders and elements of these groups.

With a view to garnering support from Myanmar Army in dealing with the menace of insurgency and to counter-balance the Chinese influence in Myanmar, India began engaging the military junta quite extensively since 2006. In 2001 India’s Border Roads Organisation constructed a 160 kms long road from Tamu to Kalewa which reduced the travelling time from about 11 to 3 hours. According to a 30 December 2006 report of India Defence Premium, during a visit to Myanmar in November 2006, former Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Tyagi offered a multimillion dollar sale of military hardware to Naypyidaw (military junta’s new name for Yangon). The package included helicopters, technical upgrades of Burma-Russian and Chinese made fighter planes, naval surveillance aircraft and radar manufactured by Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited. The visit of Gen Shwe Mann, the junta’s joint chief of staff, in December was expected to expand the arms sales talks. Prior to ACM Tyagi’s visit, former Indian Army Chief Gen J J Singh had offered to provide training in counterinsurgency campaigns for Burmese Special Forces. Earlier in 2006, former Indian Naval Chief, Admiral Arun Prakash had also visited Burma to negotiate the sale of two British-made BN-2 Islander maritime surveillance aircraft. This was followed by the sale of an unspecified number of T-55 tanks and 105mm light artillery guns.

During a border liason meeting held at Champhai, eastern Mizoram, in December 2010, the Indian delegation, led by home ministry’s joint secretary S. Singh and the Myanmar officials headed by U. Nay Wing, the army commander of Chin state, what sounded like a very major decision, but too good to be true, was reported in media-that Indian security forces (SFs) could enter Myanmar to hunt for terrorists after taking due permission from Myanmarese authorities. And to boost their crackdown on Indian separatists hiding in Myanmar, it was also decided that Myanmarese security officials had promised to learn English or Hindi to overcome communication problems to jointly curb trans-border movement of terrorists, arms smuggling and prevent drug trafficking. The first part about Indian SFs being allowed to enter Myanmar is certainly not correct. Had it been so, Paresh Baruah and many others would have been captured.

President of Myanmar U Thein Sein, who assumed office heading the new civilian government after general elections on March 30 2011, came on a State Visit to India six months later. The President, accompanied by his spouse Daw Khin Khin Win, headed a high-level delegation of ten ministers and the Chief of General Staff. The delegation visited Buddhist sites at Gaya, Khushinagar and Sarnath before arriving in Delhi, where it was given a ceremonial reception and welcome at Rashtrapati Bhavan. External Affairs Minister (EAM) S.M. Krishna called on Mr Sein prior to the delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, where some agreements were signed.

New Delhi felt it was time to further strengthen bilateral relations with Myanmar as an integral part of India’s Look East Policy. Connectivity through Myanmar can boost economic development for India’s north-eastern region. Work is under way in establishing the Kaladan Multi Modal Transport Corridor to connect India’s eastern ports to Mizoram through the Sittwe Port in Myanmar. Thereafter, the corridor moves north via rivers and the roads. In 2010-11, bilateral trade between India and Myanmar was US$1.28 billion, which is to be raised to US$3 billion by 2015. Indian companies like ONGC Videsh Limited, GAIL and Essar Group have already established their presence in the country.

Then came the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Myanmar after 25 years, during which liberal financial assistance to Myanmar was promised and 12 agreements were signed. A leading Assam daily newspaper cited highly placed official sources saying  that the Government of India is keeping a close watch on the situation as the Government of Myanmar promised to take action against the militants its using the territory for anti- India activities and that Myanmar Army had also given a deadline of June 2012 to the militants to vacate their camps and to move out of Myanmar with specific instructions to leave their weapons behind so that they could be shown as recovered when the camps are destroyed. Further, though Myanmar Army signed a cease-fire pact with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang faction (NSCN-K), Government of India objected to the same and the matter was reportedly corrected. So far, neither have any effective measures been taken, nor are there any indications of them,  Paresh Baruah still hiding in Myanmar with his anti-talks group remains uncaught and so far, unaffected as he still succeeds in launching attacks in Assam and is also actively assisting LWEand also involved in supplying them with Chinese weapons. There have been reports in the past about Myanmar army only making a show of trying to catch Indian militant groups, whereas they often help them by warning them in advance of any raids on their camp locations and letting them get away.

In 2007, Dr. Sreeram Chaulia, a New York-based researcher on world affairs, maintained that the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) leaders have been using the menace of ULFA as a bargaining chip against New Delhi, even as the Indian civil society supports Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy movement. “The military rulers keep on trying to prove its usefulness to India by occasionally cracking the whip on ULFA and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang-led faction, which is ULFA’s mentor in Myanmar) while not entirely smashing their hideouts on Myanmarese soil,” claimed  Chaulia. He dId not subscribe to the idea of India enhancing the military relationship with SPDC and stated: “For over a decade, India has been betting on the wrong horse in Myanmar. If New Delhi hopes to counter Chinese influence in Yangon and defeat ULFA, democracy in Myanmar is the only honourable and pragmatic solution.”

While democracy may have made a beginning in Myanmar, but still there is no forward movement by its government or army against the terrorists mentioned so far. On July 06, 2012,  Manoj Anand, the Guwahati correspondent of The Asian Age reported that security agencies have noticed the movement of Burmese Army closer to the camps of Indian insurgent groups in Burma but it was not resorting to any kind of pressure to drive out the militants. Disclosing that home ministry has also sent reminder pointing out that Indian insurgent groups are still operating from Burma, authoritative security sources told this newspaper that Burma was still reluctant to take any stern measure to drive out the militants from their territory. Admitting that a deadline of June 10 was given to separatist outfits holed up in Burma by its Army, security sources said that Burmese troops came close to the camps NSCN(K) and Peoples’ Liberation Front of Manipur but no action was taken. Informing that elusive ULFA chief Paresh Baruah was keeping a close watch over the development, security sources said that intercepts suggested that ULFA was mounting pressure on its senior cadres. Frequent arrest and recovery of explosives and failure of their subversive plan is believed to have created tension in the ULFA. While the June deadline was recently extended to September, it remains to be seen whether it will be implemented and if so, to what extent, as Myanmar army and these groups have strong old linkages related to trafficking of arms.

The agreements mentioned for India-Myanmar bilateral cooperation, whenever implemented, will be a great boon for both Myanmar and India’s Northeastern states, but the decision makers in New Delhi and Napyidaw/Yangon must be very clear that these projects can only succeed if militant groups-both of Myanmar and India’s northeast enjoying sanctuary there are neutralised.

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