India and Myanmar Poised to Boost Ties

This picture taken Jan. 16 shows a tribal woman enjoying her homemade pipe in Lahe of Khamti Township in northwestern Myanmar, which borders India's Assam state. Myanmar has claimed that progress is being made in its anti-drug campaign, amid widespread denunciations in the state-run media for the U.S. and Britain for pressing the Security Council to adopt a resolution against the ruling junta. (Photo: Khin Maung Win / AFP-Getty Images)

There lies a possibility that India-Myanmar counter-insurgency cooperation could shift from coordination to joint operations on Myanmar's territory. Whether India should proceed with these proposed operations is a matter of debate. The bitter experiences of the Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka (1987-90) dictate that New Delhi should proceed cautiously before opting to interfere in neighboring countries. There is concern that India might get drawn more and more into Myanmar's internal politics and conflicts if Indian forces enter its territory.

However, if India wants to quell the insurgency in the northeast, the bases in neighboring countries must be dismantled, and since Myanmar does not have adequate firepower then India has to share the responsibility. In Myanmar, India would be launching operations in its own interests, unlike as in Sri Lanka. Sharing India's broad perspective about Myanmar is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has included Yangon as a member. The Indian understanding is based on hard realities — the present ruling junta is there to stay, and it is best to deal with them directly. Myanmar also needs India, an established democracy, and would like to have an alternative to China for economic development assistance.

Counter-insurgency operations in northeast India cannot succeed unless neighboring countries refrain from supporting the separatist groups based on their territories. While Bangladesh has not launched any operations against the northeast insurgents on its soil, the military regime in Myanmar is cooperating with India and will soon initiate a military offensive to attempt to evict Indian separatists and insurgents from its territory.

Over the past three years, New Delhi-Yangon counter-terrorism initiatives have gained in momentum and there is optimism that the military junta will continue the operations as part of efforts to deepen bilateral ties with India. India and Myanmar share a 1,020-mile (1,640-km) long unfenced border, allowing militants from the northeast to use the adjoining country as a springboard to carry out hit-and-run guerrilla strikes on Indian soldiers. At least five major militant groups from India's northeast, where numerous tribal and ethnic groups are fighting for greater autonomy or independence, have training camps in the dense jungles of Sagaing in northern Myanmar.

New Delhi has been deliberating with Yangon to launch a military offensive against such groups — mainly the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF). There are at least 20,000 guerrilla fighters in Myanmar belonging to various groups. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland operates out of Myanmar with the outfit's general headquarters located in Sagaing. The NSCN (K) has observed a ceasefire with New Delhi in Indian territory since 2001.

As previously noted, cooperation between the security forces of India and Myanmar in countering rebels based in Myanmar is poised to enter bold new phase, with the countries discussing joint counter-insurgency operations inside Myanmar. Myanmar's ruler General Than Shwe has reportedly asked for helicopters, helicopter gunships, heavy rockets, navigation equipment and global positioning system devices from the Indian government. While India is willing to supply the equipment, it is concerned that Myanmar's security forces are not trained to use it. India apparently has communicated this concern to Myanmar and, as a way to overcome the problem, suggested that the equipment be deployed in joint operations with the Indian military. Coordination between Indian and Myanmar security forces in counter-insurgency operations has grown dramatically in recent years, especially since 2004 when Shwe visited Delhi. During that visit he assured Indian government authorities that he would not allow his country to be used by anti-India militant groups active in the restive northeast.

Myanmar's recent decision to crack down on Indian rebel bases was made by Brigadier General Tin Maung Ohn, who led an 18-member Myanmarese army delegation to India in April. The Myanmar team held extensive meetings with India's army and paramilitary commanders in Nagaland and Assam. New Delhi would like Yangon to follow Bhutan, which launched 'Operation All Clear' to flush out ULFA militants in 2003.

