“Geopolitics is a complex game where strategic calculations must consider regional dynamics, historical ties, and emerging challenges.”
In the realm of academia and military analysis, Myanmar has often been scrutinized from an external standpoint, primarily through the lens of international relations. The Military Rule in Myanmar has left a profound impact on the nation and neighboring countries, particularly India. The centralized and hierarchical command structure of the Tatmadaw has enabled the military to exert significant influence over Myanmar’s politics and governance, leading to decades of political instability and human rights abuses.
The presence of insurgent groups in the region, some of which have found sanctuary on the Myanmar side of the border, has been a source of concern for India’s security establishment.
The history of military coups in Myanmar reflects a troubling pattern of suppressing democracy and restricting civil liberties, leaving the nation grappling with social, economic, and political turmoil. This impact has extended beyond Myanmar’s borders, affecting regional stability and posing security challenges for India, especially in its northeastern states. The consequences of military rule have been devastating, perpetuating poverty and stifling dissent. Additionally, the harsh crackdown on minority groups, such as the Rohingya, has drawn international condemnation and brought immense suffering to innocent lives.
As India seeks to address the welfare and development of the Eastern Nagas, a crucial aspect of the Indo-Myanmar relationship, it becomes imperative to prioritize inclusivity and respect for legal rights/constitutional rights/human rights while fostering economic cooperation with Myanmar.
Moreover, the protracted Naga issue, a multifaceted and long-standing challenge, carries substantial implications for the security and regional stability of both northeastern India and its neighboring nation, Myanmar. At its heart, the Naga issue is rooted in the quest for greater autonomy and the recognition of the distinctive identity and cultural heritage of the Naga people.
One of the Key actors in this protracted conflict include the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM). Central to this issue is the demand for a separate Naga homeland, often referred to as “Greater Nagalim” under one single administrative umbrella with Separate Flag and Constitution.
Within this complex landscape, one critical aspect with direct repercussions for both India and Myanmar is the “Free Movement Regime.” This regime, established in 1977, enables Naga tribes residing with 15 km on either side of the India-Myanmar border to traverse the international boundaries without the need for visas or passports. This arrangement acknowledges the historical and cultural bonds that unite Naga communities living on either side of the border. However, it’s important to emphasize that the Free Movement Regime transcends socio-cultural aspects and carries significant political and security implications.
Considering the complex dynamics, insurgency in Northeast India, which was being fueled by India’s adversaries, has reached that stage where insurgents are neither safe inside India nor outside it.
From a socio-cultural standpoint, the Free Movement Regime fosters a sense of unity among Naga tribes and facilitates the preservation of their cultural heritage and traditions. It allows families separated by international borders to maintain connections and facilitates cultural exchanges, thereby contributing to the cohesion of Naga communities.
Nonetheless, the Free Movement Regime also presents security challenges for both India and Myanmar. The porous India-Myanmar border, characterized by challenging terrain, dense forests, unmarked routes and limited border infrastructure, poses difficulties in monitoring cross-border movement. This porosity has been exploited by insurgent groups for illicit activities such as arms smuggling, drug trafficking, arms procurement and illegal trade.
The security implications of the Naga issue, insurgency and the Free Movement Regime are intertwined. The presence of insurgent groups in the region, some of which have found sanctuary on the Myanmar side of the border, has been a source of concern for India’s security establishment. These groups, operating in both India’s northeastern states and Myanmar’s border regions, have disrupted peace and stability in the area, leading to violence and instability.
Considering the complex dynamics, insurgency in Northeast India, which was being fueled by India’s adversaries, has reached that stage where insurgents are neither safe inside India nor outside it. After the military coup in Myanmar in Feb 2021, insurgent groups from Northeast India made a deal with Myanmar Army/Tatmadaw to fight along with them against the pro-democratic faction (like People’s Defense Forces, PDF) and the other groups considered rebels by the Myanmar army. This alliance of Tatmadaw and insurgent groups has been reported not just by Indian media but also by international media houses (ref-https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Crisis/Insurgents-from-India-add-fuel-to-fire-in-Myanmar-s-restive-north).
The rebarbative deal earned Indian insurgent groups the wrath of pro-democracy factions in Myanmar and consequently VBIGS (Valley based insurgent groups), a collaboration of multiple insurgent groups, are being stifled both in India and Myanmar.
On December 27, 2022, Myanmar was abuzz with news of an ambush by pro-democratic forces, resulting in the death of seven individuals, including a self-styled officer affiliated with an ally of the Myanmar army known as SNA or the Shanni Nationalities Army (red). This incident occurred along the Friendship Road, between Myothit and Mintha, in close proximity to India’s border. The responsibility for this attack was claimed by the Kuki National Army, a group known for its armed confrontations with the Tatmadaw.
In a separate incident on January 4, 2023, two senior self-styled officers of UNLF were killed in Khenman, Myanmar, just a few kilometers from the Indian border. One of the deceased had been recruited in the 1990s, while the other was closely associated with the former NSCN (K) chairman, Khaplang. These attacks represent a series of hostile actions against insurgent groups from Northeast India operating within Myanmar since the military coup in February 2021.
