Updated: January 15, 2022 9:21:22 am
ALMOST a year since the February coup in Myanmar, as its army battles armed pro-democracy resistance groups across the country, including in regions bordering India, New Delhi is concerned that the instability could impact security in the North-East.
To secure India’s “vital interests”, officials are of the view that there is “no option but to engage with those in power in Naypidaw”, and continue pressing for a return to democracy, as Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla did on his December 22 visit to Myanmar, the first Indian official to visit since the coup.
With many governments favouring engagement with the Taliban in Kabul, sources in Delhi said the same yardstick should be applied to the military regime in Myanmar, though in order to cover its bases, the government has also sought to convey that it “could not be business as usual” until a return to democracy.
It was not just Delhi that sent a high-profile visitor to Myanmar – Bill Richardson, a former US Ambassador to Myanmar and, currently, the New Mexico Governor visited in November, as did Japanese special envoy Yohei Sasakawa.
Like Shringla did after him, Sasakawa asked the junta for a meeting with the jailed Aung San Suu Kyi, and was denied it. Soon after the two visits, Naypidaw released a US journalist arrested by the junta after the coup.
India had kept the US, ASEAN, Bangladesh informed ahead of the visit, The Indian Express has learnt. ASEAN itself is a divided house now over the visit last week of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen — Cambodia is the current president of ASEAN — and his meeting with General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the State Administrative Council, the junta-given name for the new government.
Meanwhile, the National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar, set up weeks after the coup by groups opposed to the junta, has canvassed international recognition and opened offices in the US, UK, France, Czech Republic and Australia but no country has recognised it.
Explaining the need to engage with the military regime in Naypidaw, an official said India was the only country with over a 1,600-km border with Myanmar, shared ethnicities and insurgent groups based in Myanmar, and any turmoil there was bound to be felt on this side.
Moreover, at least one Manipur insurgent group, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which took responsibility for the ambush killing of an Assam Rifles commander in November, is thought to be fighting alongside the junta against civilian resistance groups called People’s Defence Force, which the NUG has owned as its armed wing.
Last year, an estimated 30,000 persons from Chin state sought refuge in neighbouring Mizoram, which has the same ethnic group, as the Myanmar Army launched operations to take back Mindat from the armed resistance. Mindat, 100 km from the Indian border, had become an early symbol of popular resistance to the Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw.
With much support for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, Chin state remains resistant to the Tatmadaw. The Chin Defense Force, a group of militias that sprang up last year in response to the coup, has taken the fight to the military backed by one of the many “ethnic armed organisations” (EAOs) in Myanmar, called Chin National Force (CNF) or the Chin National Army.
The headquarters of the CNF, known as Camp Victoria, where thousands of volunteers have been trained for combat since the coup, is on the Indian border. In mid-November, the Myanmar army launched an offensive in Chin state and Camp Victoria was thought to be the target.
But the soldiers, who pushed westward from a place called Falam and burnt hundreds of houses at another settlement called Thantlang sending the villagers fleeing, did not push up to the Indian border.
Had they done so, there would have been thousands more displaced people crossing over into India and drawn Delhi’s attention. Security analysts believe this might be a reason the Tatmadaw stayed away from the camp, though it could have also been the tough hilly terrain.
In end December, the junta, facing ambushes and IED attacks, hit back with airstrikes, including in a village in Kalay township, 150 km south of Moreh.
PDF groups have also been active in Tamu, the border town opposite Moreh, and the main crossing point between India and Myanmar. Earlier this week, a PDF group shot dead a prison warden and his wife in a village in Tamu. According to the news portal Frontier Myanmar, 11 people were killed in the clash. After the fighting, the junta raided the village.
A more immediate concern for India is that the PLA appears to have been roped in by the Tatmadaw to fight the PDFs. Ahead of Shringla’s visit, the Myanmar Army handed over to India five Manipuri militants of the Revolutionary People’s Front, an organisation allied to the PLA.
Anthony Davis, a regional security analyst with Jane’s told The Indian Express the Tatmadaw were desperate for manpower as they are battling ethnic armed organisations that have thrown in their lot with the PDFs in several parts of Myanmar.
“The Tatmadaw are recruiting more or less anyone willing to pull a trigger on their behalf. And in some areas along the Indian border that appears to include IIGs (Indian Insurgent Groups), apparently Manipuris rather than Nagas,” Davis said, adding that these groups were reportedly operating in the area around Tamu.
The Irrawady news portal reported last September that a PDF called the Tamu Security Group issued a warning to Manipuri insurgents not to side with the junta against any civilian defence groups. It reported TSG claiming that five Manipuri militants fighting alongside the Myanmar army had been killed in two clashes in Tamu and Kalay, one in May, and the other in July.
Among Indian security officials, there is a view that being in operations with the Myanmar army may be honing the PLA’s military capabilities and better preparing it for attacks across the border.
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