Indian and Myanmar soldiers shake hands during the two sides' first ever joint military exercises in 2017. Photo: Facebook

Ethnic Nagas in remote northern Myanmar have long provided sanctuary to insurgents who launch armed raids into northeastern India and then retreat back across the border beyond the reach of Indian security forces.

Myanmar’s inability or unwillingness to uproot those rebel sanctuaries have been a persistent thorn in the side of the two neighbors’ bilateral relations, contributing to mutual mistrust and suspicion over the years.

But that arguably began to change in January, when more than 400 Myanmar troops drove the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) from its headquarters at Taga in the northern Sagaing Region.

NSCN-K shared the camp with militants from the United Liberation Front of Asom [Assam] (ULFA) and other rebel outfits from Manipur in northeastern India fighting against New Delhi’s rule in the Seven Sisters region, a term for the contiguous states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

On June 3, during a press briefing at the Defense Services Museum in the capital of Naypyitaw, Myanmar army Major General Tun Tun Nyi said operations will continue against the NSCN-K and the other India-based insurgent groups it is sheltering.

There have been few reported casualties in the assault so far, as the Myanmar military has relied mainly on heavy artillery fire rather than ground offensives to drive the rebels from their camp.

Still, the attack has deprived the insurgents of their important camp and sanctuary in Myanmar, and thus will certainly affect their ability to launch cross-border assaults into India as they attempt to regroup while on the run.

Naga rebels in Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing Region in October 2018. Photo: Facebook

Myanmar’s shift from veritable inaction to offensive operations comes after India launched a cross-border attack in June 2015 on the NSCN-K in response to an ambush the previous month that killed 19 Indian soldiers in Chandel, Manipur. The details of that strike are contested.

But Myanmar’s move against the NSCN-K more notably comes at a time the country’s autonomous military is desperately seeking another big power counterbalance to China.

China’s influence in Myanmar, in retreat after Western nations dropped their previous sanctions and moved to re-engage the once pariah country, is resurgent again as the West recoils over the Rohingya refugee crisis caused by Myanmar military operations the United Nations says may have had “genocidal intent.”

That’s been most clearly seen in infrastructure projects underway in Myanmar under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), all with the aim of establishing a strategic trade corridor connecting landlocked southwestern China through Myanmar down to the Indian Ocean.

Those big ticket projects, including a US$1 billion port project at Kyaukphyu, a high-speed rail and thousands of kilometers of pipelines, come with loans and credits which could transform Myanmar into a Chinese client state, similar to its status in the 1990s and early 2000s.

As the West turns away, Myanmar appears to hope India will play a countervailing role vis-à-vis China, including through arms sales and other strategic cooperation.

Myanmar's military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
Myanmar’s military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Facebook

During Myanmar Navy Chief Admiral Tin Aung San’s visit to New Delhi in September 2017, India promised to consider supplying military equipment to Myanmar.

According to local observers in India’s northeast, those promised transfers of various types of weaponry and military equipment are being delivered, although exact details of the shipments remain unknown.

When Britain in the wake of the Rohingya clampdown announced that it would suspend its training of the Myanmar military, India and Myanmar “talked about training Myanmar sailors on top of the courses taught to [India’s] army officers at elite Indian defense institutions,” Reuters reported in September 2017. While the West has strongly criticized the Rohingya crisis, India has remained quiet.

In November that year, India and Myanmar held their first ever bilateral military exercises, which while focused on “peacekeeping operations” were more strategically significant. In March 2018, the Indian and Myanmar navies conducted a maiden joint exercise in the Bay of Bengal, where India has reported numerous incursions by Chinese submarines.

The Myanmar military’s recent move against the Indian rebels in Sagaing should thus be viewed through a wider geo-strategic lens, military and strategic analysts say.

Ethnic insurgents opposed to New Delhi’s rule have maintained cross-border sanctuaries in Myanmar since the late 1960s. Previously, these rebel groups were known to trek through northern Myanmar’s rugged and mountainous terrain into China, where they historically have received guns and military training.

That support first came after China and India fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962, making the two Asian powers into bitter rivals. Although China’s direct support for the groups ceased in the mid-1970s, Manipuri and Assamese rebel leaders are still given sanctuary in China’s southern Yunnan province.

Beijing also maintained contacts with Naga rebel factions, including the National Socialist Council of Nagaland [or Nagalim]-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), a group comprised mainly of Nagas from India which established a presence in Thailand and traveled frequently to China.

Indian troops on patrol in Manipur., northeastern India, in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

The NSCN-IM is distinct from the NSCN-K, which is named after Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, a Myanmar Naga leader who died in June 2017.

Until early 1988 there was only one NSCN but as frictions grew between the Indian and Myanmar Nagas the latter chased the former out of their until then joint bases in northwestern Myanmar. The NSCN subsequently split into the NSCN split into the NSCN-K and NSCN-IM.

Most of the rebels from ULFA and Manipur remained with NSCN-K because only that faction could provide them with the sanctuaries they needed to maintain their insurgency in India.

NSCN-IM’s militants then regrouped south of the NSCN-K’s area, but, more importantly, sent activists to Thailand where they began to work politically through local NGOs.

One of them was Anthony Shimray, the NSCN-IM’s main arms procurer who paid several visits to China before he was apprehended at Kathmandu airport in September 2010 and spirited off to India. Details about his gun-running activities came out during his subsequent trial in New Delhi.

In May 2009, he had pledged to pay US$100,000 of a total of $700,000 to a middleman in Thailand for acquiring assault rifles, machine-guns and explosives from a Chinese company, according to trial proceedings.

That deal never materialized, however, and in 2016, Shimray was released from prison so he could participate in peace talks between his armed outfit and the Indian government in what have been mostly inconclusive talks.

Shimray is currently the military chief of the NSCN-IM, whose remaining troops are known to be in camps in India’s Nagaland. But some NSCN-IM fighters may still be on the Myanmar side of the border, as became obvious during an ambush in Arunachal Pradesh, a state north of India’s Nagaland, on May 21 this year.

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

Tirong Aboh, a member of Arunachal’s legislative assembly, his son and nine others were killed in an ambush in an Indian area adjacent to Myanmar. An Indian Home Ministry spokesman said he suspected NSCN-IM was behind the attack and that the rebels had come from across the Myanmar border.

Security sources were quoted in Indian media as saying that “the NSCN-IM had warned Aboh not to contest the [then] assembly elections”, and that it was the second time the group was suspected of having carried out murder in the state. On March 29, they killed Jaley Anna, one of Aboh’s supporters, in the same area.

NSCN-K, meanwhile, entered into a ceasefire agreement with Indian authorities in 2001 but unilaterally abrogated it in March 2015. The group struck a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar Army in 2012, making it the only insurgent group to have entered ceasefire agreements with two governments of separate sovereign states.

Now, NSCN-K has been chased out of its main bases and five of its top leaders have been arrested and charged under Myanmar’s colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act for harboring insurgents from the Indian side of the border.

That, and the absence of any heavy fighting during and after the fall of Taga, seems to be aimed at isolating NSCN-K from its rebel allies from India — and to force them to take part in peace talks that have been held in Naypyitaw between the Myanmar army, government, and certain but not all ethnic armies.

This month, NSCN-K’s spokesman Joseph Lamkang told Northeast Now, a local online publication in Assam, that his group will not sign the Myanmar government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and that it will continue its fight for “sovereignty” of the Nagas.

But as security cooperation between India and Myanmar is fast improving and apparently entering a potentially potent new stage, Myanmar’s Nagas face increasingly uncertain prospects.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shaking hands with Myanmar's Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the India-ASEAN commemorative summit in New Delhi. Photo: Handout via AFP
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) shakes hands with Myanmar’s Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi during the India-ASEAN commemorative summit in New Delhi. Photo: Handout via AFP

Indeed, how China views and reacts rising India-Myanmar cooperation against the rebels is far more important than how the Nagas perceive it, security analysts say.

Will Beijing respond by directly or indirectly resuming assistance to one or several of the motley crew of rebels from India’s northeast? Or will Beijing bid to play the role of peacemaker, as they have recently done in Myanmar’s peace process, between the government and ethnic armed organizations?

Only time will tell how China will react. But as India and Myanmar’s strategic interests align, China’s Belt and Road designs for Myanmar are no longer the only big power game in town.

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