With increased violence from United Liberation of Asom (ULFA), External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is visiting Myanmar over the weekend to cement oral agreement on the sidelines of the ASEAN meet in the Philippines on joint operations. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was assured by Myanmar counterpart Premier Soe Win that his nation will take necessary action if India supplies “adequate information” on ULFA camps along the Myanmar border. Mukherjee’s trip is apparently to provide this information to the Myanmar military junta—India seems to have actionable intelligence on the presence of 14 camps along the border.
With Bangladesh, where a significant portion of ULFA leadership lives, in political crisis, New Delhi is banking on Myanmar to liquidate training and launching camps in Myanmar to reduce the number of hits they may undertake. On the surface, this may seem like a quick political ploy to show success on terrorism to stave away increasing criticism from opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, the pattern of attacks in Upper Assam leads officials to believe that the ULFA terrorists may have escaped into Myanmar to escape the cordon-and-search operations launched by the Army, paramilitary, and the police in the jungles of Arunachal Pradesh.
Some reports suggest that Myanmar has moved troops to the east at India’s request but apparently these troop movements are not optimal or that there is scope for more coordination as Yangon’s primary concern is to handle the Karen rebels in Thailand as they perceive a common threat. But India is interested in providing “all possible assistance” including a massive joint operation to flush out the insurgents.
Much to the chagrin of the US, India has been trying to enhance bilateral relationship with Myanmar with whom it has historical, cultural, and religious ties. Further, with a inflexible Bangladesh and political unrest in that country, India is looking strengthen ties to create an alternate sea route to reach the Northeastern states through a paid over-hauling of the Sittwe port. Also, with the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India gas project going nowhere thanks to the recalcitrant attitude of Dhaka, New Delhi is trying to follow the liquefying option to bring Myanmar gas to India. India is involved in several large infrastructure projects in Myanmar like the Kaladan multi-modal transport project. If the joint operations against ULFA even materialize, leave alone the success of it, the bilateral relations would have grown by an order of magnitude.
Significantly, Yangon has also visibly reciprocated India’s overtures. Since top leader Than Shwe’s visit to India in October 2004, his heir apparent Thura Shwe Mann and Home Minister Maung Oo visited India recently. India is already training Myanmar military officials.
Washington has been trying to pressurize New Delhi on supporting its failing bid to force Yangon to embrace democracy and release house-arrested leader Aung San Suu Kyi. While India should encourage democracy world over, especially in its neighborhood, it must also resist the temptation to jump on to the US bandwagon and policy of confrontation of Yangon. While Washington pushes democracy in politically inconvenient countries, it has encouraged autocracy in many supplicating nations such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. At the same time, when inconvenient regimes are elected through democracy such as in Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Bolivia it actively talks about a regime change. Therefore, New Delhi needs to be careful about a regime change or democracy overtures from Washington and not get trapped into programs that has little or no global support—as was evident in the recent failed bid on imposing sanctions on Yangon in the UNSC. Myanmar, as other nations, must choose the best and most benign form of government themselves and external prescriptions however well-intentioned will not succeed—especially in culturally proud Asia.
However, recent evidence on drug running by ULFA terrorists lends credence to Washington’s accusation of narcotics trade by the military junta since the ULFA cannot do these without some level of tacit approval from the Myanmar military. This is something that New Delhi has to raise with Yangon while encouraging Washington to tone down its rhetoric and offer a suite of carrots instead to bring Myanmar back to the mainstream.