Myanmar’s Return of Indian Rebels: Act of Friendship or Strategic Trade-Off?

By Aung Zaw 18 May 2020

Myanmar’s recent deportation to India of 22 ethnic Assam and Meitei rebels marks a new level of cooperation between the two neighboring countries. But the question that immediately arises is: Is this part of a trade-off? And if so, what can Myanmar expect from it?

One thing is already clear, however. The move sends a strong message to Indian rebels active along the border that Myanmar will be taking a tougher stance against them from now on.

The 22 Indian rebels had been held in prisons in Myanmar since their arrest during a military operation conducted along the border with India from January to March last year.

On Friday, a special plane landed in Khamti, Sagaing Region, picked up the 22 rebels and flew them to India.

Shortly after the plane landed, a senior Indian official announced, “This is a huge step for the Myanmar government and a reflection of the deepening ties between the two countries.”

Other Indian officials acknowledged that the operation was part of a larger campaign of backdoor diplomacy.

Union Peace-Making Working Committee Vice Chairman U Aung Min at a meeting with representatives of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang in Yangon in September 2015. / Myanmar Peace Center

News reports linked 12 of the 22 insurgents to four rebel groups based in India’s Manipur State: the United Liberation Front of Asom (or Assam) (ULFA), the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The remaining 10 were linked to Assam State groups the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamatapur Liberation Organization (KLO).

It is difficult to know how many Indian rebels remain active on the Myanmar side of the border, but some observers familiar with ethnic armed insurgencies put the figure at between 2,000 and 3,000. There are at least six Manipur rebel groups active on Myanmar territory in addition to Naga rebels belonging to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K).

The UNLF is one of the strongest currently active in frontier areas, with some 2,000 members, informed sources say.

In Sagaing Region it has bases in Tamu Township, in western Homalin Township, and in the Naga Self-Administered Zone.

The rebels have also received military training from Myanmar insurgent groups including the Kachin Independence Army, as well as from former communists who are veterans of the now defunct Communist Party of Burma.

Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, author of several books on Myanmar and ethnic insurgencies, wrote in the Asia Times: “Ethnic insurgents opposed to New Delhi’s rule havmaintained cross-border sanctuaries in Myanmar since the late 1960s. Previously, these rebel groups were known to trek through northern Myanmar’s rugged and mountainous terrain into China, where they historically have received guns and military training.”

In the past, these rebels received support from China, particularly around the time Beijing and New Delhi fought a bloody war in 1962.

Today, China appears to have ended direct support for the Indian rebels, but Lintner added, “Manipuri and Assamese rebel leaders are still given sanctuary in China’s southern Yunnan province.”

Until now, Indian rebels have enjoyed relative freedom to set up camps and fight for autonomy and separation from India on the Myanmar side of the two countries’ porous border, which stretches for more than 1,600 kilometers.

Ammunition and combat-related materials seized by the Myanmar army in an NSCN-K-controlled area in February 2019. / Myanmar military

The longstanding border insurgency issue has been a constant irritant to bilateral relations, serving to fuel suspicion of Myanmar in New Delhi.

But Myanmar’s generals have begun to develop closer relations with New Delhi of late as a way to counter China’s growing assertiveness and influence. The strategy is part of a geopolitical rebalancing of old and new partners in which Myanmar seeks to diversify its alliances.

It is important to note that over the last five years, India and Myanmar have deepened ties, as well as defense cooperation between the two countries’ militaries.

In 2019, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s nine-day visit to India marked a milestone in defense cooperation between the neighbors.

“Myanmar is a key pillar of India’s Act East Policy towards prioritizing relations with its East Asian neighbors,” reads an Indian Ministry of Defense statement released at the time. “India has steadily increased defense cooperation with Myanmar in recent years.”

The defense cooperation between Myanmar and India includes reviewing joint exercises, training Myanmar military personnel, strengthening maritime security via joint surveillance, capacity building, enhancing medical cooperation, cooperating on pollution responses and jointly developing new infrastructure, according to a statement from the Indian Ministry of Defense.

India transferred one of its Russian-made Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines (Myanmar’s first submarine) to the Myanmar Navy later in 2019.

The sale followed the Indian and Myanmar navies’ maiden joint exercise in the Bay of Bengal in March 2018.

Myanmar also seeks New Delhi’s assistance in fighting the Arakan Army in Rakhine and Chin states.