During External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee's visit to Myanmar in January this year, the junta had agreed to India's proposal to institutionalize cooperation between their armies for operations against ULFA and other insurgent groups in the northeast. Vice Chairman Maung Aye said that he would pass instructions to his commanders to determine, with their Indian counterparts, how to operationalize the understanding. During the visit, India agreed to initiate action on Myanmar's pending request for supply of military equipment.

Earlier, in Dec. 2006, during a meeting between Home Minister Shivraj Patil and his counterpart Major-General Maung Oo in Delhi, Myanmar had agreed to set up a "police liaison post" at the border. The post, to be installed by both countries, will provide a platform of daily interaction, joint interrogation of arrested persons and help in joint sharing of information at the field and national levels. Both sides are in agreement to furnish details of Myanmar and Indian nationals arrested in either country on drug-related charges immediately after their arrest so that follow-up action can be taken simultaneously.

India has been trying for a while to get its neighbors to close down the camps and flush out the militants from their sanctuaries. In Dec. 2003, under considerable pressure from India, the Royal Bhutan Army launched military operations against camps in southern Bhutan along the India-Bhutan border. Some 30 camps belonging to the ULFA, the NDFB and the Kamtapur Liberation Organization and others were closed down and about 600 insurgents were killed. While the actual operations were carried out by Bhutanese forces, India played a quiet role planning the moves, supplying weaponry, helping transport casualties and so on.

For decades, insurgent groups like the ULFA, the UNLF, the People's Liberation Army and the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak have run their operations from bases and training camps on Myanmar's side of the India-Myanmar border. For many years, the military junta in Myanmar supported these insurgent groups, partly because it saw them as useful to pressure India, which was openly supportive of Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement. Besides, there have been accusations in the past that sections in the military have strong interests in the lucrative arms-narcotics trade in the region, and have thus been reluctant to act against the insurgent groups as they are vital parts of the narcotics network.

ULFA continues to terrorize people in Assam and its survival, despite the lack of local support, has been attributed to the continuing sanctuary it receives from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Upper Assam, where ULFA targeted migrants in Jan. 2006, is separated from Myanmar by a narrow strip of Indian territory in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. ULFA cadres based in Myanmar slip across Arunachal into Assam, carry out attacks there, and then melt back into their sanctuaries in Myanmar. At a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit at Cebu, Philippines, earlier this year, Myanmar's Prime Minister General Soe Win apparently assured Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Yangon would take all necessary action to end the attacks.

As noted, India has promised more military aid and training to Myanmar in return for the military junta's full cooperation in flushing out Indian insurgent groups operating from its soil. Apart from two Islander surveillance aircraft, India is also transferring arms, including 105mm light artillery guns and T-55 tanks being phased out of Indian Army, to Myanmar. Indian and Myanmarese armies, in return, are conducting coordinated operations along the Indo-Myanmar border to flush out of the rebel groups, which have set up bases in the thick jungles there.

Last August, unmindful of British protests, the Indian Navy transferred two BN-2 'Defender' Islander maritime surveillance aircraft and deck-based air-defense guns and varied surveillance equipment to Myanmar. Soon after the navy announced its intention of supplying the British-built Islanders to Myanmar following Indian Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash's visit to Yangon in January, Britain declared that it would be unable to provide spare parts and maintenance support for them as it opposed the country's military administration. Nonetheless, India had quietly transferred other hardware to the Myanmarese military. In the past India had given Myanmar 75/24 howitzers. Though the numbers were not huge, neither were they merely symbolic. Recently India's Defense Secretary Shekhar Dutt finalized negotiations in Yangon to supply Myanmar varied military hardware in return for the military junta's cooperation.

Over the last half-a-decade India has followed an independent foreign policy, driven more by realpolitik, to engage the military regime in Myanmar. New Delhi has reached out to the authorities in Myanmar, cultivated so far by China as well as Pakistan. The relationship now covers a wide spectrum of issues including energy, trade, counter-terrorism and defense. For India, good ties with Myanmar helps New Delhi to expand its "Look East" policy and connects it to southeast and east Asia.

