By Niranjan Marjani *
The November 13 attack on a convoy of Assam Rifles by two insurgent groups from Manipur – the People’s Liberation Army and the Manipur Naga Popular Front – in the Churachandpur district of Manipur has the potential to further destabilize the north-eastern India. The links of insurgent groups in the region with Myanmar are forcing a rethinking of India’s approach to the issue.
Since the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021, India has tried to promote democratic values and protect its national interests in the management of relations with Myanmar. India’s delicate balance can be interpreted as a dilemma – but New Delhi has deliberately kept open the possibility of engaging with the Burmese Army (the Tatmadaw).
After the coup, India called for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. India also expressed concern over Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction by a Myanmar court on December 6, which sentenced her to two years in prison. But at the same time, India has avoided harsh criticism of the military junta. New Delhi even witnessed a Burmese military parade on March 27 to mark Tatmadaw Day. In June, India abstained from voting on a United Nations General Assembly resolution that berated the Burmese military and called on it to respect the November 2020 general election.
India has several reasons for avoiding the situation with caution. First, the military maintains a strong grip on the political process despite the launch of the democratic process in Myanmar ten years ago. As a result of the military-backed constitutional process in 2008, 25 percent of seats in Myanmar’s national and local parliaments were reserved for serving military officials. So, as India has broadened its engagement with Myanmar over the past decade, the Tatmadaw has become an integral part of government and decision-making circles.
Second, India considers the Tatmadaw important in containing cross-border insurgencies in its turbulent northeast – a chronic problem since India gained independence in 1947. Myanmar shares a 1,600 kilometer-long border with four states Indians – Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. The porosity of the border and transnational kinship ties allow insurgents to set up bases in Myanmar to escape Indian security forces.
In response to this threat, the Indian armed forces have coordinated with the Tatmadaw to conduct operations against these insurgent groups for the past three decades. India carried out a surgical strike in 2015 on Naga insurgent bases inside Myanmar, while the Indian and Burmese armies coordinated attacks against a number of insurgents in 2019.
The sustained operations of the two countries have resulted in relative peace and stability in northeast India over the past decade. This same period saw the rapid development of infrastructure in the region, with an emphasis on connectivity projects. These efforts have been successful alongside government initiatives such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project, which is a combination of roads and waterways. These connectivity projects aim to boost economic engagement between India and Myanmar by facilitating cross-border trade.
Third, India and Myanmar have remarkably similar views on China. India’s growing engagement with Myanmar aims to counter China’s influence in India’s neighborhood. Myanmar favors India as a means of diversifying its foreign relations and avoiding overdependence on China. China’s support for insurgents in India and Myanmar is also a shared concern.
China has supported Indian insurgent groups by offering them refuge and providing them with weapons. China is also providing support to insurgents in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states in Myanmar, where these groups serve as Chinese intermediaries by supplying arms to Indian insurgent groups. The recent attack in Manipur highlights the role of China in the attempt to destabilize India.
The Tatmadaw has its own interests in pursuing counterinsurgency cooperation with New Delhi. Indian intelligence officials report that the Tatmadaw is using rebel groups in Manipuri – the United National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Army – to attack post-coup refugees fleeing Myanmar. In return for helping India fight various insurgent groups, the Tatmadaw expects Indian assistance in operations against the Arakan Army, an insurgent group based in Rakhine state.
Still, India could be forced to ignore the Tatmadaw’s intentions because of its security concerns in the northeast. It remains important for India to prevent the region from descending into another full-fledged insurgency. Myanmar is also gradually leaning towards China due to its international isolation, an alignment that India is aware of. But given India’s limited options to stem the deteriorating security situation in the northeast, it needs the assistance of the Tatmadaw to bring stability to the region and to the India-Myanmar border.
Defense cooperation has been, due to strategic circumstances, the cornerstone of India-Myanmar relations. This forced India to deal with the Burmese government of the day, with Burmese General Min Aung Hlaing stepping up defense cooperation with India during his visits in 2017 and 2019, and Myanmar handing over 22 insurgents to India in 2020. Recently, on December 15, Myanmar deported five Manipuri insurgents belonging to the People’s Liberation Army to India. The People’s Liberation Army was one of two groups leading the attack on the Assam convoy of rifles on November 13.
Although cooperation between Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and General Min Aung Hlaing has helped cement these ties, India should be alarmed by the attack on Manipur and continue to coordinate with the Tatmadaw. Such a relationship is necessary for India to address its looming security concerns and counteract China’s influence in Myanmar.
* About the author: Niranjan Marjani is a freelance researcher and columnist based in Vadodara, India.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum