Indo-Myanmar Security Cooperation: An Analysis
Jaideep Saikia

The cooperation that India has received from its neighbours in its quest to combat terrorism and insurgency has waxed and waned like irregular lunar cycles. While Pakistan has been the least cooperative: an influential section of the country’s officialdom even promotes terrorist action inside India, countries like Bhutan and Bangladesh have been quite accommodating. Bhutan acted decisively, albeit somewhat late, against ULFA, NDFB and KLO, and the Royal Bhutan Army’s Op All Clear of December 2003 cleared the Himalayan kingdom of Indian Insurgent Groups. Action in Bangladesh had to await the return of a forthcoming dispensation. But once that happened the level of collaboration went on to become remarkable.

The fortunes of the insurgent groups that operate in the North East have always rested on three “Bs” (Burma, Bangladesh, and Bhutan) and a “C” (China), intermittently guided by a once proximate, but presently distant “P” (Pakistan). Indian security policy—particularly in the manner it obtains itself to North East insurgency—had (and would have) to, therefore, letter its stratagem with the vitals of the aforesaid five “alphabetical” imperatives. Indeed, despite the robust assistance that Bhutan and Bangladesh has accorded India, watchfulness must continue to be the catchphrase in the latter’s conduct with the two countries. Tides turn, times change, and, as has been witnessed in the past, even a particularly favourable situation can become disadvantageous. Circumspection must be the unwavering watchword.

Myanmar’s engagement with India, vis-a-vis the North East insurgents has been ambivalent. Despite the fact that the liberated northern borderlands of Myanmar continue to both cradle and conduit (to China) numerous insurgent bands, Naypyidaw has occasionally extended some cooperation towards India’s anti-insurgency drive. One of the most important instances of joint cooperation was Op Golden Bird in 1995 when armies of both the countries tracked and trapped a column of more than 200 ULFA, NSCN and PLA insurgents as they were returning to India with a huge shipment of arms and ammunition from Bangladesh. It is another matter that success was not complete: the Myanmar’s military junta pulled out of the operation because New Delhi decided to honour Myanmar’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi with the Nehru Award for International Understanding even as the operation was on. But, Op Golden Bird left its mark, and became the basis for possible cooperation in the future. In November 2001, the Myanmar’s army raided four Manipuri insurgent bases, apprehending 192 rebels including UNLF chief Rajkumar Meghen (who was later released), and there have been quite a few instances of raids on ULFA and NSCN (K) camps in Sagaing Division of Myanmar. However, what has eluded such cooperation (a word that is euphemistically used in Indian security circles for cooperation from Naypyidaw is “jungle bashing”) is correct follow-through. Despite the fact that both the countries currently have a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) in place, which is expected to enhance the ability of the two countries to pursue their common objective of law enforcement, and anvil a legally binding mechanism that would enable law enforcing agencies in both the countries to cooperate and provide assistance to each other on matters relating to investigation, prevention and suppression of crime, including insurgency, the fact of the matter is not much has been translated on ground.

It was hoped that with the signing of MLAT, India would be provided with a leverage to pressure Myanmar to decisively act against the Indian Insurgent Groups. The accent should have shifted to coordinated joint operations, in the manner of Op Golden Bird, but that has not been quite the case. Despite the successes of the high level visits between India and Myanmar, the sought for clamping down on the Indian Insurgent Groups is yet to happen. But to be fair to India’s eastern neighbour, Myanmar has not been able to act in the manner that New Delhi has expected it to because many parts of northern and north-western Myanmar are not quite in the control of Naypyidaw. The ethnic groups that dot the region are in strength in the area and—despite certain agreements—are unwilling to allow the Myanmar army to enter areas in which their writ runs. Moreover, the relationship between groupings such as the Kachins and the Was with the North East insurgents is warm. Indeed, it is such groups that provide both bases and a corridor to places like Yunnan for the Indian Insurgent Groups. Also, there have been reports that a section of the Myanmar’s army (particularly the junior cadres) has a tacit understanding with the North East insurgents. Past efforts have, therefore, primarily been confined to the aforesaid “jungle-bashing.” Indeed, it is a combination of affiliation and commerce with groups such as the Kachins as well as the ability to “buy peace” with a section of the Myanmarese army (in 2001, after being apprehended, the UNLF chairman, Rajkumar Meghen was reportedly released after a huge sum of money was paid) that oversees the fortunes of the North East insurgents in parts of Myanmar, which has reconstructed itself as a new corridor to China.

The corridor that had taken Naga and Assamese bands to Yunnan in the past is once again ferrying these insurgents after what is being termed as China’s “renewed interest” in North East India. Anthony Shimray, in NIA custody, has reportedly confirmed that both NSCN (IM) and ULFA (anti-talk) have “very close connections” with China. China, it is reported, has helped in the training of select batches of insurgents from these two groups and has provided them with arms during the past two years. The arms deals reportedly took place with a relatively unknown Chinese organisation known as the “Five Tigers”, which reportedly has easy access to Chinese companies like Norinco, which among a plethora of other business, also produce armaments.

The Chinese connection is, therefore, all set to be translated on ground in the coming months. ULFA (anti-talk) leader, Paresh Baruah is reportedly making active plans to deploy the freshly China trained cadres of his faction in Assam. He has presently kept them at a PLA base in Taka, which is close to the Chindwin River. The video that was released to the press in Assam in January 2011, and one which showed Baruah dancing to a Bihu song with his newly trained cadres was reportedly taken in Taka. Indeed, there is considerable apprehension in Assam about the manner in which ULFA (anti-talk) would manifest itself, especially as New Delhi is readying itself for dialogue with ULFA (pro-talk).

The recent visit of the Myanmar’s president, U Thein Sein witnessed yet another affirmation. India and Myanmar agreed to strengthen the intelligence sharing mechanism to combat insurgency, smuggling and drug trafficking. Leaders of both the countries issued a joint statement reaffirming their “unequivocal and uncompromising position against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” The two countries agreed to “enhance effective cooperation and coordination between the security forces of the two countries in tackling the deadly menace of insurgency and terrorism, which has caused the loss of countless innocent lives.” Better border management mechanism, too, was discussed. A schedule for inspection and maintenance of pillars in the 1,643 kilometre boundary in 2011-12 in a time bound manner was agreed upon. It was also set down that each other’s territory would not be allowed for activities inimical to the other.

The above mentioned agreement—if implemented—would clearly be to India’s advantage. After all it is in Myanmar’s territory that Indian insurgents are billeted and not the other way round. Indeed, the details of such camps are well known. It is also common knowledge that the twin districts of Tirap and Changlang of Arunachal Pradesh not only continue to be the hunting-grounds of NSCN (IM), NSCN (K), ULFA (anti-talk) and NDFB (anti-talk), but also the favoured insurgent route to and from Myanmar. Tirap and Changlang is an important conduit to the rich oil, coal and tea belt of Upper Assam, and with extortion as the present primary aim, the insurgent groups have an important stake in keeping the causeway alive. There was an announcement in 2010 by the Indian Home Minister that a full-scale operation would be launched against the insurgents in the two districts, but this has not yet translated into reality. Meanwhile, NSCN (IM), which is on a ceasefire mode with New Delhi, regularly sends its cadres to Tirap and Changlang on “field postings” and continues to carry out conversion of the local population under what it terms, “Op Salvation.” The avowed objective of the Naga group is the complete transformation of the region into a Christian-dominated area. The makeover would aid NSCN (IM)’s demand for including the two districts into a Greater Nagalim.

Myanmar is the only intact sanctuary left for NSCN (K), ULFA and certain Meitei groups. But the groups are well-entrenched in their camps. The reasons for the undisturbed existence of the Indian Insurgent Groups in Myanmar have been mentioned above. What is, therefore, needed is a blueprint for coordinated joint operation against the insurgents. Indeed, in the event of a joint operation, the Indian security forces, comprising primarily the Assam Rifles, would guard the Indo-Myanmar border, while the Myanmar’s army raids the camps. However, it must be understood that unlike Bhutan where the operation resulted in ULFA-NDFB-KLO cadres fleeing to India (where they were netted by the Indian security forces), the Indian Insurgent Groups can go deeper into Myanmarese territory, to the safe sanctuaries in the Sino-Myanmar border, or into areas dominated by the Kachins who have affinity with such groups. Appropriate military arrangements must be made to avert such a possibility. Any anti-insurgency plan must also take into account that cadres of the disbanded ULFA’s 28 Battalion in Myanmar are billeted close to the GHQ of NSCN (K). Since NSCN (K) is in a ceasefire mode with New Delhi, it is almost certain that NSCN (K) camps would not be disturbed. The possibility of ULFA cadres spiriting away into the NSCN (K) camps in the event of an attack is high. NSCN (K) and ULFA have a natural kinship, and the cadres belonging to the former would almost certainly aid the latter, especially as they have resided in each other’s proximity for long. Another aspect that should merit the attention of security planners of both countries is the “early-warning” system that is provided to the insurgents by a section of the Myanmar’s army. Senior officials of the Myanmar’s army would have to ensure that the traditional bonhomie that has been characterising the army’s lower echelons with the Indian Insurgent Groups does not come in the way of a coordinated operation.

Formal agreements for joint cooperation against insurgency look pretty on paper. But the elegance of high table diplomacy has to reach the grime on ground. A detailed design for a comprehensive security arrangement is what is required. Visitations by officials of Myanmar and India to New Delhi and Naypyidaw must now “graduate” to sector level field visits. Military commanders that are stationed in the affected areas must meet, discuss and team up. Military exercises that would fine tune each other’s anti-insurgency idiom would have to be planned and undertaken. A methodology that calibrates joint performance has to evolve. The emphasis has to shift from know-how to (already) did-how. Furthermore, while it is fine to have institutionalised the mechanism for intelligence sharing, the fact of the matter is that both Indian and Myanmar’s security apparatus are already aware of all the aspects that govern the Indian Insurgent Groups’ modus operandi in Myanmar and abutting areas in India. Intelligence is, therefore, aplenty, and since both the countries have credible, actionable intelligence about the insurgent groups the new phraseology “sharing of intelligence” does not amount to much. What is required instead is a determination to end the menace that such intelligence has already documented and analysed.

Published Date: 27th October, 2011

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