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The Myanmar military has handed over a group of 22 Northeast Indian insurgents to the Indian government on 15 May 2020. The insurgents, wanted in Manipur and Assam, have been brought back by a special plane that first made a stopover in Manipur capital Imphal, before heading to Assam’s Guwahati. The insurgents have been handed over to the local police in the two states. This is the first time that the Myanmar government has acted on India’s request to hand over the leaders of Northeast Indian insurgent groups.
Among those deported by Myanmar, there are some senior and long-wanted Indian insurgent leaders such as NDFB (S) self-styled home secretary Rajen Daimary, Capt Sanatomba Ningthoujam of UNLF and Lt Pashuram Laishram of PREPAK (Pro). Out of the handed over insurgents, 12 of the 22 of them are linked to four insurgent groups in Manipur: UNLF, PREPAK (Pro), KYKL and PLA. The remaining 10 are linked to Assam groups such as NDFB (S) and KLO.
As of April 2012, India and Myanmar have approved two locations, Pangsau Pass, Arunachal Pradesh and Somrai in Ukhrul District. The treacherous terrain of this border makes the area ideal for camps of insurgent groups. There are long tensions due to insurgency and separatists’ movements for decades in this area.
The territory of Myanmar has been used by Northeast Indian insurgent groups, mainly from Nagaland and Manipur for a long time; this is the first time that the Myanmar military, Tatmadaw, has acted on India’s request and handed over any Northeast Indian insurgent. Myanmar government had signed a memorandum of understanding with the NSCN-Khaplang group on the authority of the areas adjoining to India; however NSCN-Khaplang group is a banned insurgent group in India.
In January 2019, the Myanmar military conducted raids on some of the camps in the frontier areas and reportedly arrested 24 militants belonging to Assam and Manipur. In February 2019, the Myanmar military took control of the NSCN-K headquarters in the Sagaing region after the death of its supreme S.S. Khaplang, thus projected a signal that it would no longer allow its soil to be used by the Northeast Indian insurgent groups.
Although over the years Myanmar had shown leniency to the Northeast Indian insurgent groups as a part of regional politics, according to present changed scenario the insurgent groups of Manipur, Nagaland and Assam are targeted by both the armies of India and Myanmar. In the middle of May 2019, a three week long military operation ‘Operation Sunrise 2’ was launched by the two armies from their respective lands with an effort to destroy the insurgent camps and their militant outfits, specially the Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO), the NSCN (Khaplang), the United Liberation Front of Assam (I) and the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB). This time at least six dozen militants belonging to these groups were nabbed.
There were instances of handing over the insurgents to India earlier also. In December 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army had conducted ‘Operation All Clear’ to flush out camps set up on its soil by Northeast Indian armed groups, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) on the Indian government’s request. Not only Bhutan, top ULFA leader Anup Chetia, a fugitive for over two decades was handed over to India by Bangladesh in 2015.
India and Myanmar signed a landmark defense cooperation agreement in July 2019. Realizing the growing importance of the Bay of Bengal, the navies of both India and Myanmar conducted a historic bilateral naval exercise, IMNEX-18, in 2018. India also invited the Myanmar Army to participate in the multilateral Milan naval exercise that occurs biennially in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which was supposed to be taken place in March 2020; although the 2020 edition of Milan would have been the largest edition of the exercise with 30 foreign navies confirming their participation, the Indian Navy postponed the exercise in early March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
To elevate its “Made in India” arms industry, India has identified Myanmar as key to increasing its military exports. Along those lines, Myanmar purchased India’s first locally-produced anti-submarine torpedo, called TAL Shyena, in 2017, and in 2019, Myanmar acquired a diesel-electric Kilo-class submarine, INS Sindhuvir, which India had modernized after purchasing from Russia in the 1980s.
These military purchases were done to secure and protect Myanmar’s maritime interests, especially on the back of its neighbors Bangladesh and Thailand acquiring submarines from China. In this submarine procurement race, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Myanmar are competitively hedging their military purchases between India and China.
Four Northeast Indian states, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, have a boundary with Myanmar. Both countries share a heritage of religious, linguistic and ethnic ties. The geographical location of Myanmar provides India an advantage to utilize the gateway link up to the rest of Southeast Asia. It will create an easy opportunity for India to invest in ASEAN-wide infrastructural projects that are able to boost trade in the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area. Some of the projects are underway, such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport (KMMTT), which aims to connect the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with the Sittwe deep-water port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state by sea.
Recently a new idea Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) has been planned by India with the objectives of seeking a climate of trust and transparency, respecting for international maritime rules and norms by all countries, keeping sensitivity to(towards) each other’s interests, ensuring peaceful resolution of maritime issues and increasing the maritime cooperation. India is also doing “port-led development,” by establishing the Sittwe port in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. This port, which sits on the Bay of Bengal, serves as a critical node of the KMMTT initiative to connect southwestern Myanmar to northeastern India by creating a multi-modal trinary of sea, river and road transport corridor to boost interconnectivity. India’s long-term strategic goal is to create a Special Economic Zone surrounding the Sittwe port, and in so doing, cement India’s footprint in Rakhine and boost its presence in the Bay of Bengal. The Sittwe port is meant to be India’s counter-project to the Chinese-fronted Kyaukpyu port, which is intended to strengthen China’s geostrategic footprint in Rakhine.
India and Myanmar have boosted their security cooperation at the border to improve economic relations; this is seen as a result of increasing intelligence and defence cooperation between the two countries from both sides. This is a huge step for the Myanmar government and a reflection of the deepening ties between the two countries. The more secure the border is, the greater the economic activity will be. However, the ongoing conflict between the Myanmar Army and Arakan Army rebels generates tension in Rakhine; at the same time, the presence of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) still remains a factor. The insurgents from India’s Nagaland have also disrupted the completion of the KMMTT project.
India did not take a hardline approach against Myanmar on the Rohingya issue, even maintained its distance when Myanmar was hauled into the International Court of Justice over the accusations of Rohingya genocide. Recent handing over of Northeast Indian 22 insurgents by Myanmar army is a true sign of bilateral bonding between Myanmar and India. The tie between India and Myanmar gets priority more towards the economic interest of both the countries. Present India-Myanmar multi-dimensional economic projects will have direct and indirect impact in reducing insurgency, terrorism and separatists’ movements in Northeast India and Myanmar bordering areas. This development might also have a positive effect in CHT in future.
Researcher, CHT and Regional Politics