Myanmar struggles with insurgents

G Parthasarathy | Updated on June 13, 2018

file photo   -  Reuters

Backed by China, armed separatist groups in Myanmar do have close links with Indian outfits like ULFA too

Attacks by armed Rohingya rebels in Myanmar led to a ruthless operation by the Myanmar Army last year, which resulted in 700,000 Rohingyas (mostly Muslims) fleeing their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine Province to neighbouring Bangladesh and India.

Myanmar has been condemned worldwide for its actions, with some even calling for UN sanctions. Any prospect of a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Myanmar is ruled out, as it will face a certain Chinese veto, possibly with Russian support. While there have been calls for India to expel some 40,000 Rohingya refugees, New Delhi has wisely chosen to seek a negotiated return of refugees to Myanmar, from India and Bangladesh. India has categorically conveyed to Myanmar that it wants the “safe, secure and sustainable” return of the Rohingya refugees, from both Bangladesh and India.

Long border

India shares a sensitive 1,640 km border with Myanmar, across the north-eastern States of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, where armed separatist groups like ULFA are still active. New Delhi has to carefully observe what is happening in Myanmar, as separatist groups across the border tend to cooperate with each other.

Far more serious than the Rohingya issue, are the challenges that Myanmar faces from 26 armed insurgent groups. Only 17 of these groups have agreed to observe a ceasefire, while the others are still resorting to violence and challenging the writ of the Myanmar Government.

Aung San Suu Kyi initiated a dialogue with the armed groups in August 2016. Two rounds of talks held with the armed groups have shown very little movement forward. The third round is now in a limbo, because of procedural issues. It is also clear that there are serious differences between the elected government and the powerful armed forces, on the peace dialogue.

This deadlock has been accompanied by an extraordinarily active Chinese role to shape events, including in areas close to Myanmar’s borders with India. Sun Guoxiang, China’s Special Envoy on Asian Affairs has emerged as a virtual mediator in the peace process with Myanmar armed groups like the Kachin Liberation Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Kokang Alliance Army and powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA).

All these groups have safe havens in and operate from China’s Yunnan Province. Ambassador Sun freely travels between Myanmar and Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan Province, where he meets representatives of armed separatist groups. Over the years, the UWSA has been permitted to acquire immense fire-power in China, including armoured vehicles, AK-47 rifles, assault weaponry and reportedly, even surface to air missiles. These groups also raise huge resources from drug smuggling and illegal mining in Myanmar.

This Chinese involvement with armed separatist groups in Myanmar has been accompanied by the close links that these groups have with Indian separatist groups like ULFA. These developments have, in turn, been accompanied by the formation of a Myanmar based grouping of insurgent groups operating in India’s north-eastern States, labelled as the ‘United National Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia’ (UNLFW).

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), ULFA, Kamtapur Liberation Organisation and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland are all members of the UNLFW, which claimed credit for the ambush and killing of 18 Indian soldiers in Manipur.

These groups have their links with Chinese-backed groups like Kachin Liberation Army and are known to travel across the Myanmar-China border to the border town of Ruili and Yunnan’s Provincial capital, Kunming.

New Delhi should continue urging Myanmar to act against these Indian insurgent groups and their supporters in Myanmar. There have been instances in the past, when the Indian and Myanmar armies have mounted joint/coordinated operations against such insurgent groups. Most importantly, New Delhi’s interlocutor RN Ravi should be encouraged to build on progress he has achieved and finalise negotiations to bring the NSCN (IM) into the national mainstream. This will prevent any possibility of other separatist groups receiving support from the highly motivated NSCN (IM) cadres.

Chinese pressures

While Myanmar has resisted Chinese pressures to undertake projects on its soil that face public opposition, like the $6 billion, 6,000 MW Myitsone dam, China will keep up the pressure to get its way, as it has done in the case of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. China is in the process of building massive energy, industry and transport corridors through Myanmar to its landlocked Yunnan Province.

Beijing is set to invest $7.3 billion in building a deep-sea port in Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal and $2.7 billion for an industrial park in a Special Economic Zone at Kyaukpyu. This port is also the terminal for an oil pipeline and a parallel gas pipeline from Kyaukpyu to Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan Province. These projects are designed to bypass the Straits of Malacca, by enabling supply of oil and gas to the landlocked Yunnan Province by the pipeline. Moreover, efforts will be made to export Chinese products manufactured in the Kyaukpyu Industrial Park to India, while getting duty-free access by benefiting from the free-trade agreement between India and Myanmar.

India has been relatively modest in its investments in large industrial and infrastructure projects in Myanmar. There has been a successful effort by ONGC in offshore exploration for natural gas. The Institute for Information Technology in Mandalay set up by India has won high praise, as have the skill development centres built with Indian assistance across Myanmar.

Indian development cooperation also includes an Advanced Centre for Agricultural Research and Education and a trilateral highway linking our north-east to Myanmar and Thailand. India also provides funds for developing areas in Myanmar bordering its north-eastern States. It has also set up Centres for Industrial Training, and learning English, apart from hospitals in Yangon and Sittwe.

Moreover, hundreds of Myanmar students study on scholarships and participate in courses in professional institutions in India, under India’s Technical and Economic Cooperation Programmes.

One hopes India will respond more imaginatively to facilitate visits by pilgrims from Myanmar to holy Buddhist shrines in India. It is widely acknowledged that while China executes projects expeditiously, India takes an unduly long time to approve and implement development projects.

While China may win laurels for its economic and military assistance to Myanmar, its commercial exploitation and crude involvement in Myanmar’s internal affairs could lead to a severe backlash, akin to the fury and violence against the Chinese across Myanmar in 1967.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.

Published on June 13, 2018

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