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Cooperation Between Indian and Myanmar Armed Forces: Need to Move Away from a Weapons & Equipment Supply-Based Relationship

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • January 15, 2013

    India and Myanmar have been maintaining relations at an adequately high level between their Defence forces and particularly between the Indian Army and the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw). Relations between the two armies have been substantive especially since the early 1990s. This was but natural considering geographical contiguity, the 1463 km long land boundary, the sensitivity of the security situation in India’s northern eastern states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur that border Myanmar, and China’s expanding economic and military links with Myanmar.

    India has also had an arms-equipment supply-based relationship with the Myanmar armed forces. After 1992, a radical change in this respect was discernible when India started supplying weaponry and equipment including 105 mm guns, T-55 tanks, light helicopters, transport planes, artillery ammunition and some naval craft. However, during the NDA regime in India, counter-espionage authorities at the behest of the Defence Minister George Fernandes had ham-handedly and without suitable precautions supplied some quantity of infantry and artillery weapons to the Tatmadaw. The outcome was evident recently, when, some of these weapons having `batch numbers` from the lot exported by Sweden to India, fell into the hands of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), leading to adverse international publicity and consequent embarrassment for New Delhi.

    Ewa Bjorling, Sweden’s Trade Minister, has confirmed to the Swedish Parliament that Swedish Carl Gustaf M-3 anti-tank rifles and related ammunition originally exported to India have ended up in the hands of the Myanmar Army, which is using them in its operations against the KIA. Consequent to the above and related media coverage, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has had to respond to this revelation during his recent visit to Myanmar. He indicated that a suitable enquiry would be carried out on the matter. A more cautious and supervised military assistance process to the Myanmar Army during the NDA regime could have averted this embarrassing incident.

    India’s political relations with the Tatmadaw-dominated regime in the post-Ne Win period had a logic of its own. The northern tribal region of Myanmar has been neglected and been in ferment for more than two decades. The Nagas of India have some of their ethnic stock in north-western Myanmar. In this milieu, insurgents from India’s north-east had tried to exploit the ferment in north-western Myanmar. Even now, the NSCN (Khaplang) maintains regrouping areas and rear bases in this region. India justifiably had to build up a relationship with the Myanmar junta to neutralise the operational facilities Indian insurgents have tried to develop in Myanmar’s territory. The Myanmar Army did place some curbs on hostile Indian insurgents in its territory, but could do so only up to a degree keeping in view its own political priorities as well as material limitations.

    India’s posture in the matter of defence cooperation with Myanmar now needs to be tempered, keeping in view the realities of ethnic turmoil in that country, the breaking down of the 17-year ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the KIA (which had held till September 2011), periodic violence between the majority Buddhist Burmans and the minority Muslim Rohingyas in the south-western Rohingya province and a manifestly negative human rights record of the Myanmar Army. While India has supplied arms and equipment quite selectively, the outcome, which was expected to serve India’s interests, has not been commensurate. India has now, perforce, to be extra cautious while supplying material resources including warlike items to the Myanmar Army when more than 260 of its own 340 Army battalions are de facto deployed in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorist operations.

    While India may maintain a measured relationship with the Tatmadaw, it should work towards facilitating a rapprochement among the Burmans and the other ethnic groups. Such an approach will also harmonise with Myanmar’s national consolidation and progress towards further democratisation. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had stated in the recent past that China supports Myanmar’s efforts in maintaining its national stability while promoting ethnic groups. India’s message may be similarly nuanced and should not be viewed as being on the wrong side of either the ethnic population or of democratic political forces like the National League for Democracy and their allies.

    India’s cooperation with the Tatmadaw may be more in the realm of training military personnel in Indian establishments and training facilities in as broad-based a manner as possible, i.e. including some minor component of non-Burman personnel but without causing diplomatic or political irritations. Joint operations between the Assam Rifles who are responsible for the first-level security of the India-Myanmar frontier and their Myanmarese counterparts are a necessity apropos India’s interests and may also be organised more effectively with adequate political supervision. These approaches may be attempted rather than direct arms and equipment supplies to the Myanmar armed forces, where end-use may not always be assured in tandem with New Delhi’s interests.

    Gautam Sen is former Additional CGDA and presently an Adviser to Government of Nagaland. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.