China’s historical relationship with insurgent groups in the region, dating back to the 1970s when Meitei rebels visited Lhasa to seek Chinese assistance, has left a trail of evidence pointing to its support for these groups.
These assaults on Indian insurgents have been occurring with increasing frequency. In May 2021, 15 Meitei insurgents fell victim to an attack by the Tamu Public Defence Force (TPDF), a civilian militia in Myanmar. Then, in September 2022, three PLA (self-styled) officer cadres met their demise near Momo village, close to Onziya, due to internal strife.
Importantly, China’s involvement and support for Valley Based Insurgent Groups (VBIGs), which include the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA-MP), UNLF, United People’s Party of Kangleipak (UPPK), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), Kanglei Yawo lKanna Lup (KYKL), and Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP).Collectively, these groups coalesce under the banner of the Joint Fighting Force (JFF).
Available intelligence reports estimate their combined membership to be within the range of 700 to 1,200 individuals have added a layer of complexity to the regional dynamics. China’s historical relationship with insurgent groups in the region, dating back to the 1970s when Meitei rebels visited Lhasa to seek Chinese assistance, has left a trail of evidence pointing to its support for these groups. Reports also suggest that PLA members are regrouping in the borderlands of China’s Yunnan province, raising concerns about China’s intentions.
The majority of these groups’ illicit activities are concentrated within the territorial confines of Manipur, albeit their operational bases are predominantly situated in remote encampments within Myanmar. The upkeep and sustenance of these terrorist encampments within the dense jungles of Myanmar necessitate significant financial expenditures. Notably, each of these encampments pays substantial sums in US dollars to the Myanmar Army in exchange for security and operational support.
Furthermore, Long Xingchun, the President of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs, an institution under the purview of the Chinese government, has openly articulated China’s motivations. Long Xingchun warned that if India were to support Taiwan’s pursuit of independence, China would have grounds to support separatist elements operating within India’s northeastern states. This statement underscores the intricate and delicate geopolitical dynamics in the region, where the activities of insurgent groups, Chinese support, and the potential for international entanglements create a threatening mosaic of security concerns.
China’s involvement adds yet another layer of complexity to the situation. China has emerged as a crucial ally of the Tatmadaw and has significantly expanded its influence in Myanmar through various means, including investments, infrastructure projects, and diplomatic support. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has played a pivotal role in its increased presence in Myanmar, exemplified by major infrastructure projects like the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
China’s interests in Myanmar extend beyond economic considerations; they also encompass strategic objectives. Myanmar serves as a vital gateway for China’s access to the Indian Ocean, offering an alternative route that bypasses the vulnerable chokepoint of the Malacca Strait. In order to protect its interests and ensure a stable environment in Myanmar, China may be inclined to turn a blind eye to the strategic influences of the Tatmadaw, including the strategic ‘usage’ of the Free Movement Regime.
China’s strategic interests in Myanmar exhibit a noteworthy convergence with the objectives of the Tatmadaw, centered on the preservation of stability and Junta’s authority within the nation.
In this intricate geopolitical milieu, the existence of insurgent elements, including splinter factions emanating from the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (K), who remain averse to engaging in peace negotiations, within the vicinity of the India-Myanmar border assumes heightened significance. It is worth noting that Meitei groups and Naga groups often hold divergent and occasionally antagonistic objectives, precluding their coalescence, although it is acknowledged that the Manipur People’s Liberation Army (PLA) did receive its initial training from the NSCN in northern Myanmar during the 1980s. The sole commonality among these groups is their utilization of China’s Kunming (Yunnan-Fu) as a sanctuary for shelter and a source for procuring arms.
Insurgent factions have been embarking on journeys to China for the acquisition of weaponry from the ‘Black Market” of arms and ammunition situated in ‘Kunming’ which is also known as Yunnan Fu. Additionally, they have engaged in the illicit narcotics trade within the border regions of China, Myanmar, and Thailand to generate funding for their insurgent activities. While it is observed that China no longer directly partakes in the provision of training and supplies to these groups, it is imperative to recognize that travel, lodging, and procurement within Kunming’s arms market, within a tightly controlled regime akin to China, cannot transpire without tacit approval and oversight from Chinese intelligence agencies.
Furthermore, it is plausible that Indian insurgent groups may have received weaponry from the Arakan Army. This arrangement could be seen as part of a broader strategy in which the Arakan Army, backed by China, played a role in safeguarding Chinese investments in key infrastructure projects like roads and natural gas pipelines within an extensive economic corridor extending from the Sittwe port to Kunming. This intertwined web of relationships also involved Chinese intelligence agencies providing material support and logistical assistance, including the provision of safe havens, to Indian insurgent factions operating along the India-Myanmar border.
China’s strategic interests in Myanmar exhibit a noteworthy convergence with the objectives of the Tatmadaw, centered on the preservation of stability and Junta’s authority within the nation. Consequently, there exists the potential for China to indirectly derive advantages from the continued presence of insurgent entities within the region. This potential scenario holds the capacity to divert and destabilize India’s northeastern states, effectively advancing China’s strategic imperatives within the area.
