India may need to reconsider its engagements in Myanmar - Hindustan Times
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India may need to reconsider its engagements in Myanmar

ByHindustan Times
Nov 17, 2023 02:46 PM IST

This article is authored by Akash Sahu, leading an independent policy and strategy consulting practice from New Delhi.

Fresh fighting erupted between the military junta and resistance forces on November 13 in the border regions displacing around 5,000 persons into India. The resistance forces are challenging the military junta on multiple fronts, considerably testing regime’s capabilities to maintain control over the country. The India-Myanmar shared border region has also been troubled due to ethnic conflict in Manipur between the Meitei and trans-border Kuki communities.

This photo taken on November 7 shows a man watching smoke rising from the direction of a Myanmar military base in Lashio township.(AFP)
This photo taken on November 7 shows a man watching smoke rising from the direction of a Myanmar military base in Lashio township.(AFP)

Increasing tensions in this region due to escalating crisis in Myanmar and continued ethnic conflict in Manipur pose grave security threat to India’s national security, with possibilities of greater destabilisation by insurgent groups. A recent statement by India’s ministry of defence reaffirms that peace and stability in Myanmar is of “utmost importance to India”. A calibrated approach may be required to resolve issues in this border region, and a nuance in New Delhi’s Myanmar policy can be the first step. India’s stake in Myanmar is complex and multifaceted. The terrain at India-Myanmar border is particularly vulnerable due to insufficient military infrastructure. Border security is the primary driver of New Delhi’s relationship with the military junta. India-Myanmar military cooperation sought to keep insurgent groups in check, but the junta’s control over Myanmar’s side of border areas has lately declined. The insurgent groups have seemingly re-emerged, and porous borders have allowed them to escape security personnel. As the conflict intensifies in Myanmar and resistance forces emerge as security stakeholders in the border region, it may be important to take them into consideration.

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New Delhi seeks to counter Beijing in Myanmar, which exercises a “carrot and stick” policy by maintaining close relationships with Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) apart from its ties with the junta. India also has other interests in the country, such as connectivity infrastructure. The Kaladan multimodal project will boost India’s trade with Southeast Asia and also counter-balance the China-backed Kyaukpyu port nearby. The first node in the project is now functional, but further connectivity from Paletwa in Chin state to Zorinpui in Northeast India’s Mizoram via roadways will be contingent on the political situation in the Chin state, where Chin resistance forces largely control the territory. The attacks by Chin forces on November 13 have extended their control to junta bases at Rikhawdar of Falam township, and Khawmawi township along the Indian border. Earlier, it took over the trade town of Khampat in Tamu district, also along the border. The resistance seeks to eliminate the junta from two more camps in a bid to gain more control of the border region. The Operation 1027 in Shan state by Brotherhood Alliance, which included Rakhine state’s Arakan army, drove out the military from more than 100 camps across several cities in late October. The junta may resort to disproportionate use of firepower and crackdown against the opposition in Rakhine state close to India and Bangladesh borders.

The animosity between Chins and Myanmar’s largely Bamar military goes back to at least World War II. Chins fought alongside British and Indian military officers against the Japanese invading forces, and saw Bamars as collaborators of an occupying enemy. The ‘martial races’ were selectively recruited from frontier areas like Chin state by the British, which fueled distrust among Bamar independence leaders against hill ethnicities. Chins have posed fierce resistance to the junta, which has resorted to airstrikes due to lack of any effective control over large parts of Chin territories. A number of Chin resistance forces have come together with the Chin National Front (CNF) in the fight against the junta, including some Indian ethnic groups, attracting aerial attacks deeper and closer to the border like CNF headquarters at Camp Victoria. Heavy bombing in Chin state’s strategic Thantlang town has driven the entire population into nearby relief camps and India’s Mizoram state.

New Delhi’s relationship with the junta may not witness a drastic change given the regime’s superior military capabilities compared to the opposition, but harsh crackdown on dissidents and indifference to critical humanitarian situation will continue to attract heavy international criticism for the junta regime. Even as economic sanctions fail to deter it, they can be expected to continue and amplify, thereby shrinking the space for diplomatic engagements. A dialogue with Naypyitaw should highlight that avenues of cooperation may therefore become more restricted in the coming time. Given multiple security stakeholders in Myanmar, depending on a single player may not be suitable for India’s long-term interests. A shared past during the British rule uncovers a comprehensive relationship, laying grounds in the present for revival of key strategic engagements. There are more possibilities of local resistance, such as the Chins, gaining more control of the borderlands, and unlikely for them to be completely pacified. New Delhi can foster versatile independent equations with EAOs in the Chin state to stabilise security in the border region, and open useful channels of communication as the situation unfolds.

This article is authored by Akash Sahu, leading an independent policy and strategy consulting practice from New Delhi.

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