By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
Myanmar’s lingering ethnic conflicts are confined to the minority-inhabited frontiers regions and have cross-border ramifications. The country shares borders with a number of nations, including Thailand, China, India and Bangladesh and whenever fighting between the armed forces and the ethnic militias had intensified, the minority communities who were at the receiving-end from both the sides took shelter in neighbouring Thailand, China and Bangladesh.
The influx of the ethnic minorities from the conflict zones of Myanmar into its neighbouring countries has been a regular feature for the last several years. Thousands of them are still living in these host countries’ numerous camps as the security situation within Myanmar and especially in the areas where its minorities reside has not improved considerably.
The Myanmarese ethnic refugees’ presence in large numbers poses threat to the host countries’ peace, security and stability. The repatriation of the ethnic refugees has always been a bone of contention in Myanmar’s bilateral relations with China, Thailand and Bangladesh. The neighbouring countries want the Myanmar government to take back those refugees as hundreds of armed cadres of the rebel outfits also sneak in along with them. Evidently, the infiltration of foreign militants into the refugee camps has the potential of creating volatility within the host nation. Both Thailand and Bangladesh are not in favour of the refugees’ prolonged stay in their territories primarily for security reasons.
The persistent ill-treatment of the minority Rohingya Muslims by both the government and armed forces of Myanmar has led to the radicalisation of many Rohingya youths who have fled to Bangladesh. Some Islamic militant groups, including Jamaat-ul-Mujahidin-Bangladesh and Pakistan-based Laskar-e-Toiba (LeT) have been training the Rohingya refugees in the use of weapons. Intelligence inputs say LeT’s two front organisations, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Fala-I-Insaniyat, are quite active among the Rohingyas under the cover of relief and rehabilitation. There are also reports of Islamic terror outfits moibilising the Rohingyas who had taken shelter in India’s North-East especially, Assam.
Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis has trans-border implications. The recurrent violent clashes between the Rohingya Muslims and the country’s majority Burmans have drawn the attention of some dreaded international jihadi groups. The Bangladeshi radical Islamic groups affiliated to the al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent have been making concerted efforts to mobilize the Rohingya refugees for their terrorizing causes. The security experts have cautioned that Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s North-Eastern states may experience a sudden rise in Islamic militancy unless the sinister designs of the jihadi elements are nipped in the bud.
China has long been a key player in Myanmar’s ethnic cauldron. Beijing supported the Burmese communists in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But in the recent years, it has begun to patronise the small minority groups which are ethnically related to China. Reports suggest that China had tried to play a destabilising role in the October 15, 2015 peace talks by preventing two rebel groups headed by ethnic Chinese from signing the deal. Beijing often stresses on stability in Myanmar but at the same time seeks to wield influence on the groups that operate along the Myanmar-China border through their own devices.
China has developed stakes in the country’s prolonged ethnic conflicts. It is the major supplier of arms and ammunition to the rebel groups. The Chinese-made weapons had penetrated deep into Myanmar when it was virtually closed to the outside world. Reports suggest that China supplied sophisticated combat helicopters to the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in early 2013. The UWSA is the biggest ethnic militia of the country and its recent procurement of military hardware from Beijing assumes significance as it could pose threat to Myanmar’s security, stability and bilateral ties with China.
Myanmar is also crucial for India since several North-Eastern militant groups have established their bases in the former country’s Sagaing Division. The Myanmar-based separatist outfits frequently launch attack on the Indian security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations and cross-border terrorism is a key bilateral issue between Nay Pyi Taw and New Delhi. The Naga insurgency waged by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Khaplang or NSCN (K) has its roots in Myanmar’s soil.
The NSCN (K) has been providing sanctuary, training and other logistical support to various anti-India groups. It has emerged as a potent threat to peace and security in North Eastern states of Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh—all share border with Myanmar. The Naga militant faction has hardened its position on peace talks with the Indian government. NSCN (K) supremo SS Khaplang abrogated a 14-year ceasefire agreement with New Delhi on March 27, 2015 and reiterated his demand of sovereign “Nagalim”.
Since then, it has stepped up its militant activities. In a daring ambush on June 4 this year, NSCN (K) killed 18 Indian soldiers in Manipur’s Chandel district. The attack was launched from its bases across the across the borders in Myanmar’s Trang areas. The Indian Army retaliated on June 9 destroying two NSCAN (K) camps and killing more than 20 militants.
New Delhi’s prompt and decisive step to curb cross-border terrorism and might have restrained the Naga militant outfit to indulge in misadventure but it could not stop NSCN (K) chief Khaplang to emerge as a key leader of the North Eastern militant groups. On April 17, 2015, he succeeded in bringing some Indian separatist groups—United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbojit), Kamatapur Liberation Organisation and his own NSCK (K) under one common platform called United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia.
Khaplang’s signing of the ceasefire deal with the Myanmar Army in 2012 has hugely benefited as many as 14 North-Eastern militant groups that operate along the Indo-Myanmar border. Khaplang has reportedly reached an understanding with the armed forces to host his North Eastern allies in Myanmar. Some reports indicate that Khaplang was given special protection by the Myanmar Army in the aftermath of the Indian security forces’ hot pursuit across the border.
The possibility of Myanmar Army’s raid on NSCN (K)’s camps is less because it has developed vested interest receiving a share of profit from the Naga insurgent group’s illicit business. Security experts believe it is unlikely that the military-dominated government of Myanmar would initiate measure against Khaplang to accommodate India’s interest. The outfit surprisingly keeps a low profile. It did not send representative to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) on October 15 this year.
The cooperation of the Myanmar government is essential to combat cross-border militancy. New Delhi is fully aware that it would be a near impossible task to get rid of militancy in North East without the support of Myanmar where some of the insurgent outfits espousing the cause of sovereign states are currently holed up. The Myanmar government gave verbal assurance to India to address its security concerns but no firm action has been initiated to drive out the North Eastern separatist outfits from its soil.
Stability in Myanmar is vital for India because of their shared border. Moreover, the country acts as India’s gateway to ASEAN. New Delhi has been consistently engaged with the Myanmar government after the June encounter. India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and prime minister’s special for North East RN Ravi attended the signing ceremony of the NCA on October 15 in Nay Pyi Taw.
Unlike China, India had a stabilising influence in Myanmar. The Mizoram factor was proved useful in the context of resolving the country’s old insurgency problem. Former chief minister of the state and rebel leader Zorangthanga had been acting as an intermediary between the Myanmar government and the United Nationalities Federation Council—the umbrella platform of the ethnic insurgent groups. He was also part of the Indian delegation in the NCA.
The National League for Democracy’s astounding victory in the November 8 polls under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi has offered good opportunity for India to assist the democratic process in Myanmar and strengthen the bilateral ties. It is expected that the National Democratic Alliance government with its “Act East” foreign policy initiative, will take note of the political development in neighbouring Myanmar.
*Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst. He can be reached at: [email protected]