New Delhi decided to revive the past relationship (1948-1962) between Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu. India had provided Myanmar with military and economic assistance during U Nu's rule but in 1962 the then-military leader General Ne Win sided with China during the India-China war and ordered all Indians to leave the country. After almost three decades, Indo-Myanmar relations witnessed a major shift during Narshima Rao's regime. The reasons were clear — contain China, the counter-insurgency and drug trafficking in India's northeast, and New Delhi's Look East policy. Concerned by the violence and drug smuggling in the northeastern states and by the growing support that Indian insurgents were receiving from the Bangladesh Government, Narasimha Rao undertook a review of policies towards Myanmar.

In the mid-1990's, India began wooing the generals when India and Myanmar launched Operation Golden Bird. Troops from the two countries trapped scores of insurgents on the Mizoram border. However, the military junta halted the operation and even released many of the rebels it had rounded up. Since 2000, relations between the two countries have stabilized, with India extending Myanmar economic carrots in return for cooperation from the junta in dismantling insurgent bases.

Civil and military officials meet regularly to take bilateral ties further. India's influence in the junta has increased and several top generals, including Vice Senior General Maung Aye, are said to be close to India. Trade has expanded from $87.4 million in 1990-91 to $569 million in 2005-06.

India's rethink on its relationship with Myanmar dates from the uprising and coup d'etat in 1988 and the influx of refugees into northeastern Indian camps. Between 1988 to 1992, the idealist phase lingered on as Indian policy vacillated between support for the democracy movement and continuing with diplomatic isolation. In 1993, the "realist U-turn" took place, but it was the Look East policy that caused Indian diplomats really wonder whether ignoring a strategic neighbor like Myanmar was a good thing or not.

An overhaul of India's policy towards greater engagement with Myanmar thus began, starting with the visit of India's foreign secretary in March 1993. Since then, India has decided not to interfere in the internal affairs of that country and to engage its military regime. The period of 1994-96 saw an enhancement of economic cooperation between the two countries.

Recently, India announced plans to invest nearly Rs. 850 crores over the next three years to develop infrastructure for growth of regional trade. Apart from the plan to increase road connectivity, a regular bus service from Imphal to Mandalay and air cargo service between Imphal and Myanmarese cities are also in the pipeline. New Delhi is also keen on energy cooperation with Yangon that involves both exploration and sales, including transportation through ships and pipelines. It is estimated that Myanmar has 300 billion cubic meters of gas reserves and India is engaged in drawing out routes of pipelines to transport this gas to its northeast. Gas Authority of India Limited and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation are presently involved in this process.

India is pressing ahead with work aimed at building or developing roads in Myanmar, besides setting up a hydroelectric station and a communication and IT project. The most ambitious of New Delhi's ventures is a link between ports on India's east and Sittwe Port in Myanmar that would further connect Mizoram through river transport and road. This is the $100 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project. It is expected to provide an alternate route for transport of goods to northeast India.

The other project is upgrading the almost 100-mile (160-km) long Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo Road in Myanmar across Manipur. The Border Roads Organization originally completed this in 1997, but India decided in 2006 that the road needed to be resurfaced and repaired. India is also building more roads in Myanmar, which is woefully poor in infrastructure and communication, and a highway from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand through Bagan in Myanmar. Besides all of the aforementioned, New Delhi is setting up an IT Park a Mandalay in Myanmar and two e-Learning centers in Yangon and Mandalay. It is also conducting an e-governance project to train Myanmar government officials. A hydroelectric project is coming up with India's support on river Chindwin in Myanmar's northwest, parallel to Nagaland and Manipur.

