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

YANGON – Myanmar President Win Myint’s February 26-29 state visit to India may appear on the diplomatic surface to be little more than a high-level courtesy call between neighbors.

But the leader’s trip comes as India-Myanmar relations are on a decided upswing as the two sides’ security forces cooperate in unprecedented ways to fight insurgent groups that have long been active in their shared border region.

Myanmar’s unwillingness to tackle ethnic insurgents who use its territory as sanctuary and a planning base for cross-border attacks on Indian security forces has long been an irritant for bilateral relations.

But broader relations have recently improved with growing trade ties, aid deals and as Naypyidaw looks to another big power to hedge and contain its exposure to China’s economic might and influence.

The new strategic cooperation began in January 2019 when the Myanmar army first drove ethnic rebels from Nagaland and other states in northeastern India from their main base at Taga in Myanmar’s northern Sagaing Region.

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), a group comprised of mostly Myanmar Nagas, had provided sanctuary to Assamese and Manipuri insurgents who launched ambush attacks on Indian security forces in northeastern India and then retreated back across the border.

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

In November, Myanmar forces moved into Somra opposite Manipur to clear the area of the remnants of another Naga faction, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak and Muivah (NSCN-IM), which has its main following among Nagas in India.

For years, Myanmar authorities denied even the existence of such camps on their territory, much to New Delhi’s chagrin.

In June 2015, India upped the stakes by launching a cross-border attack into Myanmar on the NSCN-K and its allies in response to an ambush the previous month that killed 19 Indian military personnel in Chandel, Manipur.

Naypyidaw did not officially acknowledge the raid, but it was clear from the incident that it could no longer turn a blind eye to the presence of Northeast Indian insurgents in Sagaing.

Naypyidaw’s shift from denial to acknowledgement, not by coincidence, happened as Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, was seeking new security partners to counterbalance China’s rising influence in the country.

India has responded favorably by supplying the Tatmadaw with weapons that have helped in its fights with various insurgent groups. Naypyidaw, in turn, has promoted New Delhi’s “Act East” policy, which aims to open new trade routes from India to mainland Southeast Asia and counter China’s position as the dominant foreign player in Myanmar.

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

There is also growing local opposition against the presence of Indian insurgents in Myanmar’s border regions – and by association the Tatmadaw’s turning a blind eye to their existence.

In December, members of 28 community-based organizations in northwestern Chin state staged a protest in the town of Tedim to demand that the Tatmadaw uproot Manipuri rebel camps in the area.

The protest rose in response to the killing of a popular female teacher in Tonzang, Chin state, by a Manipuri insurgent.

There are an estimated 1,500 Manipuri insurgents living in the jungles of northern Chin state, according to a December 4 report on the Indian website The Wire.

The number is believed to have grown after the fall of Taga a year ago. Among the NSCN-K’s allies who were driven from Taga were a number of fighters from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a Manipuri outfit that draws support from within the state’s majority Meitei population.

The Wire quoted a local resident as saying that rebels from Manipur “regularly pay huge amounts of cash to the security forces in Myanmar as protection money.” In return, the Tatmadaw does not interfere from the rebel bases, the same source alleged.

A cadre of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) holds a Naga flag during the 73rd Naga Independence Day celebration at Camp Hebron, Northeast India. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Caisii Mao

The unnamed source also claimed that local politicians and religious leaders have been urging the central government for years to drive out the Meitei groups who are known to cultivate opium poppies in the area.

According to a joint statement issued by the 28 community groups in Tedim, opium plantations now cover some 1,620 hectares in the area and that impoverished local farmers are hired to work the poppy fields.

Heavy fighting between the Tatmadaw and the insurgent Arakan Army (AA) has also spilled over into the forests around Paletwa in southern Chin state, adding another security problem to the traditionally peaceful state.

The AA has sanctuaries and temporary camps in the jungles around Paletwa. Last year, for unknown reasons, the insurgent group captured and held Whei Tin, a parliamentarian from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). He was released after 79 days.

Chin state is the only ethnic state in Myanmar that has never had a strong local ethnic insurgency, opening its remote areas to Indian insurgent groups.

One reason could be that the Chins speak dozens of mutually unintelligible dialects and tribal sentiments are stronger than any real pan-ethnic consciousness.

Ethnic Chin people hold placards during a protest asking for an end to conflict in Chin state in Yangon on July 13, 2019. Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main

In the late 1980s, a movement known as the Zoro, or the Zomi Reunification Organization, emerged with the aim of making Chin state merge with Mizoram, which became one of the so-called “Seven Sister” states in northeastern India in 1987.

While the Chins are ethnically related to the Mizos, the vision of a merged state did not materialize. At about the same time, some disgruntled Chins formed the Chin National Front (CNF) to fight against the Tatmadaw for autonomy.

But the CNF soon disintegrated into several rival factions, one of which signed the Myanmar government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) on October 15, 2015.

The faction was so small and lightly armed that Aung Min, then the government’s chief negotiator, gave the CNF three villages to use as a base to give the group credibility as an actual fighting force and thus peace signatory.

When State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi visited Chin state earlier this month, she said that “Chin State has less armed ethnic organizations compared to other states. And that small number did not bring much trouble to the people.”

Suu Kyi failed, however, to note that despite the absence of any local ethnic army of significance, Chin state has been increasingly militarized by the Tatmadaw since the late 1980s.

Myanmar’s soldiers march in a formation during a parade to mark the country’s 74th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw on March 27, 2019. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

Many Chins had taken part in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that was lethally crushed by the Tatmadaw and then fled to Chin state border areas and into India.

According to a January 2009 Human Rights Watch, the Tatmadaw had no battalions stationed in Chin state before 1988 and only two battalions operated there, namely the 89th light infantry battalion based in Kalaymyo, Sagaing Region, and the 50th stationed in Kankaw, Magwe Region.

After the Tatmadaw’s militarization of the state, nine battalions totaling 7,000 soldiers were deployed in the state and in ethnic Chin-populated areas of neighboring regions.

The influx of government troops, coupled with widespread poverty and underdevelopment, has over the years forced anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Chins to seek refuge in Mizoram, an Indian state with a population of only about a million people.

Although closely related, many Chins feel discriminated against by the Mizo and some have sought to flee to other parts of India and beyond, including to Malaysia and other destinations in Southeast Asia.

It is uncertain to what extent these issues will be discussed during Win Myint’s state visit to India. But the two sides’ largely forgotten but volatile border area – where insurgents from both countries are still active – remains a major impediment to India’s realization of its Act East policy.