One of India’s most remarkable diplomatic achievements has been that it has settled its maritime boundaries with all its eastern neighbours. This has been achieved, not only through bilateral agreements on maritime boundaries with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia, but also tripartite agreements to determine tri-junctions, with Myanmar and Thailand, Indonesia and Thailand and across its eastern and western shores, with Sri Lanka and Maldives.
Even arriving at an agreement to demarcate our maritime frontiers with Pakistan will not be difficult, once the land boundaries are demarcated. In any case, there have rarely been any maritime tensions with Pakistan.
The readiness to delineate its maritime boundaries in accordance with international law gives India the reputation of being a responsible power, across its eastern neighbourhood. This is in marked contrast to China, which has maritime boundary disputes with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.
India readily implemented a verdict by an International Tribunal, which went against its claims on its maritime boundary with Bangladesh. China has, however, violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by rejecting a similar decision, on its maritime boundary with the Philippines. Beijing has also used military intimidation to enforce its maritime claims on countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. This difference in behaviour between a benign India and a territorially avaricious China has been noted across its eastern neighbourhood and even internationally.
Land borders settled
Another important factor in dealing with our eastern neighbours has been the development of cooperation across our land borders, with Myanmar and Bangladesh. We have settled our land borders with both these countries and have moved forward in strengthening trade, investment and connectivity cooperation with them. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar have been helpful and cooperative in dealing with Indian separatist groups, which seek to operate from their soil.
Tough action by Sheikh Hasina forced armed separatists and their leaders like Paresh Barua of the ULFA, to move out of Bangladesh, and seek refuge in areas of Myanmar, where the writ of the Myanmar government is at best, tenuous. Prospects for such cooperation have been augmented, as Bangladesh and Myanmar welcome increasing regional cooperation in BIMSTEC.
A crackdown by the Myanmar Army on Muslim “Rohingyas” in Myanmar’s Rakhine Province, has led to over 7,00,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar fleeing to, and imposing a huge economic burden, on Bangladesh. To make matters worse, the repatriation of refugees is becoming harder than expected.
Despite prolonged negotiations and promises of aid for refugee resettlement from India, China and Japan, there are just not adequate facilities for the displaced and traumatised refugees to return. Relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar have worsened, with Myanmar alleging that Rohingya refugees are being armed in Bangladesh, amidst angry denials by Bangladesh.
These developments are occurring when China is blatantly interfering in Myanmar’s internal affairs, while ostensibly professing to promote contacts between the Myanmar government and armed insurgent groups, operating across the China-Myanmar border. There are today 25 armed insurgent groups in Myanmar, with 15 actively resorting to armed insurgency.
The most powerful of these groups, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), operates from China, across the Shan State, in western Myanmar. India’s concerns, however, arise from the fact that the UWSA is now allied to a “Northern Alliance,” comprising armed groups linked to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA operates from the Kachin State, bordering Arunachal Pradesh. It has links with the Rohingya-dominated Arakan Rohingya Solidarity Army in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, bordering India.
Moreover, members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), involved in armed insurgency in Manipur and Nagaland, also routinely move across the Myanmar-China border.
Growing Chinese influence in Kachin State, which borders Arunachal Pradesh, undermines Myanmar’s sovereignty. It also adversely affects India’s security interests. The ‘United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia’ (UNLFW) is a front of armed Indian separatist groups, comprising the United Liberation Front of Assam, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland. It operates out of Myanmar’s Kachin State.
Its members and leaders like ULFA’s Paresh Barua reside near the border town of Ruili, in China’s Yunnan Province, with total freedom to enter and leave China’s Yunnan Province. The UNLFW was responsible for the ambush of 18 Indian soldiers in Manipur in one of the deadliest attacks against Indian security forces for decades. The UNFLW also operates out of Myanmar’s Sagaing Division bordering Manipur.
As Myanmar faces growing international pressures, because of its alleged persecution of Rohingyas, it is turning increasingly to China for support. Not surprisingly, China is taking advantage of this, by attempting to compel Myanmar to accept it as a mediator, for working out a political settlement with the trans-border armed, ethnic groups.
China is also demanding Myanmar’s consent to go ahead with the massive, but ecologically damaging Myitsone Dam hydroelectric project. The Myitsone Dam’s construction has been strongly opposed by the people of Kachin State. Given its location, the electricity produced by this project will be largely consumed in China’s Yunnan Province. The dam project has also been controversial in Myanmar, because of the environmental impact on its huge flooding area and its location, barely 60 miles from the earthquake prone Sagaing faultline.
Japan, like India, appears to recognise the dangers of pushing Myanmar to a corner, on the Rohingya issue, because it will make the country even more dependent on Chinese support in the UN. The focus of attention of the international community should be on rehabilitation of refugees, rather than propagandistic posturing on “human rights”.
Both India and Japan would be well-advised to work jointly, in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, to persuade Aung San Suu Kyi and the military in Myanmar and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, to amicably settle the problem of repatriation and resettlement of refugees.
The SAARC is now non-functional, thanks to Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism. BIMSTEC is, however, showing promise, complementing connectivity and trade. Differences and tensions between Myanmar and Bangladesh should not be allowed to worsen, as they will undermine our efforts to promote regional cooperation in our eastern neighbourhood.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan