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Did India Stumble a bit in its Myanmar policy?

Paper No. 5959                                Dated 24-June-2015

By Bhaskar Roy

On June 9 early morning, a crack team of Indian army commandos, backed by air support, attacked two camps of NSCN (Khaplang) across the Manipur border with Myanmar, inflicting some serious damage.

The team returned without any loss on its side. This operation demonstrated that the Indian armed forces have developed the capacity for hot pursuit of militants and terrorists, and also can conduct precise short duration limited strikes, achieve its objectives and withdraw. The planning and execution was done in a very short time.

The Indian army has developed high capability in jungle warfare and mountain warfare. It is not the first time the army conducted such raids on militants. Para commandos, of Establishment – 22, a special and secretive detatchment, conducted such silent warfare during their 1971 war with Pakistan in erstwhile East Pakistan (Bangladesh). When these commandos move not a twig can be heard breaking under their feet.

Deep strike capabilities of Indian intelligence agencies were dismantled by Indian governments since the early 1990s. The grounds were that to establish trust with Pakistan and build relations, these capabilities were to be junked demonstratively. It takes decades to build these strengths, but a single order from the prime minister to destroy them. At the same time leadership of intelligence organizations have to be chosen according to a proven track record of years of service, and not through political connections and group networking. There are no clear signs that these defaults are being addressed with the urgency they demand.

Immature statements by new-Kid-on-the-block politicians, thumping their chests without understanding the larger picture in strategic dimensions can be really pathetic, creating serious embarrassment for all concerned. Such faux bravado can also damage future operations.

Extending the anti-NSCN (Khaplang) operation as a veiled warning to Pakistan by Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, and addition of some more spice by Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar were thoughtless and not of any substance. Every theatre of operation has its own peculiarities, and its own strength and weakness. No two theatres are identical or even comparable.               

While the Indian army was brief in its comments and did not reveal any operational details, some of the government leaders went on boasting, a characteristic that has become a habit. They revealed that the commandos had gone inside Myanmar territory with the cooperation of the Naypidaw government. Such revelations embarrassed President Thein Sein. According to the Myanmar Constitution no foreign army is allowed inside their territory. This means that the president willfully disregarded the Constitution, a grave charge. Indian officials had to rush to Naypidaw to retrieve the situation as far as possible.

The Constitutional provision is not ideal. Myanmar is placed between two large countries, India and China. While Indian insurgents of the Northeast take refuge in Myanmar’s hills and jungles, sometimes  in collaboration  with sections of the Myanmarese army, the   Tatmadaw, the Chinese have equal  if not greater  interests, in Myanmar.

NSCN(K) chief, Khaplang, is a Myanmarese Naga and a Myanmarese  citizen. Khaplang broke away from the NSCN (I/M), the Indian Naga separatist group after the latter entered into talks with the Indian government. This further complicated the official position of  the Naypidaw   government. The  Tatmadaw  is not in full control of its ethnic minorities  and the areas they occupy. Although ceasefire agreements  have been arrived at with most of them, some of them are still in conflict and enjoy covert support from China. Beijing uses them to keep the Naypidaw government under pressure.

The ongoing conflict between the Myanmarese government and the Khokang rebels in North East Myanmar, bordering China’s Yunan province is an illustrative example. The Khokangs are ethnic Chinese. During this conflict Myanmarese aircraft accidentally dropped bombs on Chinese territory. The Chinese not only severely reprimanded the Myanmarese government but also conducted a live fire military exercise just across the Myanmar border, warning of consequences if Myanmar was unable to come to peace with the Khokangs. 

The earlier military government of Myanmar, isolated by the international community, including partially by India, had been pushed into China’s arms, becoming totally dependent on China. China not only had economic interest in Myanmar (gas, oil, minerals), but also viewed its strategic importance as a way to enter the Indian Ocean. This they have partially realized by constructing oil and gas pipelines from Myanmar’s coast to Yunan. They want more.

The Myanmarese military government under Gen. Than Shwe took a strategic decision around 1998 to open better relations with India. Myanmarese diplomats were directed to lead this initiative. Than Shwe felt India would be a safe bet to balance China. Western countries were still not acceptable.

Lt. Gen. Khin Nyut, a half-Chinese and leader of Myanmarese military intelligence, was gradually removed and jailed on corruption charges. Khin Nyut was strongly pro-Chinese and led the military group that was won over by China. He pushed the road-cum-river route from Yunan to the coast to carry Chinese exports and imports without Myanmarese customs checks. Following Khin Nyut’s ouster the government cancelled this project.

During Khin Nyut’s power run, Chinese arms and equipment had almost unhindered passage through to Indian insurgent/separatist groups. In one incident, a large consignment of arms and communication equipment was interdicted in Myanmar. Khin Nyut stonewalled the details from India.

After the arrest and removal of Khin Nyut, major Chinese arms transfer to Indian insurgent groups shifted to the sea route. The 2004 arms haul from the Chittagong port of Bangladesh revealed this conspiracy. Ten truck loads of arms including rocket launchers were found.

Investigations revealed that these arms and ammunition had come from a Chinese port. The recipients were ULFA, NSCN (I/M) and others. ULFA Commander-In Chief Paresh Barua was in Chittagong to receive the consignment. The transfers were facilitated by the then Bangladesh government ruled by the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami combination (2001-2006).

The Myanmar government understands that it has to live with China in peace, yet it is determined to shake off China’s domination. Two major Chinese investment projects, a hydropower unit of which China will be the beneficiary and a copper mining project, the product of which will mainly go to China, remain suspended despite mounting pressure form Beijing. Naypidaw is yet to give clearance to the Myanmar section of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) road. Thein Sein does not want the Chinese crawling all over his country, stealing its natural resources and destroying its natural environment.

China recently succeeded in establishing a channel with the NLD leadership. Aung San Suu Kyi was accorded the reception usually reserved for heads of state during her recent visit to China. She met all the important leaders from President Xi Jinping downwards. The message given by Xi was clear. He hoped Suu Kyi would protect Chinese investments in Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s China visit at this time was not expected though the Chinese were trying to get her to visit somehow. They succeeded. Suu Kyi also played her political card. The Chinese see that the NLD will do well in the November election and even if it is in opposition, it will have a powerful role in government. The Chinese will be playing the NLD, and the NLD may be willing to play. The Chinese are apprensive that Thein Sein is increasingly playing the west against China.

India must be careful not to fall between the emerging power centers in Myanmar. Disclosing Thein Sein’s cooperation to hit the Indian insurgents inside Myanmar may force Thein Sein to withhold such support to India.

Thein Sein has little love for the Indian insurgents who could help Myanmar’s ethnic opposition, who have been fighting the government for years, some of them with help from China.

It is well known that China has contact with the Indian insurgents. It is quite possible that they are forming a united front if not already done so, with the Indian insurgents. With the Bangladesh route for arms supply blocked now, the Myanmar route will be used more extensively.

India will have to plan more astutely and its motor-mouth political leaders need to be shut down. India also need not talk about its muscularity to its smaller neighbours. This can be exploited by anti-India groups.

 Note: The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com     

 

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