TODAY -

Myanmar's impact On NE insurgency

B.B. Sharma *



A major breakthrough in Indo-Myanmar relations was achieved in 1987 when the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi visited the country. But relations again worsened after military junta's action against pro-democracy activists in 1988 which led to influx of Myanmarese refugees to India.

Yet, governments of Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee changed the course and began cultivating closer ties with Myanmar as part of a wider foreign policy approach aimed at increasing India's participation and greater influence in South-East Asia.

Subsequently, a 16 member delegation of Yangon military junta led by Vice Chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Maung Aye came to India in November, 2000. During the visit, both the countries agreed to step up bilateral cooperation by establishing cross border transport and communication infrastructure so as to improve trade and business ties. In a joint statement, both the countries agreed to take steps to contain "terrorists' activities and enhance economic ties along the border."

The historic Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road built by Indian Army's Border Roads Organisation which connects North-East India's border town of Moreh in Manipur with Kalewa on the Chindwin river in Myanmar was inaugurated on 13th February 2001.

Media in both the countries hailed the occasion as a new era of friendship. The opening of the road assumed much greater political, economic and strategic importance for both the countries. The road will be a key link in the proposed Asian Highway linking the continent to Europe.

Since then, the commercial relations between the two countries have expanded considerably. Today, India is Myanmar's fourth largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore; and India's second largest export market after Thailand.

The bilateral border trade agreement of January 1994 which provides for border trade from three designated border points, one each in Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, is since gaining momentum, despite procedural hiccups for obtaining licences and frequent intimidation and monetary demand by numerous militant groups operating in the border areas.

Now, Yangon is convinced that if both Myanmar and India work together, each other's problems could be solved. Myanmar's policy is now focused on developing infrastructure along the militancy-prone border areas with special emphasis on connectivity.

India's engagement of the military junta will also help Myanmar, now internationally isolated following economic sanctions by the western countries. While India's approach is to counter the growing security and strategy concerns, it also aims at increasing its presence and influence in the South East Asia.

In the changed scenario, Myanmar has shown greater commitment to take on "anti-Indian militants" now taking shelter in its territory. The country has sought military assistance from India to start operations against anti-India insurgent groups.

During his recent (April 2010) visit to Shillong to attend Bay of Bengal Initiative for the Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) meet Myanmar's ambassador to India U Kyi Thein said that Myanmar has requested India for requisite military assistance for coordinated action against the insurgents holed up in Myanmar, which India has agreed to provide, though he refused to elaborate the details.

With several militant outfits operating from neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan, everyone recognizes that the North-Eastern Region of India has serious insurgency problems. According to G.O.C 3 Corps, Lt.General N.K.Singh, there are about 40 militant camps belonging to various NE militant groups on Myanmar soil.

ULFA's army chief Paresh Barua is now believed taking shelter in Myanmar along with about 800 cadres. After a regime change in Dhaka, the militants are finding it difficult to conduct their anti-India activities from Bangladesh. Thus, Myanmar continues as safe haven for NE insurgents. Three North-Eastern states, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram share a 1,643 km unfenced border with Myanmar.

As early as 1995 India and Myanmar had conducted a joint military operation code-named "Golden Bird" against NE insurgent groups. However, the operation was abandoned after Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nehru Peace Prize for International Understanding. Yet, Mynamar resumed its military operation against insurgents from February 2000 to May 2001.

True to the assurance of General Than Shwe, during his visit to India in October 2004, Myanmar army had conducted military operations against anti-India insurgents in 2005 and 2006. But these operations so far proved ineffective for obvious lack of commitment on the part of Myanmar.

In 2006, the Chief of the Army Staff, General J J Singh met his Myanmarese counterpart, General Maung Aye in Yangon. Since then, there has been regular visits by officials of the three services of both the countries. India has since offered to provide battle-field training to Myanmarese soldiers along with supply of uniforms. India has also leased a helicopter squadron and offered help in maintaining Russian military equipments of the Myanmarese army.

Myanmar has its own share of insurgency problems. Rebel outfits like Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) are active in its upper region. Because of strong presence of these various rebel outfits, the political writ of Yangon does not prevail in several parts of the upper Myanmar.

The situation has been further complicated by widespread poverty, lack of education and connectivity. Unless, all these problems are solved, it would be difficult for Yangon to rein in the area. Now the connectivity over the Indo-Myanmar friendship road will make it easier to tackle the militants who operate out of jungle bases in the North-West Myanmar adjacent to Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.

Given the unstable political situation plagued with high-intensity conflict, there are obvious practical difficulties on the part of junta to combat the north east insurgents as Bangladesh and Bhutan did. Instead of waiting for an irresolute Myanmar to act against NE insurgents, India needs to sit down and work out a tangible means for resolving the problem. It is true that the Army cannot provide a lasting solution, rather it will only brutalise the society.

Thus, it is high time India re-looks the situation leading to the present trauma for want of a lasting solution to peace in NE region. The best way is to initiate political dialogue with insurgent outfits, already a declared government policy. Above all, a closer military-to-military cooperation between India and Myanmar will pressurise NE insurgents to come forward for talks and also add to India's maneuverability in the process.

In sync with the changed paradigm, what is needed now is a door, "wide open" for talks with confidence-building measures rather than a "half open" door.




* B.B. Sharma wrote this article for ADNI and was published in Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
This article was webcasted on July 03, 2010.


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