New security challenges in North-East

G Parthasarathy | Updated on April 17, 2019 Published on April 17, 2019

Threat quotient: On the rise across India’s eastern borders

Insurgent group Arakan Army’s strikes in Myanmar and tensions within Bangladesh over the Rohingya issue are worrisome

Public attention is now focussed predominantly on tensions and developments across our western borders. These developments, commencing with the Pulwama attack and air strike on Balakot, have resulted in an overheated political environment, amidst a bitterly contested national election campaign. The sad reality of Indian politics is that while attention is almost exclusively focussed on our western borders, we overlook what is happening across our eastern land and maritime borders.

India’s 5,800-km long land border with Myanmar and Bangladesh extends across Assam, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. All these States have faced, or continue to face, trans-border terrorist and separatist challenges.

Armed separatist groups in India’s north-east recently united under the banner of a so-called ‘United Liberation Front of Western South Asia’. These groups include the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), the Kamtapur Liberation Organization and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Assam).

They were forced out of bases in Bangladesh a decade ago, after Sheikh Hasina assumed office. Her predecessor, Begum Khaleda Zia, had a close relationship with the ISI and permitted Indian separatist groups to act freely on Bangladesh soil, in collaboration with Bangladeshi extremist and terrorist outfits, like the Jamat-e-Islami and the Jamat-ul-Mujahideen. These separatist groups have, however, continued to operate from Myanmar, along and across Myanmar’s borders with China’s Yunnan Province. Their cadres move a freely across the Myanmar-China border and receive support and safe haven in China’s Yunnan Province.

China also provides support and safe havens to separatist groups from Myanmar, like the Kachin Independence Army, the Arakan Army and the United Wa State Army. Beijing uses these ties as leverage, to obtain Myanmar’s cooperation in economic and infrastructure projects. The Myanmar army has, however, acted firmly against the NSCN (Khaplang) in recent months, compelling the separatist outfit to desist from cross-border activity, after raiding its bases.

Tough actions

Moreover, strict restrictions have been placed on the movement of NSCN (K) leaders and cadres in Myanmar. The Myanmar army has taken similar tough action against the ULFA, recently killing a senior ULFA leader, Jyotirmoy Asom, during an attack on an ULFA base in Myanmar.

Likewise, armed members of NSCN (K), based near Myanmar’s borders with India, have been moved away from the border and confined to camps. Myanmar is acting strongly to cooperate with India, thereby facilitating New Delhi’s peace process in Nagaland.

The crackdown by the Myanmar army on its Muslim Rohingya population, in its Rakhine Province, is now the focus of global attention. An estimated 1.1 million Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh, where they live in difficult conditions.

Rohingyas, in smaller numbers, have also fled to countries like Indonesia and India. China and Japan have pledged substantial assistance for the repatriation and resettlement of Rohingya refugees, who are also receiving relief-supplies and assistance from western countries and UN organisations.

Myanmar has faced scathing criticism by countries across the world and by groups like the OIC, for the plight of Rohingyas. The issue has not been taken to the UN Security Council, as any call for sanctions against Myanmar, will likely be vetoed by China and Russia. A continuing presence of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will, however, be exploited by radical Islamic groups in Bangladesh and by Pakistan, to destabilise the Sheikh Hasina-led Government. It will also undermine peace and security in India’s north-east.

The entire region in Western Myanmar bordering India and Bangladesh also faces new challenges, posed by the hundreds of insurgents of the ‘Arakan Army’, who are moving into areas along Myanmar’s borders with Mizoram and Manipur. The armies of India and Myanmar are mounting coordinated operations to deal with this threat. This area is of particular importance to India.

A major strategic project, the “Kaladan Corridor,” linking Mizoram and other landlocked North-Eastern States to Myanmar’s port of Sittwe, located in the Bay of Bengal, is being built through it, with India’s assistance. This “corridor” provides India’s north-eastern States direct access to the Bay of Bengal, at the Sittwe port. Apart from the economic benefits to India’s north-east for moving goods to and from the rest of India, the Kaladan Corridor would also provide continued access to our north-east, if the train route across Siliguri is disrupted.

China’s larger aim

China is, meanwhile, building a road, rail and energy corridor in Myanmar, linking its landlocked Yunnan Province, to the Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukpyu, which is located not far from Myanmar’s Sittwe port, built by India. This Chinese transportation and energy corridor is seen as exploitative in Myanmar, where demonstrations have been held against a hydroelectric project, the Myitsone dam, because of serious ecological concerns. The bulk of the electricity generated by the project will be utilised not in Myanmar, but in China. China is trying to compel the Myanmar Government to ignore these concerns.

There have also been instances in recent days, when the Arakan Army, which has close links with China through the Kachin Independence Army, has attacked Myanmar workers, engaged in the construction of the Kaladan Corridor. China is evidently not comfortable at the prospect of an Indian built port being located near to its own economic corridor. China’s larger strategic aim is to secure unchallenged use of Myanmar’s territory for access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.

A serious threat to regional stability across our eastern borders could arise from growing tensions within Bangladesh and across the coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal. Such tensions, caused by disaffection over the Rohingya issue and a consequent rise of radical Islamic groups within Bangladesh, will grow, unless the issue of the return of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar is addressed expeditiously.

While the US and its European allies have provided economic assistance for the Rohingya refugees, their criticism hardens positions in Myanmar, on the return of Rohingya refugees. India should try and initiate a regional process involving China, Japan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and other neighbouring ASEAN countries to devise a framework for early repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, to their homes in Myanmar.

The plight of Rohingya refugees should not be allowed to become a threat to peace and stability, not only in Bangladesh and Myanmar, but across India’s entire Bay of Bengal neighbourhood.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

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Published on April 17, 2019
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