A news item has appeared in today’s newspapers about successful negotiations between India and Myanmar regarding joint coordinated military operations in North-East and Myanmar, to flush out Indian extremist fugitives hiding in the dense jungles of Myanmar. The news item says further that the Security forces of India and Myanmar will conduct coordinated operations in their respective territories in the next two-three months. The objective of the operation is that no militant can escape to the other side after facing heat in one side. The security forces of both India and Myanmar will also intensify their vigil along the border to check smuggling of arms, narcotic drugs and other goods.
What is noteworthy is the comment of Indian union home secretary that Myanmar assured India to address all of India’s security concerns and promised to carry forward the cordial relations between the two countries. By itself, the news item has no great significance except for friendly action between two neighbouring countries.
However this agreement should be seen against the backdrop of a news item which appeared in August 2009 mentioning successful action of Myanmar’s military. According to this report, Myanmar military had overwhelmed and disarmed the Kokang rebel group, triggering an exodus of more than 37,000 refugees into China, prompting an unusual outburst of anger from Beijing. To realize the significance of this, we may have to look at the ground realities in North-West Myanmar.
On a map, Northern Myanmar looks like a wedge inserted between India’s Northeastern states and Yunnan province of China. Just across the Chinese border,Myanmar’s autonomous state of Kokang is located. The population of this state, with an area of about 10000 square kilometers, is mostly of Chinese origin with a large percentage of Chinese Migrants. Kokang has its own regional army. Kokang army in alliance with four other ethnic armed groups, had signed a truce with Myanmar military in 1989.
Historically, diplomatic relations between Myanmar and china were never exactly friendly. However with Military takeover of Myanmar in 1962, things began to change. China backed Myanmar following the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1988, and has continued to stand by the generals and sell them arms in the face of sweeping international sanctions. Relationship between China and Myanmar basically is a marriage of convenience. The Burmese rely on China for money and armaments, and China uses its position at the U.N. Security Council to protect Burma to some extent, in return for which China gets access to the country’s natural resources and gets a voice in ASEAN, of which Myanmar is a member since 1997.
The Kokang autonomous region with 90% people of Chinese origin naturally flourished as relationship between these two countries blossomed. It became a major trade route between these two countries with highway from Laogai on the Yunnan border to Lashlo, which is the capital of Shan state in Myanmar, seen overloaded with Chinese trucks bringing in a range of consumer and other goods. This trade however is controlled entirely by traders of Chinese origin or by Chinese who have migrated to Myanmar. The bilateral trade has grown in 2008 to about $2.63 billion. In late October, China’s CNPC started building a crude oil port in Myanmar, part of a pipeline project. Logically it was expected that Myanmar would give unquestioning support to China in all international matters.
All this bonhomie between China and Myanmar obviously has been a great concern for India. In fact fear was expressed in India that China is trying to encircle India. It appeared that another strategic game was developing on the eastern border of India and China had already gained an upper hand.
This region also happens to be the hotbed of opium trade. In fact, drugs flow easily from Myanmar into China, fueling an AIDS epidemic in Yunnan, driven by the sharing of dirty needles, as well as prostitution. In last August, a visit of a police party of 30 officers, gone to investigate drugs trafficking from a local arms factory in Kokang region, developed into a major fight between Myanmar’s armed forces and the pro Chinese Kokang army. This resulted into a huge outflow of Chinese migrants and people of Chinese origin to Nansen district in Yunnan. About 37000 Chinese fled Kokang.
Chinese Government responded with outbursts of anger against Myanmar. This brought up again profound suspicion of China in Myanmar, which dates back to before independence from the British in 1948, in spite of Beijing’s overt support to it in the past 20 years or so.
Myanmar Generals are vehemently anti communist and are suspicious of banned Communist party of Burma. Most of them have fought in the anti-communist/anti-Beijing operations in the 1950s and 1960s. In these operations, Chinese soldiers wore Burmese Communist military uniform and had participated in actual battles against the Burmese armed forces. It’s difficult to conceive a change of heart on behalf of the Burmese generals toward Beijing.
The agreement between India and Myanmar must be seen in this light. After a while, India seems to have a winning hand. Yet it is obvious that Myanmar’s wily Generals are aware of this New Game in the east and see that being friendly to India is an important counterweight to China. Myanmar’s foreign relations always reflect that the Generals are constantly playing one off the other. It must be agreed that it is a very simple but effective strategy, to keep everyone coming after you.
With Myanmar Generals being willful partners in this game, India has really no choice but to play the game.
25 January 2010