India, Myanmar: Reluctant brothers in arms
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - Myanmar's up and down relationship with neighboring India is on the
up again with a new commitment for coordinated counter-insurgency operations
along their mutual border. While previous promises to tackle armed groups
failed in the actual implementation, analysts suggest there could be new
impetus for strategic cooperation.
India's Home Secretary G K Pillai led a delegation to Naypyidaw in January for
three days of secretarial-level talks with Myanmar officials led by Brigadier
General Phone Swe. The elimination of insurgent camps in Myanmar across the
border from India's violence-plagued northeastern region, featured in
India also reportedly requested progress on demarcating the
1,643 kilometer shared border and a crackdown on the cross border smuggling of
narcotics, Chinese-made weapons and other goods. Pillai's meetings followed a
visit to Myanmar in October by Indian Army chief General Deepak Kapoor to
discuss "enhanced military cooperation''.
Northeastern India has been wracked by insurgency since the 1950s with various
groups demanding independence, autonomy, or a halt to migration into their
areas. The Naga went underground in 1956 seeking the formation of a Greater
Nagaland encompassing areas of both India and Myanmar.
In the early 1970s, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland began setting up
camps in Myanmar's northwestern Sagaing Division. Links were also forged with
the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), then fighting the Myanmar government,
through which it obtained weapons and training from China.
Other northeastern Indian groups followed suit. By the 1980s, the Assamese
United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), various Manipuri rebel groups and other
smaller ethnic-based groups had also set up camps in Sagaing Division as well
as Kachin and Chin States.
Although China ended its assistance to the groups nearly 30 years ago, and the
KIA also stopped as a result of its ceasefire with the government in 1994, by
2005 there were still at least 27 full-time camps in western Myanmar. ULFA,
which is seeking an independent state for the Assamese, has by different
estimates between 3,000 and 6,000 fighters and at least four major camps in
Myanmar, including the headquarters of its 28th Battalion.
The Manipuri People's Liberation Front (MPLF), an umbrella organization of
several Manipuri groups with a combined strength of up to 7,000 also has camps
in Myanmar. Other smaller forces representing ethnic groups such as the Kukis
and the Zomis, are also believed to maintain operations in Myanmar.
Despite this large number of armed insurgents on its western border, Myanmar's
military has paid much less attention to this area compared to its eastern and
northern borders with Thailand and China. Analysts and diplomats believe that
this is because the groups represent little immediate threat to Myanmar's
territorial integrity and unity.
ULFA, the Manipuris and other groups confine their attacks to targets across
the border in India and use Myanmar for rest and training. Some opposition
groups have alleged that local Myanmar military officers receive monthly
payments from the Indian groups to ignore their cadre and camps.
Myanmar's own insurgent groups in the area are small and not viewed by the
generals as posing as big a security threat as the much larger ceasefire and
non-ceasefire armies in eastern and northern Myanmar. Groups such as the Arakan
Liberation Army (ALA) and the Chin National Front (CNF), which operate in
northern Arakan State and Chin State, each number only 100 or 200 men.
Operations against these groups usually take the form of periodic sweeps and
the occasional ambush.
The exception is the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) faction led
by S S Khaplang in Sagaing. The group, which is linked to Naga nationalists on
the Indian side of the border, may have as many as several thousand fighters,
according to some estimates. The Myanmar Army has pursued the NSCN more
determinedly, attacking it was recently as November 2009.
This, however, reflects the general's view that the NSCN's aim of an
independent Nagaland is a direct threat to Naypyidaw's unity and national
integrity rather than any determination to assist India, analysts say. India,
on the other hand, has made the elimination of the insurgent camps a key
component of its foreign policy with Myanmar.
India was previously a strong supporter of the pro-democracy movement in
Myanmar following the military crackdown of peaceful protestors in 1988. That
changed, however, when New Delhi launched its new "Look East" foreign policy in
1991 aimed at counteracting growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
Military and diplomatic exchanges were stepped up and new economic and
development initiatives put forward.
Considerable effort has been placed on convincing Myanmar's junta to
participate in counter-insurgency campaigns along the border. India has offered
the regime artillery, radar and radio systems, and Myanmar military officers
have attended Indian military academies.
In 2006, apparently as part of a deal to conduct military operations, India
said it was planning to transfer an unspecified number of T-55 tanks, armored
personnel carriers, 105mm artillery pieces, mortars and helicopters. In October
of that year, Indian Army Vice-Chief Lieutenant General S Pattabhiraman told
Force magazine, an Indian defense and security monthly, that the transfer of
artillery pieces had already begun.
In November 2006, J J Singh, the Indian army's chief of staff pledged to
provide training in special warfare tactics to Myanmar soldiers. This was
followed by an offer of a multi-million dollar military aid package by Indian
Air Force head S P Tyagi during a visit to Naypyidaw that same month. Included
in the deal were helicopters, avionics upgrades for Myanmar's Chinese and
Russian-made fighters and naval surveillance aircraft. The extensive package
may have been granted after Myanmar began limited operations against insurgents
in the northwest.
The arms transfers were heavily criticized by foreign governments and
human-rights organizations. The British government protested in particular the
transfer of two BN-2 Islander maritime surveillance aircraft in August 2006.
Heavy international pressure was also placed on India for a plan to transfer
light helicopters produced by Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) that
included European parts covered under a European Union arms embargo against
Myanmar. By December 2007, India had quietly halted the arms transfers.