Myanmar desperately wants ground intelligence, satellite images of AA bases and movements, information on arms smuggling routes, and intelligence on Muslim extremists who are active in northern Rakhine, including in the Mayu Mountain Range, and have strong links to the Middle East and Pakistan.

This is not the first time Myanmar and India have cooperated to track down separatist insurgents.

When Myanmar was under the military regime, New Delhi courted top military leaders including Vice Senior General Maung Aye, who was No. 2 in Myanmar’s ruling council. He served in both the State Law and Order Restoration Council and its successor, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye visited India several times and developed close ties with both government and military leaders in the country.

As an interesting counterpoint to this relationship, General Khin Nyunt, then Secretary 1 of the SPDC, was known to be close to China.

The army faction often accused Gen. Khin Nyunt’s powerful intelligence group of allowing Indian rebels to operate in Myanmar territory and of turning a blind eye to arms smuggling. Many Indian rebels buy arms, ammunition and explosives from black markets in Southeast Asia, including from Thailand.

In any case, after a long power struggle with the infantry faction, then intelligence chief and prime minister Gen. Khin Nyunt was ousted in 2004.

In Myint Thu’s 2014 biography of the late Prime Minister General Soe Win (no relation to current deputy commander-in-chief Vice Senior General Soe Win) the general describes how he confronted the Indian rebels active in Sagaing Region.

As a regional commander posted to the Myanmar military’s Northwestern Command, Gen. Soe Win kept informed of the movements and activities of rebels from India’s Manipur and Nagaland states, but difficult terrain and infrastructure problems hampered his ability to confront them.

He also accompanied his boss Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye to India and received a request from leaders there to take care of the issue of rebels in Myanmar territory. “We don’t have a policy to harbor insurgents nor refugee camps… As we do with Thailand, we share a border with India… rebels often cross back and forth,” Gen. Soe Win said. But in the book the general admitted there are over 30 rebel groups from India active along the border.

Under his command, some Naga rebels were ambushed and slaughtered, but tracking down Manipur rebels and their hidden caches in Tamu posed a serious challenge.

He also needed clearance from headquarters for such operations, due to the sensitive nature of the issue.

Finally, in the early 2000s, his troops succeeded in capturing a major haul of weapons at a house in Tamu, a town on the Indian border.

Map showing locations of NSCN-K and other rebel groups’ camps released by the Myanmar military in February 2019. / Myanmar military

More than 900 brand-new M21 automatic rifles and 9mm pistols, satellite communications equipment and a cache of ammunition were seized. The weapons and ammunition had been hidden in spaces underground and in the ceiling of the safe house. Several rebel leaders who had come from Manipur to inspect the weapons were also apprehended. The weapons belonged to the UNLF group, which had planned to send them to India shortly thereafter, according to the book. In fact, Indian intelligence had informed Vice Snr-Gen Maung Aye of the intended date of arrival of those weapons on the Indian side. If Gen. Soe Win had not been able to raid the house and seize the cache on time, Myanmar would have lost face. The operation no doubt pleased New Delhi.

Perhaps more interesting was the route the weapons had taken. As described in Gen. Soe Win’s biography, the Chinese-made weapons had made their way to Tamu via Yangon Port. “The weapons went to Bangladesh first…” according to the book, “then arrived in Yangon.”

The weapons were unloaded at the port without going through any security checks, the author of the general’s biography cites him as saying.

The weapons were then shipped in a container to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, without any trouble, according to Gen. Soe Win’s account.

Customs officials and police were kept in the dark about the container’s contents; they took bribes and allowed it through their checkpoints.

Once in Mandalay, the automatic rifles and ammunition were hidden in extra gasoline tanks attached to trucks and shipped to Tamu.

That was in the early 2000s, when Myanmar was under the widely feared military regime. Rebels had little problem bringing lethal weapons into the jungle to fight their causes.

Indeed, numerous such shipments have escaped the attention of authorities and made their way to various rebel headquarters along the border.

Today, weapons continue to flow into rebels’ hands, and arms smugglers and brokers are enjoying something of heyday, making a fortune in Myanmar.

Perhaps some of the rebels recently deported to India will be able to enlighten Indian authorities about their operational activities, and the routes and safe houses they use along the Myanmar-India border.

But the Myanmar generals and government are playing a much more sophisticated game.

The handover of the rebels to India is part of Naypyitaw’s long game—perhaps we could call it a trade-off—aimed at winning the trust and favor of New Delhi.

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