A cadre of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) stands guard at a camp near Amarpur in Tinsukia district, 600 kilometers from Guwahati, the capital city of India's northeastern state of Assam. Photo: AFP

A recent ambush in a remote corner of northeastern India made fatally clear that ethnic rebels with bases across the border in neighboring Myanmar are alive and kicking.

On June 17, three men from India’s paramilitary Assam Rifles were killed and three others wounded in an armed encounter with ethnic Naga and perhaps also Assamese insurgents in Mon town in Nagaland.

The ambush occurred at a time when other Naga factions are poised to enter into a peace agreement with the Indian government. A major faction of the rebel United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in Assam, the most populous of India’s northeastern states, is also close to signing a similar accord.

The ambush may have no major impact on the military or political situation in India’s volatile northeast, but it showed that the rebels are still capable of launching deadly assaults and that any peace deal will is unlikely to bring a total end to the separatist violence in the long-volatile region.

More importantly, the ambush was also a reminder that several Indian rebel groups still maintain camps in northwestern Myanmar, from where they often launch attacks on security forces and then retreat to safety across the border.

Rebels from northeastern India have maintained bases in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing Region since the 1970s, when the Indian Army managed to drive ethnic insurgents out of their base areas in Nagaland. Beyond the reach of India’s security forces, they have carried out cross-border raids — a major, longstanding problem in India-Myanmar relations.

Indian army personnel unload from a truck at Ambadi village in Assam state’s Kokrajhar district in a file photo: Photo: AFP/Diptendu Dutta

India has repeatedly suggested joint, or at least coordinated, operations with Myanmar security forces against the rebels, but has consistently been met by Myanmar official denials that any rebel camps exist on its territory.

For years, Assamese, Naga and Manipuri rebels have had their main camps at Taga, a village near the Chindwin River north of Singkaling Hkamti.

The current status of the Taga camp is unclear, as some reports suggest that the rebels’ presence was becoming too obvious and therefore an embarrassment to the Myanmar military, which has outposts in the area. According to the same reports, the rebels have relocated to smaller nearby camps but are still believed to be in the vicinity of Taga.

The main force behind the June 17 ambush is believed to be from the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN-K, where the “K” in the acronym stands for Khaplang, a renowned rebel commander who died last year. According to some reports, ULFA militants also took part in the attack.

ULFA, NSCN-K and some smaller tribal rebel groups from Assam belong to the United National Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (UNLFW), an umbrella rebel organization that cooperates with insurgents from Manipur as well. Like Nagaland, Manipur also borders on Myanmar.

The situation came to a head on June 4, 2015, when Manipuri rebels killed 18 Indian soldiers and seriously wounded 15 others in an assault that tested India’s patience. Soon thereafter, Indian commandoes crossed the border and attacked several rebel camps based on Myanmar territory.

A statement from Myanmar’s presidential office in Naypyitaw issued the day after the raids asserted that fighting had only broken out on the Indian side of the border and denied that any “outside” forces were using Myanmar as a staging ground for attacks inside India.

Myanmar soldiers in fighting formation. Photo: AFP/Khin Maung Win

Myanmar is on the horns of a strategic dilemma. Indian rebel groups bring in money and never attack Myanmar’s security forces, which have more pressing concerns elsewhere in the country where ethnic Kachin, Palaung and Shan insurgents are active.

Every time the rebels launch a cross-border ambush, there is renewed pressure from New Delhi to eliminate the camps in the Sagaing Region. And India has showed a new willingness to stage its own cross border raids — as it did in June 2015 – when Myanmar authorities refuse to act.

The recent ambush came at a time when India is eager to expand border trade and grow economic ties broadly with Myanmar.

Initially known as the “Look East” policy, which under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been rebranded as “Act East”, the gambit aims to better connect India with Southeast Asia’s vibrant economies, while also countering China’s economic and political influence in neighboring Myanmar.

Bilateral trade between India and Myanmar has doubled since 2005, growing from US$557 million to over US$1 billion last year. Yet only a fraction of that trade is actually conducted across the two countries’ common border.

The total trade value at the main border crossing of Moreh in Manipur is a mere US$52 million, which includes large quantities of Chinese-made goods that are transported through Myanmar.

A map depicting where northeast India meets Myanmar. Image: Facebook

Despite recent upgrades, the infrastructure on the Indian side at Moreh is still poor and lags badly behind the modern highways that China has built to the Myanmar border to connect with its southern Yunnan province.

India’s “Act East” policy cannot remotely compare with China’s massive investment in connecting infrastructure, which will soon also include a railroad from Yunnan’s provincial capital of Kunming to the Chinese town of Ruili on the China-Myanmar border.

If China has its way, then yet another rail line at the Myanmar border town of Muse opposite Ruili will run the length of Myanmar to the deep-water port at Kyaukphyu which lets out on the Bay of Bengal, giving China an access point to the Indian Ocean.

India’s frustrations with Myanmar are not only related to the frequent cross-border raids and its inability to keep pace with economic developments in China. But they are accentuated by the presence of leaders and cadres of the northeastern rebels in China.

ULFA commander Paresh Baruah is believed to be based somewhere in western Yunnan, as are other Assamese and Manipuri rebels. Supplies including weapons can be readily acquired from dealers in China, with some of the guns known to be made in a factory at Pangwa, just across the border in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state.

Pangwa is in an area controlled by a unit of the erstwhile Communist Party of Burma, which made peace with the Myanmar government in 1989. That factory is known to produce automatic rifles, pistols, revolvers and shotguns. The arms are then known to be transported by road to towns along the Chindwin River and later by boat to rebels based around Taga.

ULFA leader Paresh Baruah is believed to be based in China. Photo: Youtube

It is evident that Chinese security services, at the very least, turn a blind eye to the presence and gun-running activities of Indian rebels in Yunnan. There is no indication that China was in any way behind the recent cross-border ambush in Nagaland, though a certain degree of turmoil in India’s northeast serves China’s interests in the region.

Beijing clearly prefers that India remains preoccupied with containing internal security matters rather than mounting a challenge to its economic designs for Myanmar. As such, Myanmar is increasingly at the crossroads of the competing interests of the region’s two rival superpowers.

Myanmar’s consistent denials that Indian rebels are present in their country may have previously bought Naypyitaw time, but sooner or later Myanmar will need to do something about the situation before India retaliates with more of its own potentially destabilizing cross-border raids.

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