The Burma conspiracy
President of Myanmar, U Thein Sein, who assumed office heading the new civilian government after general elections on 30 March 2011, came on a state visit to India six months later. 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. 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. Then came the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Myanmar during which liberal financial assistance to the country was promised. The government of Myanmar promised to take action against the militants who were using its territory for anti-India activities. However, so far, no effective measures have been taken. Paresh Baruah is still hiding in Myanmar with his anti-talks group and he still succeeds in launching attacks in Assam and is actively assisting LWE and also involved in supplying them with Chinese weapons. There have been reports in the past about the 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.
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-turned-terrorist 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 substantially increased. When Indian Army was called to deal with the 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 Extremisits [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. However, in 2007, 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 [Khaplangled faction, which is the ULFA’s mentor in Myanmar] while not entirely smashing their hideouts on Myanmarese soil,’ claims Chaulia.
While democracy may have made a beginning in Myanmar, there is still no forward movement against the terrorists. In early July, 2012, there was a news report from Guwahati 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. The frequent arrest and recovery of explosives and failure of their subversive plan is believed to have created tension in the ULFA. But the Myanmar army and these groups have old linkages related to trafficking of arms and narcotics.
The agreements mentioned for India-Myanmar bilateral cooperation, whenever implemented, will be a great boon for both Myanmar and India’s northeastern states, but these projects can only succeed if militant groups enjoying sanctuary in Myanmar are neutralised.
Anil Bhat is a defence and stratergic analyst