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Posted at: Apr 18, 2019, 7:50 AM; last updated: Apr 18, 2019, 7:55 AM (IST)

Northeast and beyond

G Parthasarathy

G Parthasarathy
The new security challenges facing India
Northeast and beyond
Fix it: Tensions will grow unless the Rohingya issue is resolved expeditiously.

G Parthasarathy
Former Diplomat 

Public attention is now focused predominantly on tensions and developments across our western borders. These developments, commencing with the Pulwama attack and the airstrike on Balakot, have resulted in an overheated political environment, amidst a bitterly contested national election campaign. The sad reality of Indian politics is that while attention is almost exclusively focused on our western borders, we overlook what is happening across our eastern land and maritime borders. About 5,800 km of India’s land borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh extend across Assam, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. All these states have faced, or continue to face trans-border terrorist and separatist challenges. 

Armed separatist groups in the Northeast recently united under the banner of a so-called United Liberation Front of Western South Asia. These groups include the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), Kamtapur Liberation Organisation and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Assam). They were forced out of bases in Bangladesh a decade ago, after Sheikh Hasina assumed office. Her predecessor, Begum Khaleda Zia, had a close relationship with the ISI and permitted Indian separatist groups to act freely on Bangladeshi soil in collaboration with Bangladeshi extremist and terrorist outfits like the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat ul Mujahideen. These separatist groups have, however, continued to operate from Myanmar, along and across Myanmar’s borders with China’s Yunnan province. Their cadres move freely across the Myanmar-China border and receive support and safe haven in Yunnan. 

China also provides havens to separatist groups from Myanmar, like Kachin Independence Army, Arakan Army and United Wa State Army. Beijing uses these ties as leverage to obtain Myanmar’s cooperation in economic and infrastructure projects.  The Myanmar army has, however, acted firmly against the NSCN (Khaplang) in recent months, compelling the separatist outfit to desist from cross-border activity after raiding its bases. Moreover, strict restrictions have been placed on the movement of NSCN (K) leaders and cadres in Myanmar. The Myanmar army has taken similar tough action against the ULFA, recently killing a senior leader, Jyotirmoy Asom, during an attack on its base. Likewise, armed members of NSCN (K), based near Myanmar’s borders with India, have been moved away from the border and confined to camps. Myanmar is acting strongly to cooperate with India, thereby facilitating New Delhi’s peace process in Nagaland.

The crackdown by the Myanmar army on its Rohingya population in Rakhine province is now the focus of global attention. An estimated 1.1 million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, where they live in difficult conditions. Rohingya, in smaller numbers, have also fled to countries like Indonesia and India. China and Japan have pledged substantial assistance for the repatriation and resettlement of Rohingya, who are also receiving relief supplies and assistance from Western countries and UN organisations. Myanmar has faced scathing criticism by countries across the world and by groups like the OIC, for the plight of the Rohingya. The issue has not been taken to the UN Security Council, as any call for sanctions against Myanmar will likely be vetoed by China and Russia. A continuing presence of Rohingya in Bangladesh will, however, be exploited by radical Islamic groups in Bangladesh and by Pakistan to destabilise the Sheikh Hasina government. It will also undermine peace and security in India’s Northeast. 

The entire region in western Myanmar bordering India and Bangladesh also faces new challenges, posed by hundreds of insurgents of the ‘Arakan army’, who are moving into areas along Myanmar’s borders with Mizoram and Manipur. The armies of India and Myanmar are mounting coordinated operations to deal with this threat. This area is of particular importance to India.  A major strategic project, the Kaladan corridor, linking Mizoram and other landlocked Northeastern states to Myanmar’s port of Sittwe, located in the Bay of Bengal, is being built through it with India’s assistance. This ‘corridor’ provides the Northeast direct access to the Bay of Bengal at the port.  

China is, meanwhile, building a road, rail and energy corridor in Myanmar, linking its landlocked Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukpyu, not far from Sittwe. This Chinese transportation and energy corridor is seen as exploitative in Myanmar, where demonstrations have been held against the Myitsone dam, because of ecological concerns. The bulk of the electricity generated will be utilised in China.  

There have also been instances in recent days, when the Arakan army, which has links with China through Kachin Independence Army, has attacked Myanmar workers engaged in the construction of the Kaladan corridor. China is not comfortable at the prospect of an India-built port near its own corridor. China’s larger strategic aim is to secure unchallenged the use of Myanmar’s territory for access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. 

A serious threat to regional stability across our eastern borders could arise from growing tensions within Bangladesh and across the coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal. Such tensions will grow unless the issue of the return of the Rohingya to Myanmar is addressed expeditiously. The impact of this refugee crisis is being felt not only in Myanmar and Bangladesh, but also in neighbouring ASEAN countries like Indonesia.

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