News Analysis: Myanmar Army Looks to India

By The Irrawaddy 10 July 2017

Myanmar Army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing is currently touring India, meeting the country’s top military brass on a significant trip that is likely to be closely followed by Beijing.

The eight-day visit is set to boost defense ties between the Myanmar and India armies. Sources said the trip would involve developing counter insurgency operations and sharing intelligence on Islamic insurgents active along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

Myanmar remains a source of concern and interest in New Delhi, which has apprehensively tracked the grand designs of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India has kept its distance from the BRI, partly because it rejects the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, one of the initiative’s projects, which slices through an area of Kashmir claimed by India but held by Pakistan.

India is also concerned China has too much sway over Myanmar’s peace process, according to sources in New Delhi.

Rebel groups seeking to establish a sovereign territory are active on parts of the 1,640-kilometer border between India and Myanmar. During the visit, New Delhi will undoubtedly raise the issue of these rebels to Min Aung Hlaing and his delegation.

One of these groups, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), is based in Sagaing Region, northwest Myanmar. The Naga rebels have been fighting for the “independence of Nagaland” from India and Myanmar for decades. China has reportedly provided the group’s leaders with shelter, aid and weapons in the past.

In this context, Min Aung Hlaing’s vision does not stop at modernizing the Myanmar Army, but encompasses diversifying its allies, making it less reliant on China.

The Times of India reported on July 8 that India already provides Myanmar with, “105-mm light artillery guns, rocket launchers, rifles, radars, mortars, bailey bridges, communication gear, night-vision devices, war-gaming software and road construction equipment as well as naval gun-boats, sonars, acoustic domes and directing gear.”

A US$37.9 million deal for the supply of lightweight torpedoes was also recently finalized, the article added.

Life After China

Speaking on condition of anonymity, sources told The Irrawaddy some Myanmar Army generals were unhappy that China asked members of a northern ethnic alliance to attend the 21st Century Panglong so-called peace conference in May and requested Min Aung Hlaing accept them.

The Myanmar Army branded members of the Northern Alliance, which include the Arakan Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, terrorist groups last year.

New Delhi was watching the conference closely. At the end of May, India’s army chief Gen Bipin Rawat visited Myanmar where he met Min Aung Hlaing and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

But a problem in the bilateral relations may exist in the form of Myanmar’s defense cooperation with Pakistan, an old foe of New Delhi.

Myanmar has been in advanced negotiations with Pakistan to license-build the PAC JF-17 Thunder, a multi-role combat aircraft, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly. Jointly developed by China and Pakistan, the aircraft would significantly bolster Myanmar’s air force.

India is agitated that Myanmar has received military equipment from Pakistan in the midst of allegations that Pakistani militants are providing training to Muslim insurgents in northern Rakhine, according to sources in both India and Myanmar.

In another show of diversifying its allies, Min Aung Hlaing toured Russia in June, visiting defense industries, army bases, and military training schools, where hundreds of Myanmar Army officers are studying.

The message is clear: unlike in the past, Myanmar Army leaders want to show they are not dependent on China alone.