India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar defended his country’s ties with Myanmar’s military regime last month, arguing that a working relationship with the junta is needed because of issues such as organized crime, COVID-19 and Indian insurgents based in Myanmar.
The minister told an audience at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok that New Delhi’s position on Myanmar has been “consistent over decades” and goes back to the country’s struggle for freedom from British colonial rule. He explained that as an “immediate neighbour”, India has an “empathy and an understanding” with Myanmar that is different from other countries.
At the same time, Jaishankar stressed that Myanmar is best served by being a democracy and by reflecting the sentiments and wishes of its people.
India is among the few nations to recognize the Myanmar regime as a legitimate government. New Delhi’s cautious approach of maintaining goodwill with the junta is primarily necessitated by the Act East Policy, which aims at forging closer ties between India and Southeast Asia.
However, the policy has failed to yield the desired results for India. The turmoil in Myanmar will continue to be a hindrance to major projects planned by India, as well as the resolution of troublesome issues along the India-Myanmar border.
Indian rebel camps in Myanmar
New Delhi’s primary concern is the presence in Myanmar of separatist rebel groups from India’s northeast. There are seven Indian insurgent groups with bases in the country, including the anti-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-1) from Assam and the outfits from Manipur State such as the People’s Liberation Army and the United National Liberation Front.
These groups have mounted occasional attacks on Indian security forces, before slipping back to their havens in Myanmar without any fear of being apprehended.
Repeated pleas from New Delhi to the junta to eliminate the rebel camps in Myanmar have not produced any tangible results. In the last three decades or so, there have only been two occasions when the regime has cracked the whip against the insurgents. 2019’s Operation Sunrise [I and II]) resulted in major rebel establishments being demolished, including the camps at Taga in the Naga area of Sagaing Region.
Subsequent developments in the Naga region suggest that the rebel outfits have regrouped and some new camps have been established. These insurgent groups have nothing to fear from the Myanmar military, because it is severely overstretched combating armed resistance to the junta from People’s Defense Forces (PDF) and ethnic armed organizations across the country.
Two months ago, the Myanmar army contingent at Taga was withdrawn for deployment against the PDFs. The possibility of further operations against the Indian rebel groups appears remote at the moment. That has prompted ULFA-I to recruit more cadres and abrogate the unilateral ceasefire with the Indian government that was announced in 2021.
Smuggling from Myanmar
Increased patrolling and crackdowns by Indian security forces have not diminished cross-border smuggling. While commodities like urea, medicines, rice and salt continue to flow from India, the items smuggled from Myanmar are much larger in terms of quantity and value.
If some overground militants and government officials serving in the border districts of India’s northeast are to be believed, heroin and methamphetamines like yaba top the list among the contraband items that continue to flow to India from Myanmar. Consignments are being seized almost every week in the region, mostly in the states of Mizoram, Manipur and Assam.
The most prolific smuggling routes are from western Myanmar’s Chin State to neighboring Mizoram, and then onto Assam and from there to mainland India and Bangladesh. Both government officials and rebels believe that the drug laboratories in Chin State and Sagaing Region operate with the active involvement of a section of the Myanmar military.
As far as other items are concerned, Indian government officials believe that the smuggling of gold and betel nut has been somewhat reduced since last year’s coup in Myanmar. The illicit import of timber, mainly Burmese teak, which is extremely well-organised continues, but also on a lesser scale than before the military takeover. A truck laden with timber from Myanmar was confiscated at Siliguri in West Bengal last month, resulting in the arrest of three people including a functionary named Amjad Khan of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Junta can’t address India’s concerns
New Delhi’s effort to strike a balance with Myanmar’s junta has failed to create the necessary conditions for the completion of the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project and Trilateral Highway. Ircon Infrastructure & Services Limited, the consultant for the road component in the Kaladan project, had been permitted by the Indian government to engage local contractors for the scheme.
The region in Myanmar’s Chin State where the highway is incomplete is reeling from ongoing clashes between the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine force, and the Myanmar military. In the latest incident last month, around a thousand people were displaced from their homes in a replay of the situation five years ago when refugees crossed the border into India.
There isn’t really much that the regime can do to offer a helping hand for completion of the Kaladan project. The same state of affairs prevails over the trilateral highway following unrest in many areas through which the project is planned to pass.
Myanmar’s military regime is certainly not unhappy with New Delhi’s policy but it is annoyed over the free passage being given to PDF fighters in the northeast. According to an Indian government official in New Delhi, the Myanmar embassy has expressed its concerns over the issue with India’s government on several occasions over the past year.
NUG disillusioned With New Delhi
Myanmar refugees in India’s northeast are grateful to the government and local communities for sheltering them, but are confused by New Delhi’s continuing cooperation with the junta.
Activists of the resistance movement and some politicians associated with the parallel civilian National Unity Government (NUG) who this correspondent spoke to, after they fled Myanmar, have repeatedly underscored the sale of military hardware by India to the military regime, as well as the latter’s participation in Panex-21, a multi-agency exercise in Pune for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
Rights group Justice for Myanmar has documented the sale of military hardware by Indian firms to the junta over the past few months. After reviewing Indian export data, the group claimed that the state-owned Bharat Electronics Limited had exported “at least seven shipments” of radar components to Myanmar. Another news item said that the private firm Sandeep Metalcraft had supplied fuses for artillery shells and bombs.
India’s current policy with the junta is a sharp departure from the late 1980s, when New Delhi firmly supported the pro-democracy movement. The brutal crackdown of 1988 was condemned and refugee camps were set up in Manipur and Mizoram for political activists. That policy began to change from the mid-1990s, when the Indian government realised the need to shift from Nehruvian idealism to realism. So far the results from the changed policy have belied India’s expectations. Myanmar’s regime has neither the intent nor the resources to go the extra mile to address India’s concerns.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam, India