In 1994, India and Myanmar signed an agreement for maintenance of peace and tranquility in the border areas. In the maritime domain, the two sides have made substantial progress. Indian naval ships have on regular basis made port calls to Myanmar ports and Myanmar has participated in "Milan 2003," a naval exercise involving India and several southeast Asian countries. When India launches operations on its soil, it alerts the Myanmar military, which then steps up combing operations in the western hill tracts. When the Myanmar army smashed ULFA bases along the Chindwin River couple of years back, India sealed the border in that area. Indian troops in turn have hunted down and evicted hundreds of Myanmar insurgents from Indian territory.

Together with Thailand and Laos, Myanmar is also part of the notorious 'Golden Triangle' region of the global narcotics trade, and is a source of drug trafficking and HIV/AIDS in Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. To counter these non-traditional security threats, better management of the Indo-Myanmar border is required. The two armies are organizing regular meetings in border posts such as Moreh-Tamu in Manipur and have agreed to open four more posts for such meetings.

But concerns exist about the robust military cooperation between Yangon and Beijing. Most of the Myanmar military inventory today is of Chinese origin. China has also built strategic infrastructure that includes roads, communications and intelligence networks into Myanmar. Beijing has also constructed an electronic intelligence system at the Great Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal to monitor Indian naval activity in the Andaman Islands.

Myanmar must address these concerns to deepen friendship with India. China is also helping Myanmar modernize its naval bases at Sittwe, Coco, Hianggyi, Khaukphyu, Mergui, and Zadetkyi Kyun by building radar, refitting and refueling facilities that could support Chinese submarine operations in the Bay of Bengal. China's influence in Myanmar can disturb India's maritime strategic calculations as China can access the Arabian Sea via Pakistan's Gwadar port and the Indian Ocean via Myanmar. In addition, China has also signed an agreement to develop the harbor of Hambantota in Sri Lanka. Chinese access to these strategic locations can provide the potential for a maritime encirclement of India by China.

India is also concerned about Pakistan's long standing military ties with Myanmar, to whom it had supplied several shiploads of ordnance and other military hardware like 106 mm M-40 recoilless rifles and various small arms over the past decade. Pakistan also regularly trains Myanmarese soldiers to operate a range of Chinese military equipment like T-63 and T-53 tanks, Soviet fighter aircraft and 155-mm howitzers and instructs its air force and naval officers at many of its institutions. India is finalizing a comprehensive program to upgrade Myanmar's vintage Soviet-era fighter fleet.

To translate the concept of military cooperation into effective operations against ethnic insurgents will require a great deal of joint planning, coordination and execution. Moreover, for meaningful results joint military cooperation between India and Myanmar should not be a one-time operation. The terrain of the border region is difficult for operations. The communication infrastructure on both sides is poor; on the Myanmar side it is abysmal. As the tertiary communication routes are almost non-existent, land operations will be slow and ponderous. Therefore good air support and lift will be required. Myanmar has very limited air support elements. The area is poorly developed and ineffectively administered. Forces operating in the region will have to be totally supported from the hinterland.

As the tribal population on both sides of the border, particularly in Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, are ethnically similar, there is close social and cultural affinity between them. Myanmar has not been able to exercise sovereignty over this region due to a number of powerful ethnic insurgent groups, who have been waging war against Yangon's rule for over four decades. That was how the Naga insurgents, and with their blessing the Assamese insurgent groups had been finding refuge on the Myanmar side. Any military operations in this region need to be coupled with a social uplifting of the local population. Otherwise, it will be only a police action.

The Myanmar army is poorly equipped and administered. If they are to render meaningful support in the long term, it will have to be upgraded. The areas of operation are astride the routes of flourishing drug trade and traffic, as well as arms traffic. Vested interests, including those from the Myanmarese Army and criminal elements involved in such traffic will also have to be tackled.

India has been engaged in peace parleys with the NSCN (I-M) since 1997 and has a ceasefire agreement with NSCN (K). Carrying out joint or closely-coordinated operations in areas of their proximity without jeopardizing the peace talks will require a delicate balancing act.

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