Myanmar's generals have since shown little determination to carry out military
campaigns along the western border. In 1995, a joint operation known as
Operation Golden Bird, aimed at flushing out ULFA, NSCN and Manipuri fighters
in camps along the border, ended abruptly when Myanmar withdrew its troops
after New Delhi presented the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International
Understanding to pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since then there have been few military operations against insurgent groups
based in Myanmar's western regions. Although Myanmar agreed in 2000 to conduct
joint operations in exchange for military equipment, few military actions
actually took place. An exception was a 2001 raid on four Manipuri camps that
resulted in the capture of 192 insurgents and the seizure of 1,600 weapons.
Seven insurgent leaders were arrested including UNLF chairman Rajkumar Meghen
and Khaidem Hamedou, its general secretary.
All were inexplicably released the following year, much to the chagrin of the
Indian government, which expected them to be handed over. Assurances from
Myanmar's Senior General Than Shwe in 2004 that Myanmar would not allow Indian
insurgent groups to use its territory were similarly followed with inaction.
Again agreeing to joint operations with their Indian counterparts in 2007,
Myanmar's army did very little on the ground.
Shrinking safe havens
The loss of northwestern Myanmar as a safe area would represent a major setback
to Indian insurgents. Not only would they lose areas for training and
regroupment, they would also yield an up-to-now reliable conduit for weapons.
In January, Arunachal Pradesh home minister Tako Dabi voiced concerns over the
smuggling of Chinese-made weapons through Myanmar into India. He accused
India's Naga rebels of colluding with the KIA in moving the illicit weapons.
Chinese weapons were sent to the northeastern groups through the KIA in the
1970s, but this route was known to have dried up by the early 1980s as Beijing
shifted policy away from backing insurgent movements and withdrew support for
the Burmese Communist Party. Black market operators in China's southwestern
Yunnan province filled the gap and began making weapons available to Indian
groups in the 1990s.
Although the arms were produced by Chinese state-owned weapons factories, they
are believed to have been trafficked by unscrupulous factory managers. While
the KIA claims to have severed ties to Indian insurgents, they are still
believed to have some relations and could be a possible conduit for weapons. A
clearer source is the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The group has acted as a
broker for Chinese-produced arms as well as selling weapons from their own arms
factory near Panghsang on the China border. A Jane's Intelligence Review report
in 2008 detailed the UWSA's involvement in trafficking weapons to Myanmar and
Indian insurgent groups.
The loss of sanctuary in northwestern Myanmar would be profound considering
that the groups have already lost safe havens in Bhutan and Bangladesh. A
successful joint military operation in 2003 pushed the groups out of border
areas in Bhutan. Last year, a firmer line against Indian insurgent groups
sheltering in Bangladesh was taken by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh
Insurgent bank accounts were frozen and the ULFA lost its political leader
Arabinda Rajkhowa and deputy commander Raju Baruah when they were arrested by
Bangladeshi authorities in Cox's Bazaar in November. The crackdown is believed
to have forced the ULFA to shift its camps and cadre to Myanmar. Seizures in
Bangladesh of Chinese-made weapons brought in by boat and believed destined for
northeastern insurgents suggested that the country's ports had become major
gateways for weapons.
Insurgent's weapons supplied from China may also be in jeopardy if the UWSA and
the KIA are forced to join the junta's Border Guard Force scheme, which would
place them under the direct control of Naypyidaw's War Office. India's lack of
influence with China means strategic engagement with Naypyidaw is its only
pressure point in putting a stop to the arms trafficking.
Encouraged by these successes, New Delhi is now pushing again for joint
operations with Myanmar. Myanmar vowed after the January talks that it plans to
carry out coordinated operations with the Indian army against insurgent camps
along their mutual border.
As part of these operations, the Myanmar army says it will make efforts to
track down and arrest insurgent leaders, especially ULFA commander Paresh
Barua. Following the January talks, an Indian home ministry official announced:
"Security forces of India and Myanmar will conduct coordinated operations in
their respective territories in the next two to three months. The objective of
the operation is that no militant can escape to the other side after facing the
heat on one side."
No date has been set for the commencement of the operations and coordination
between the two forces, including intelligence sharing, has not yet been worked
India is already beefing up its forces in the area, recently deploying a field
intelligence unit of its Assam Rifles battalion. The government also said it
will raise another 26 battalions of Assam Rifles, at the rate of two to three
per year, to secure border areas in Nagaland and Manipur states and support
For its part, Naypyidaw has said it still needs to build up its forces in its
remote northwestern regions. They will likely be hard-pressed to launch an
offensive in the area while engaged in a war of nerves with former ceasefire
groups in the north over a scheme to transform them into military-led border
Other forces are needed to contain still-active insurgencies in the eastern
part of the country. More forces will presumably be needed to ensure control of
central portions of the country in the lead up to general elections planned for
the later half of this year.
It would likely be an unpopular move to carry out military operations while
voters are going to the polls. However the generals have used the existence of
the Indian groups as leverage with New Delhi in the past, and could conceivably
use them as bargaining chips to gain legitimacy for the elections from the
world's largest democracy.
The junta needs all the international support it can muster for elections which
most observers and analysts believe is a forgone conclusion in favor of
military-backed candidates. By offering support for an outcome that will likely
further consolidate the military's hold on power, New Delhi could yet move the
generals towards action in tackling insurgents along the border.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached