TODAY -

Unmasking the politics of India's Look East Policy
- Part 2 -

Sanatomba Kangujam *

ASEAN-INDIA Car Rally 2012 passing through Moreh Area, Manipur in December 2012 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam
ASEAN-INDIA Car Rally 2012 passing through Moreh Area, Manipur in December 2012 :: Pix - Deepak Oinam



The Northeast region is set to witness large-scale violation of Human Rights in the backdrop of India's Look East Policy as the policy is predominantly guided by militaristic concern to subdue the armed struggles in the region

Serious fallout of such an alignment is the militarisation of the Indo-Myanmar region in an unprecedented scale. Mention may be made of the joint counter-insurgency operation consisting of Indian and Myanmarese armies known as "Operation Golden Bird" launched in 1995 in the Indo-Myanmar borders resulting in busting of many North East Indian insurgent camps.

Behind the Veil of Border Trade

It was in the midst of such development that the idea of Indo-Myanmar border trade got revived after decades of hibernation when the then Foreign Secretary J.N Dixit led a delegation to Myanmar in 1993; informal trade between the two countries is not a new phenomenon. Ironically, a sincere desire on the part of the Indian government to promote a smooth and efficient border trade was absent right from its very inception as India's policy towards Myanmar is guided overwhelmingly by its security obsession.

It had always remained conspicuous that the logic of enhancing border trade as such was not the decisive determinant behind India's recent engagement with the military junta. The concept of border trade has been meticulously dragged into the picture only with a design to lend an economic facade to the various diplomatic initiatives undertaken with regard to Myanmar.

Formalisation of border trade between India and Myanmar was secured through the signing of Indo-Myanmar Border Trade Agreement on January 21, 1994, which was operationalised on April 12, 1995 with Moreh in Manipur officially declared open for trade. However, an interesting revelation points to the fact that the main area of discussion between the Indian delegation and the Myanmarese authorities in all rounds of talks during 1994 had always focused on "better border management" which in turn covered issues like insurgency, terrorism, narcotic trade and boundary issues.

Pertinent to recall in this context is the fact that another agreement in addition to the border trade agreement known as the "Memorandum of Understanding on Co-operation between the Civilian Border Authorities" of the two countries to prevent illegal and insurgent activities was also executed on the same day. The reasons behind India's security concerns along the Indo-Myanmar border can, however, be explained by the existence of small arms trade and insurgency. Border trade, therefore, in India's perception is an institutional device to monitor movement of insurgent groups in the border areas and Chinese incursion into Myanmar.

It is worth noting that exchange of visits between the Indian and the Myanmarese authorities from 1992 to the present revolved round the issues pertaining to tackling of insurgency and its associated phenomenon of arms trade. In all the agreements reached between the two countries, mutual understanding is demonstrated for a well-coordinated military campaign against armed-insurgent groups in the border regions.

Myanmar went to the extent of declaring that it would not allow its soil to be used by any group against India while the latter tried its best to appease the junta. One glaring example is the gifting of the 165 kilometres long Indian-built Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road linking India's North East as a token of improving relationship. India stressed on construction of roads and development of the border areas with a strategic calculation for containment of insurgents operating in the region.

One significant aspect of Indo-Myanmar relations lies in convergence of strategic interests between them as the Naga insurgents campaigning for "Nagalim" or Greater Nagaland, which includes certain portions of Myanmar, poses a security threat to the military rulers in Yangon. The junta is also apprehensive of the Naga insurgents lest they could be used by the Western powers especially the United States to topple the military regime and restore democracy in Myanmar. The junta badly needs Indian help to fight against Myanmarese ethnic separatist groups that control several provinces in its North Eastern parts. The inaccessibility of the geographical areas controlled by the ethnic minorities called for joint military operations.

The year 2004 witnessed a great improvement in the bilateral relations between India and Myanmar when senior General Than Shwe, Chairman of the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) paid a state visit to India from October 25-29 holding talks with Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India on a wide range of issues.

The two sides reiterated their firm determination to maintain peace, tranquility and stability along the entire length of their border as an essential pre-requisite to successful implementation of cross-border projects and to bring about economic prosperity in the area. Both sides have also come up with several other cross-border projects such as the Tamanthi Hydro-electric project, the Rhi-Tiddim and Rhi-Falam roads and the Kaladan Multi-modal Transport project.

Such projects are apparently meant for uplifting the economic condition in the border areas and improving connectivity between the two countries. However, it has been widely argued that the implementation of such projects will certainly lead to human rights violation and environmental problems. Both sides have already reached an understanding on clearing the areas of hostile elements as a necessary pre-condition for smooth and meaningful execution of the projects. In this regard, large-scale deployment of army for maintenance of security in the areas is quite imminent.

Following the understanding between India and Myanmar, a number of military operations have been launched by the Myanmarese army busting many camps of the insurgent groups from the Indian side. The Burmese military also sealed its border to block the fleeing insurgents when the Indian military forces launched a major operation codenamed "Operation All Clear" involving 6,000 troops to crack down the insurgents in Manipur during 1994-95.

It can be recalled that even in the late Nineties, Yangon literally gave consent to the Indian Army to track down the North East insurgents in Myanmarese territory and uproot them on foreign soil. A top-secret operation, it denoted the extent of cooperation and understanding between the world's largest democracy and the repressive military junta.

The visit by President Kalam to Yangon in March 2006 is crucial in a sense that it was the first by an Indian President. Sources from the media indicate that Kalam's visit to Yangon was meant to oversee the implementation of several strategic projects undertaken by India. One of such projects is the Kaladan Multi Modal Transport Project, an artery that will link Calcutta to South Mizoram, through the Arakan Coast of Myanmar.

Construction of road through Arakan will help India check anti-India rebel groups operating from there. It may be recalled that the Indian government had cultivated the National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA) in a larger strategy to counter rebel groups from the North East. India also maintained close ties with the KIO (Kachin Independent Organization) and CNF (Chin National Front) for the same purpose i.e., to deny the use of their territory for anti-India activities.

Visit of the Indian President also secured the signing of a framework agreement on the setting up of a ground station in Myanmar for receiving data from the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellite. The Indian space agency was reportedly involved in building the facility, which is now ready for use. Such a facility will certainly help in gathering information about the locations of the insurgent camps and monitor their movements.

In this context, mention may be made of the request made by General Than Shwe to the Indian government for emergency military supplies including helicopters, helicopter gunships, heavy rockets, navigation equipments and most importantly the global positioning system devices for his beleaguered troops in countering anti-India rebels based in Myanmar. However, India had suggested that the equipment be deployed in joint operations with the Indian military given the lack of training on the part of Myanmar's military forces to use the equipment. Both the countries have been deliberating on a joint counter-insurgency operation inside Myanmar.

More check posts are coming up in the Indo-Myanmar Border to facilitate meetings between the armies of the two countries as part of India's Look East Policy (The Telegraph 29 April 2006). A check post which has already been set up near the Border Gate No.1 at Moreh is said to house office of central and state governments, including land customs, taxation, forest police and para-military forces, and medical as well as food-testing laboratories. Reports indicate that new posts would be opened at Lungwa in Nagaland's Mon district, Bihang in Churachandpur district of Manipur and at Sapi and Lokawather in Mizoram.

Pertinent to note in this regard is the nod given by the Union Home Ministry to a scheme to raise the iron fencing equipped with concertina ring, along Mizoram's 404 kilometres border with Myanmar.

The 8-ft high iron fencing along the Indo-Myanmar border has been erected to stem the rising trend of cross-border movements. Similarly, about 400 kilometres of Tripura's 856 kilometres long borders with Bangladesh has already been fenced by the central government to prevent cross-border insurgency. The Union Home Ministry is also determined to complete fencing of 736 kilometres even if it has to resort to force for ensuring smooth completion of the said project (The Telegraph 13 June 2006).

The fencing is primarily intended to curb recent trends of North East insurgent groups' crossing over to training camps in Myanmar (The Telegraph 17 April 2006). The construction of the controversial security fencing along the Manipur's borders with Myanmar is also a case in point.

Inspite of the fencing, several projects to improve connectivity in the country through construction of roads on both sides of the international border have been undertaken by the respective government to check movements of insurgents. In March 2006, Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India informed the Lok Sabha that Myanmar had agreed to a suggestion offered by India regarding facilities for joint interrogation and consular access to Indian insurgents apprehended in the neighbouring country.

As the unfolding events demonstrate, the understanding between India and Myanmar is not confined to the higher echelons of the two governments but also gets reflected at the levels of sector commanders on either side of the borders. Media reports reveals that the Indian and Myanmarese armies would embark on a "strategic co-ordination" between themselves immediately with an objective to tackle the insurgent outfits based in each other's territories in a "meaningful way" (The Telegraph 3 June 2006). As such, the Indo-Myanmar region is likely to witness a series of joint counter-insurgency operations in the near future.

Inconsistencies in Indian foreign policy remain exposed when India reversed its policy towards Myanmar in the post-Cold War era. Thirst for alternative energy sources, strategic competition with China and internal security obsession wove together into a policy that in a way exhibits a marked betrayal of the very principle India had purportedly cherished for so many decades.

Initial support for democracy movement got gradually supplanted with active diplomatic engagement towards the military junta. In the process, India has virtually abandoned democracy, the very basis of its own existence on the pretext of promoting "national interests" which in reality is the interests of a miniscule Indian corporate class. Any form of maintaining formal diplomatic relations with the military junta amounts to recognizing the regime and this is not without numerous implications.

Extending recognition to Yangon conspicuously defies the logic of claiming to be the largest democracy in the world. Recognition also implies endorsement of the policies adopted by the junta. Viewed thus, India has directly or indirectly become a party to the atrocious military regime, which perpetrates human rights violation against the Myanmarese people.

Therefore, India deserves equal condemnation for patronizing and legitimizing the military dictatorship of Yangon at the cost of democracy and human rights. By aligning with the dictators, India has neutralized the mounting international pressure built up over one and half a decade against the military junta for restoration of democracy in Myanmar. India's hypocrisy and double standards become stark in its relentless criticism to the erstwhile military regime in Pakistan and elsewhere.

To be continued...


* Sanatomba Kangujam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is Post Doctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science, Manipur University. He is currently working on "Peace Initiatives and Conflict Transformation in Manipur" and can be reached at sanatombak(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was posted on December 28, 2013.


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