In the midst of these intricate regional dynamics, the concept of a “Free movement regime” has long been a subject of concern in the complex geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia. This regime, while designed to facilitate cross-border movement and trade, has raised significant questions about its potential exploitation by the Myanmar army. This exploitation becomes even more pronounced when considering the regime’s role in providing shelter to certain insurgent groups engaged in conflicts against the People’s Defense Forces (PDF). The interplay between China’s interests and the actions of the Myanmar army further complicates the situation, making it imperative to examine the consequences of these intertwined factors.
The presence of insurgent groups in the Naga self-administered zone and their collaboration with the Myanmar army to varying extents creates an intricate web of power dynamics.
One of the regions where the implications of this situation are most evident is in the Naga self-administered zone. This region’s administration is primarily run by members who have historically had affiliations with insurgent groups. This association with armed groups raises concerns about the influence and power wielded by such individuals in governing the region.
What adds another layer of complexity to this scenario is the fact that some of the members appointed to administer the Naga self-administered zone are nominated by the Myanmar army. This raises questions about the extent of control and influence exerted by the military over the region’s governance. It becomes a matter of scrutiny whether these nominations are made with the intention of maintaining a level of control over the zone’s affairs or as part of broader political strategies.
The presence of insurgent groups in the Naga self-administered zone and their collaboration with the Myanmar army to varying extents creates an intricate web of power dynamics. It is a situation where insurgent groups, once in opposition to the government, find themselves in positions of authority and responsibility. This has the potential to reshape not only the administration of the region but also the political landscape of Myanmar itself.
Furthermore, the question of whether the free movement regime, originally designed to foster economic and social ties between bordering nations, is being effectively and responsibly managed comes to the forefront. The concerns over its exploitation by the Myanmar army for strategic purposes highlight the need for greater oversight and transparency in its implementation.
The free movement regime in the context of Myanmar, particularly in regions like the Naga self-administered zone, is entangled with complex dynamics involving insurgent groups, the Myanmar army, and governance structures. The extent to which these dynamics are exploited or managed will have significant implications for regional stability and Myanmar’s broader political landscape. It underscores the importance of international scrutiny and diplomatic efforts to ensure that the regime serves its intended purpose of facilitating cooperation and not exacerbating conflicts.
India’s support for the military junta in Myanmar is rooted in a complex web of strategic and geopolitical considerations. While India values democracy and human rights, it also prioritizes stability in its neighboring region. Myanmar shares a long and porous border with India, and political instability in the country can have spillover effects, impacting India’s security and regional stability. Moreover, India seeks to counter China’s influence in Myanmar, as China has been a key ally of the military regime. By maintaining diplomatic ties with the junta, India aims to keep channels of communication open and influence decision-making to protect its interests. Additionally, India has economic and energy interests in Myanmar, including access to crucial ports and natural resources, which further incentivize engagement with the military rulers.
In conclusion, the intricate geopolitical landscape of Southeast Asia, with its nexus of military rule in Myanmar, insurgency issues, the Free Movement Regime, and China’s strategic interests, presents a complex web of challenges for both India and Myanmar. The military’s centralized command structure has cast a long shadow over Myanmar, resulting in decades of political instability, human rights abuses, and economic stagnation. These consequences have extended beyond Myanmar’s borders, affecting regional stability and posing security challenges for India, especially in its north-eastern states.
Despite the challenges posed by Myanmar’s military junta, India must continue to engage constructively due to several strategic imperatives, including the establishment of a “Frontier Naga Territory” & the need to counterbalance China’s influence.
The Free Movement Regime, while fostering cultural ties among Naga communities, has also been exploited for illicit activities, further complicating the security situation. The involvement of Indian insurgent groups in Myanmar’s internal conflicts, particularly in alliance with the Tatmadaw, has added a layer of complexity to the region’s dynamics.
China’s growing influence in Myanmar and its support for insurgent groups raise concerns about the broader strategic implications of these intertwined factors. China’s interests in Myanmar align with the Tatmadaw’s objectives, potentially diverting and destabilizing India’s northeastern states to advance its strategic imperatives.
In this multifaceted landscape, the concept of a “Frontier Naga Territory” and the welfare of the Eastern Nagas emerge as pivotal elements in shaping the Indo-Myanmar relationship. By prioritizing inclusivity, respect for human rights, and sustainable development, India and Myanmar can foster enduring ties and promote regional stability. Diplomatic dialogue and cooperative efforts are indispensable in untangling the intricate threads of this complex geopolitical situation and ensuring peace and prosperity in the strategic border region.
Despite the challenges posed by Myanmar’s military junta, India must continue to engage constructively due to several strategic imperatives, including the establishment of a “Frontier Naga Territory” and the need to counterbalance China’s influence. By carefully navigating these complex dynamics, India can safeguard its interests, promote regional stability, and contribute to the development and well-being of the Naga communities and the entire northeastern region. In this challenging context, diplomacy and cooperation remain the keys to a brighter future for this strategically vital part of Asia.