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Enlisting Myanmar’s help in tackling North East Guerrillas

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • February 18, 2009

    Vice President Hamid Ansari’s four-day visit to Myanmar from February 5 to 8, 2009 was significant for business matters as India and Myanmar signed agreements with regard to Tata Motors setting up a truck manufacturing unit in Myanmar, cross-border transport, telecommunications, the establishment of English Language training Centre and Industrial Training Centre at Pakokku. However, there was no written agreement on one of the most important policy issues between India and Myanmar: the numerous North Eastern insurgent camps thriving in the border areas along the 1,643 km long Indo-Myanmar border.

    Most of the well known insurgent groups of the North East like the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu (NSCN-IM), National Socialist Council of Nagaland led by S.S. Khaplang-NSCN (K), the United National Liberation Front of Manipur (UNLF), and the Kuki National Front (KNF) run several camps in the Kachin, Shan and Chin States, and in the Sagaon division. Earlier, in 1990, the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front comprising of the NSCN (K), the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), UNLF, and Kachin National Army (KNA) was formed to coordinate the arms and drugs networks across the India-Myanmar border. All these indicate that the security situation of the North East is very much dependent on both India’s own internal security management as well as on the cooperation of Myanmar. It must be noted here that though there was no formal written agreement on these issues, Vice President Ansari and Vice Chairman Maung Aye did talk about cross-border insurgency on the first day of the visit. Significantly, Myanmar, unlike India’s other neighbour Bangladesh, has pledged that it will not allow its territory to be used by North Eastern insurgents to target India and they had agreed to jointly fight insurgencies since 1995 as well as undertake joint border fencing.

    The question, however, that begs an answer is whether such cooperative measures have yielded successful outcomes. The answer is in the negative. The North Eastern states share a 4,500 km highly porous border with China in the north, Myanmar in the East, Bangladesh in the southwest and Bhutan in the northwest, with the Indo-Myanmar border being the most vital in terms of cross border flows. Amongst the North Eastern states, Arunachal Pradesh has a 520 km border with Myanmar, followed by Mizoram (510 km), Manipur (398 km) and Nagaland (215 km). Significantly, the unified National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was formed in Myanmar in 1980. In 1986, ULFA established linkages with the then unified NSCN. Both rebel groups have strong connections with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in Myanmar. The present dominant Naga insurgent actor, the NSCN (IM) openly takes the help of the Karen National Union (KNU) in Myanmar for cross border smuggling of small arms from South East Asia and Yunnan province in China via Myanmar to the North East. The route for the smuggling network is well known. Small arms coming from these countries are shipped via the Naf River in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border through the Chittagong port in Bangladesh to the North East.

    Why are such cross-border linkages so easily established? The answer has both historical and economic dimensions. Historically, the Nagas and the Meiteis had played a crucial role in the Burma Front (1942-45) against the Japanese assault during World War II. In 1942, the famous Chindit guerrilla force was formed by the legendary British Major General Wingate, who had vast experience in unconventional warfare in Sudan, against Italian forces in Ethiopia during World War II, and against the Arab forces in the Middle East. The Chindits comprised of English forces mostly from the north of England, Burmese forces made up of the Kachins and the Karens, and Naga, Manipuri and Mizo forces, who provided local intelligence. These forces comprised of 300 strong individual units of an overall force of 20,000 men led by Wingate. In December 1942, these 300 units launched the Arakan offensive against the Japanese forces in Burma crossing the Chindwin and the Irrawaddy rivers. This joint training and experience in the Burma jungles and their successes in thwarting the Japanese immensely influenced the Nagas, Mizos and Manipuris. Phizo, the leader of the Naga movement had himself fought alongside the British in the Naga areas and in Burma. Interestingly, the KNU formed in 1947 and the 1961 Kachin insurgency in Myanmar largely grew out of their World War II experience. Thus, the sophistication of their jungle warfare skills and organizational capability greatly influenced the North Eastern armed groups. Subsequently, the KNU and KIO became one of the most ardent trainers of groups like NSCN (IM), NSCN (K), UNLF and the ULFA, charging Rs.100,000 per head for training in guerrilla warfare.

    In addition, it also makes economic sense for armed groups like the NSCN (IM) or the UNLF to operate out of Myanmar due to the cheap availability of arms and other basic goods in border towns like Tamu and Namphalang. The Indian rupee is also higher than the Burmese currency and therefore it makes business sense for armed insurgent outfits to smuggle goods from Myanmar and sell them at higher rates in India.

    Given these factors, a stronger joint mechanism between India and Myanmar especially with regard to law enforcement in the border areas is necessary. The visit of the Vice President to Myanmar is an important diplomatic step in this direction; Myanmar’s cooperation is also a welcome sign. India however, needs to further encourage the Myanmar military junta to weed out the nearly 15 insurgent camps run by North Eastern armed groups in its border areas. Perhaps, a joint border management council between India and Myanmar could be set up wherein joint border problems like drugs and arms flow can be better tackled. Also, the need of the hour is to set up a joint system of border patrolling by Myanmar’s border forces and the Indian Border Security Force (BSF), further buttressed by joint intelligence sharing in order to increase effectiveness. Without such joint pro-active measures, the Indo-Myanmar border will remain infested by armed violence, and drugs and arms flow in the near future.