By Francis Wade
Ongoing anxiety in the Indian government over security along its porous shared border with Burma has prompted New Delhi to line up a visit by army chief General VK Singh to Naypyidaw next month.
The five-day trip beginning 5 January is the first time Singh will visit Burma, and points to continued concerns at Burma’s apparent reluctance to tackle Indian separatist groups believed to shelter in camps inside the Burmese border.
New Delhi has taken steps over the past year to bolster its defence in the troubled northeastern states, including the development of infrastructure such as roads and helipads that will allow quicker deployment of paramilitary groups like the Assam Rifles to battle separatists.
But despite a number of joint military agreements being signed by both governments aimed at closer cooperation in the region, Naypyidaw for its part has made little progress in clearing groups like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) from its territory.
Analyst Bertil Lintner says that India’s frustration with Burma stems from the differing priorities of both governments. “[The separatist groups] are not a major concern in Burma – they have other [military] priorities that are more important, such as tackling the Karen, Shan and Kachin rebel groups”.
Deploying army units to the Indian border is also a tricky task. “These regions are remote and isolated, and for Burma’s army to move around is a major operation logistically – there’s no infrastructure,” Lintner said.
The ULFA, which is fighting for an independent Assam, has long been alleged to have bases in Burma’s northern Kachin state. India’s Maoist rebels are also believed to have trained over the border.
While the Burmese drag their feet over the issue, Lintner says there is “no possibility” that Burma would allow small-scale Indian army operations on its soil in the near future. “They don’t want any foreign troops across their border – they’re too sensitive about that.”
According to the Hindustan Times, Burma recently rejected offers of weaponry from India, which is one of only eight countries believed to supply arms to Naypyidaw. Instead, the paper reported, Burma requested only maintenance of existing purchases. Weapons’ supplies from India are thought to comprise mostly artillery, and destined mainly for Burmese army camps in its northwest.
The visit by Singh may also be an attempt to draw Burma’s military away from China, which supplies most of its arms. India has made no secret of its attempt to entice its neighbour away from the clutches of Beijing, and may be looking to exploit an apparent unease within the Burmese government over its dependence on China, as signalled by the cancellation of the Myitsone dam in October.
Burma has however sought to play India and China off against one another, likely in a bid to maintain a degree of independence from the region’s main powerhouses. Burma’s powerful parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann was in India last week, ostensibly to study the development of India’s own political arena since independence but the visit offered a clear indication of Burma’s attempt to wriggle out of Beijing’s orbit.
India’s once frosty relations with the Burmese regime have warmed since the early 1990s when it sought to develop stronger business relations with its neighbour, which acts as its only geographical gateway to Southeast Asian economies and a coveted source of natural energy.