By Niranjan Marjani*
The 13 November attack on an Assam Rifles convoy by two Manipur insurgent groups — the People’s Liberation Army and Manipur Naga People’s Front — in Churachandpur district of Manipur has the potential to further destabilise Northeast India. Insurgent groups’ links in the region to Myanmar mandate a rethink of India’s approach to the issue.
Since the Myanmar military coup in February 2021, India has tried to promote democratic values and protect its national interests in managing relations with Myanmar. India’s delicate balancing act may be construed as a dilemma — but New Delhi has deliberately kept the option of engaging with the Myanmar military (the Tatmadaw) open.
Following the coup, India has called for the restoration of Myanmar’s democracy. India also expressed concern over Aung San Suu Kyi’s conviction by a Myanmar court on 6 December in which she was sentenced to two years of imprisonment. But at the same time, India has avoided harshly criticising the military junta. New Delhi even attended a Burmese military parade on 27 March to mark Tatmadaw Day. In June, India abstained from voting on a United Nations General Assembly resolution that rebuked the Myanmar military and asked it to respect the November 2020 general election.
India has several reasons for treading carefully around the situation. First, the military maintains a strong hold on the political process despite the initiation of the democratic process in Myanmar a decade ago. As a result of the military-backed constitutional process in 2008, 25 per cent of the seats in Myanmar’s national and local parliaments were reserved for serving military officials. So as India has expanded its engagement with Myanmar over the past decade, the Tatmadaw has become an integral part of government and decision-making circles.
Second, India sees the Tatmadaw as important to containing cross-border insurgencies in its restive Northeast — a chronic problem since Indian independence in 1947. Myanmar shares a 1600 kilometre-long border with four Indian states — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. The porous border and transnational kinship ties make it convenient for insurgents to set up bases in Myanmar to escape Indian security forces.
In response to this threat, Indian armed forces have coordinated with the Tatmadaw to conduct operations against these insurgent groups over the last three decades. India carried out a surgical strike in 2015 on the bases of Naga insurgents inside Myanmar, while Indian and Myanmar armies coordinated attacks against a number of insurgents in 2019.
Sustained operations by both countries have resulted in relative peace and stability in India’s Northeast for the past decade. This same period has seen rapid infrastructure development in the region, with a focus on connectivity projects. These efforts have found success alongside government initiatives like the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, which is a combination of roadways and waterways. These connectivity projects aim to boost economic engagement between India and Myanmar by facilitating cross-border trade.
Third, India and Myanmar have remarkably similar views on China. India’s increasing engagement with Myanmar is aimed at countering China’s influence in India’s neighbourhood. Myanmar favours India as a means of diversifying its foreign relations and avoiding overdependence on China. China’s support for insurgents in India and Myanmar is also a shared concern.
China has supported Indian insurgent groups by giving them safe haven and supplying them with arms. China similarly provides support to insurgents in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states in Myanmar, where these groups act as Chinese intermediaries in supplying arms to Indian insurgent groups. The recent attack in Manipur highlights China’s role in attempting to destabilise India.
The Tatmadaw has its own vested interests in continuing counterinsurgency cooperation with New Delhi. Indian intelligence officials report that the Tatmadaw is using Manipuri rebel groups — the United National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Army — to attack post-coup refugees fleeing Myanmar. In return for helping India combat various insurgent groups, the Tatmadaw expects Indian assistance in operations against the Arakan Army, an insurgent group based in Rakhine State.
Still, India may be forced to ignore the Tatmadaw’s intentions in view of its Northeastern security concerns. It remains important for India to prevent the region from slipping into another full-blown insurgency. Myanmar is also gradually tilting towards China as a result of its international isolation, an alignment that India is mindful of. But given India’s limited options in stemming the deteriorating security situation in the northeast, it needs the Tatmadaw’s help to bring stability to the region and India–Myanmar border.
Defence cooperation has, owing to strategic circumstances, been the cornerstone of India–Myanmar relations. It has forced India into dealing with Myanmar’s government of the day, with Myanmar General Min Aung Hlaing strengthening defence cooperation with India during his visits in 2017 and 2019, and Myanmar handing over 22 insurgents to India in 2020. Recently, on 15 December, Myanmar deported five Manipuri insurgents belonging to the People’s Liberation Army to India. People’s Liberation Army was one of the two groups that carried out the attack on the Assam Rifles convoy on 13 November.
Although cooperation between Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and General Min Aung Hlaing has been instrumental in cementing these ties, India should be alarmed by the Manipur attack and continue coordination with the Tatmadaw. Such a relationship is needed for India to address its imminent security concerns and counterbalance China’s influence in Myanmar.
*About the author: Niranjan Marjani is an Independent Researcher and Columnist based in Vadodara, India.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum