After military seizes power in Myanmar, a fresh spell of uncertainty awaits Northeast India and its neighbours
The histories of Burma, Northeast India and Bangladesh have always been intertwined.
Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.
In the early 1800s, the Ahom kingdom, the most powerful one of what later became Northeast India, was crumbling from internal strife. A rebellion had sapped its strength, and a war of succession between contenders to the throne had split the army and nobles. One of the nobles, the Ahom viceroy in Guwahati, Badan Borphukan, made his way to Calcutta to seek British help against his rival. It was not forthcoming, and the disappointed Borphukan now proceeded to the court of the King of Ava, meaning Burma. Among the Burmese queens was an Ahom princess with whom Borphukan was acquainted. With her help, he was able to secure a Burmese army, at whose head he marched into Assam, conquering it. The Burmese conquest of Assam, and subsequent events in Arakan and its neighbouring areas of Bengal, eventually brought the British into the field. This led to the Anglo-Burmese Wars, and the British conquest of Burma and all of what is now Northeast India.
The histories of Burma, Northeast India and Bangladesh have always been intertwined. The recent coup in Myanmar where the army under General Min Aung Hlaing has deposed the elected government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is therefore of importance to both Northeast India and Bangladesh.
The coup did not happen suddenly. It was building up for a while. Several factors appear to have precipitated it. One was the imminent retirement, after a five-year extension of service, of General Hlaing. Another was the resounding victory of Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, in elections held last November. Suu Kyi and the General had apparently fallen out well before the polls; the results were immediately contested by the party backed by the military, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, on charges of voter fraud denied both by the country’s election commission and by international observers. Nonetheless, the military refused to accept the results, and it has carried out the coup to prevent the new parliament from convening, under the pretext of cleaning up the electoral process. The military promises to hold fresh elections within a year. It is safe to assume that its favoured party, the USDP, will enjoy an astonishing turnaround in electoral fortunes if and when that happens. Perhaps General Hlaing will shed his uniform and reappear in the avatar of President then.
There is, however, a long way to go before any such conclusion, and many forces and interests involved. Internally, apart from the Bamar Buddhist majority to which both the general and Suu Kyi belong, Myanmar has multiple ethnic groups that have their own insurgent armies and their own areas of control. Of these, the United Wa State Army backed by China is arguably the most powerful. The Kachin Independence Army, which has in the past enjoyed covert support from Indian agencies, is another strong force. There are a slew of other ethnic armed organisations, including the Arakan Army and the Shan State Army. Insurgent groups that operate in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, and parts of Arunachal Pradesh also have bases there, and have in the past received weapons and training from the Burmese insurgents. Both the Indian and the Myanmarese groups, as well as elements of the Burmese military, are said to be involved in the very lucrative drug trade that operates in the area. There are signs that some of the money also finds its way into political funding in parts of Northeast India.
The relations between these groups, and the governments of Burma, India and China, have been marked by tales of betrayal, treachery and violence.
India’s relations with Myanmar trace their improvement to 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister, made a rare visit there. The actual turnaround began when PV Narasimha Rao was the PM. Through the late 1980s and 1990s, collaboration between the militaries of the two countries, and the machinations of spy agencies conspiring with armed ethnic groups on both sides of the border, formed a key part of the relationship. India needed to cut off arms and training to the Northeast groups. It bought cooperation for doing so by giving the Myanmarese military something they wanted. This “give and take” approach yielded Myanmarese military support for Operation Golden Bird in 1995 which intercepted a column of Northeast insurgents who were ferrying a large cache of arms from the Cox’s Bazar coast in Bangladesh via Myanmar into India. The “give” part of the “give and take” was visible in Operation Leech in 1998 when Arakanese militants from the very groups that had collaborated with Indian agencies for Op Golden Bird, passing information in exchange for covert aid, were invited to a deserted island in the Andaman chain by their benefactors and killed or arrested.
The Indian relationship with the Myanmarese military remains strong to this day. General Min Aung Hlaing appears to enjoy good relations with India and the Indian leadership. He has visited here several times, including immediately after being put under sanctions by the United States of America in 2019 for his role in the Rohingya genocide, and had the red carpet rolled out for him. The Indian Foreign Secretary and Army chief called on him, and on Aung San Suu Kyi, in Myanmar shortly before the elections there. The General also received Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the capital, Naypyitaw, only last month, where the two discussed the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor that is being built to connect China to the Bay of Bengal. However, his greatest warmth is perhaps reserved for Russia, a country he has visited multiple times. On a visit there last year, he also accused “strong forces” of supporting terrorist groups, by which he meant Arakanese groups, in his country. It is believed that those particular groups currently enjoy Chinese support. The Myanmar military's relationship status with China is "it's complicated".
What the Myanmar coup has done is create additional complications by introducing a fresh fluidity in that murky world of shifting allegiances in which insurgents, drugs, and spies move. With so many actors and so many clashing interests, big and small, it is impossible to predict where all this is going. The Naga peace talks with the Indian government appear to have stalled. The Meitei militants are in sullen silence, biding their time. There is unrest among Kuki groups which are related to the Mizos and the Chins of Burma. In Assam, there is a ferment because of mainstream electoral politics. The protests related to the National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act were halted by COVID-19 but the issues themselves are still unresolved, and will no doubt resurface in some manner during the forthcoming polls. Across the border in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s grip on the country is increasingly hard, brittle and unpopular. The Rohingya issue there and in neighbouring Myanmar also shows no signs of being resolved. And, of course, now there is the prospect of unrest in Myanmar, both within the Bamar majority and between the military and various ethnic armies.
The complex region comprising Burma, Bangladesh and Northeast India appears to be heading towards a fresh spell of uncertainty.
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