According to the Indian government, over the last few months, the armies of India and Myanmar have been conducting operations in tandem against Naga rebels camped out in the jungles of Myanmar.
The Tatmadaw, or the Myanmar military, however, has only admitted to joint meetings on border security and cooperation on the arrest of rebels. Either way, it signals a remarkable shift from Myanmar’s old policy on the rebel camps.
For more than half a century, Myanmar’s remote and unhospitable Sagaing Division, bordering India, has served as a convenient sanctuary for insurgent groups in the North East. While Naga rebel outfits were the first to use the area in 1960s, several other ethnic groups from Manipur and Assam set up camps there in the subsequent decades.
For the most part, the Tatmadaw, already engaged in countering local separatists and quelling ethnic conflicts, looked the other way. Under pressure from India to act, there would be an occasional raid or two, but they would be few and far between and caused little long-term damage.
In February, though, the Tatmadaw is said to have initiated a crack-down on these camps – only to intensify it even further in the last couple of weeks. According to multiple media reports, the Tatmadaw’s offensive has destroyed key insurgent camps and hideouts, forcing many rebels to surrender to the local police.
The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), the most influential group in the area, is said to have suffered the maximum damages. The Naga nationalist group, which has an ongoing ceasefire agreement with the Myanmarese government that was signed in April 2012, has issued a press statement acknowledging the operations, accusing the Myanmarese Army of “creating a war-like situation”.
But what led the Tatmadaw to act now? After all, the country’s own internal conflicts continue to rage on and its peace agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) has been largely successful and mutually beneficial.
Scroll.in interviewed India’s former ambassador to Myanmar, Rajiv Bhatia, who has also served as the head of the division dealing with Myanmar in the Ministry of External Affairs, for some context on the recent operations. Bhatia, who is currently distinguished fellow at Mumbai-based think-tank Gateway House, is also the author of India-Myanmar Relations – Changing Contours, a book that The Hindu described as “a storehouse of information on Myanmar’s policies and politics”.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Can you give us some operational details about the current offensive in Myanmar?
This is a three-phase operation: Sunshine 1, which was in February-March; Sunshine 2, which is taking place now in May-June and they have been talking about a third phase. Now, all this is based on close cooperation between India and Myanmar – these are more coordinated operations than joint operations.
In the past, when cooperation was requested, Myanmar’s answer used to be that logistically they were quite weak in the region [the India-Myanmar border]: the shortage of roads limited mobility of their troops there. This used to be the traditional response. But over the years, some development has taken place in the border region on their side. India has contributed to that development in the form of infrastructure projects, building roads, etc. So, one explanation is logistics improvement has made it somewhat easier for their troops to act.
Secondly, there is more consultation and dialogue at the senior military level now. In this context, I want to highlight the importance the visit of the defence secretary of India, Sanjay Mitra. He was in Naypyidaw [Myanamar’s capital] in May when he met the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Army. In that meeting, there was a discussion about the status of border security and development of cooperation between the two militaries. So clearly, this issue was being discussed at the senior-most level. The Indian side had asked for cooperation and Myanmar acquiesced.
Also, now the international climate against terrorists, insurgents and militants is turning very adverse. To some extent, the role of the Indian Army’s action when it went into Myanmar in 2015 is also a factor. Myanmar fully realises that India is very serious about this whole affair and it is in everyone’s interest to cooperate than let the problem linger.
So, is the Myanmar government acting primarily at the behest of India?
There were four insurgent groups which were mainly the targets of Sunshine 2 : National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), the United Liberation Front of Assam, a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation [the four outfits had formed an umbrella forum called United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia in 2015 under the leadership of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang)]. All these groups are primarily at war with the Indian authorities. They are not in rebellion against the state of Myanmar. Therefore, you could say that the request and initiative came from the Indian side and support and coordination from the Myanmar side .
But there seems to be another strand of thought that contends that the Tatmadaw is upset with the NSCN (K) for refusing to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement [a peace treaty that the government of Myanmar signed with representatives of various ethnic insurgent groups operating in the country].
My understanding is that this is not the valid explanation. The groups which are in operation on the Myanmar-China and form part of the Northern Alliance [a coalition of four ethnic Burmese outifts] are the ones the Myanmarese Army is really upset with. These are the groups which target Myanmar’s troops. These four groups, on the other hand, only target Indian troops.
Has India worked so closely with any other foreign Army in the past?
Yes. This was done earlier with Bhutan a few years back when ULFA [United Liberation Front of Asom] and other rebel groups had made the country their base and action took place.In some other form cooperation was also obtained from Bangladesh [also against United Liberation Front of Asom rebels].
Did any one particular incident trigger the current operations or is it a case of Myanmar finally succumbing to sustained Indian pressure?
What triggers this kind of operations is the action of the rebels. When they move closer to the Indian border, engaging in violence and receiving supplies and fresh weapons, the authorities from both sides receive information. Based on that information, they prepare their plans and act. If you are asking why now – it is because of the rebels’ actions.
What does this mean for insurgency in the North East in general and the Naga peace process in particular? Considering the fact that the de-facto Indian faction of the NSCN (K), led by Khango Konyak, has already been formally absorbed in the peace talks, what interests does India have in pushing for an offensive against what is increasingly a largely foreign rebel group?
There probably is some co-relation between this and the attempt to finalise the Naga peace agreement now that it seems to be close to finalisation.
How does this offensive squarewith burgeoning Chinese investments in Myanmar? Would it have an implication on China-Myanmar relations?
None whatsoever. Chinese investment is not in the India-Myanmar border region where the military action is taking place. If there is stability in Myanmar, China is happy with that. China also doesn’t want turbulence in a country where its investments are going. Also, China does recognise that on the Indian border, India wants stability and security.
Pressure will have to be sustained by both sides. At the same time, they need to be backed up with peace and reconciliation efforts. Because clearly countering violence with military action has become but it is not adequate. Political dialogues have to be intensified for lasting peace in the North East.