In the past three-odd decades, Bertil Lintner has dominated the discourse in south east Asian nations, besides of course, Burma, his home base. Writing first for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Lintner was a ‘must-read’ for leaders and the led alike in the region.
In his current, almost magisterial work, Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier, Lintner brings into play the historical concept of ‘Great Game’ played out in the early 20th century in mostly, North West Asia along the Silk route, between the empires of Britain and Russia. He transposes the Game in the context of the north-eastern India and the frontier with China as a place of a New Great Game.
For the classicists, the dark, conspiratorial romance of the Great Game, interposed between the two ancient civilisations – though modernising now – of China and India would have sensory appeal. Similarly, for the strategists in both the countries, Lintner’s book would act as a informational tool on the basis of which they can build the structure of balance of power.
Lintner sees the Game being played out in the remote, forested hills of India’s north-eastern states bordering Burma and China. A tribal habitat, these forests have so many trails that crisscross, each other and reach up to these countries. These forests, on both sides of the border, are also safe havens for various insurgents touting separatist demands based on ethnicities.
In the initial 150-odd pages, the author dons the mantle of an anthropologist and describes the origins of the Nagas, Mizos, Meiteis and Assamese. Lintner also has a ringside view of the current insurgencies of the groups – their sponsors (Chinese!), their targets and their losses and their achievements.
He details the internecine conflicts of the insurgents that often pits one tribe against the other as evidenced in the attempted ‘coup’ in the late 1980s of SS Khaplang, a former vice-chairman of then unified, Naga Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) that had targetted Isaac Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah. But Muivah’s quick response had reversed the attempted rebellion making Khaplang the target.
He fled and went to Burma, where he found followers, and founded NSCN (Khaplang), which is believed to be under the influence of Indian intelligence agencies. While NSCN (Isaac-Muivah) had grown from strength to strength, even as the two leaders had to flee to Thailand.
The NSCN (I-M) became the mother-lode north-eastern insurgency. Lintner details it all. When the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) arose in Assam from the ashes Asom Gana Parishad, they went for their initial training to NSCN (I-M).
The book details the roles of Bangladesh and Chinese governments in this cauldron. It also touches upon the new battleground of the Indian Ocean whose littorals, now preyed upon by the Somalian pirates, have become the ward of the navies India and China.
But more importantly, Lintner says in his book how Indian security agencies keep track of the insurgents along with the Chinese through the Burmese rebels like the Karens, and how China with its Cocos Island radar and other electronic warfare equipments, base keep a watch on India. The base was created by the Chinese in the mid-1990s with the help of the Burmese.
Overall, the Lintner book is a grand survey of the frontiers that are shared by India, Burma and China and their often conflicting interests, makes it a good read.