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Why India is worried about China and Myanmar as conflict flares up in its northeast region

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People in in Kohima, Nagaland, at a 70km march demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces
Special Powers Act. Photo: AP

Mumbai: Trouble has returned to India’s remote northeast, a region that has long had a testy relationship with New Delhi. The area spans seven states, including four that share a border with Myanmar and one with China.

More than 200 ethnic groups and tribes live across the resource-rich region, where several insurgents and separatist movements operate.

Many of these separatist groups claim the Indian government has done little to help their communities since independence, but exploits them of their assets, from rare herbs in Assam to metals like copper in Sikkim and gold in Nagaland.

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In recent months, the northeast has been rocked by fresh violence and protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration. These have been complicated by unrest in Myanmar against a military coup that toppled the elected government in February 2021.

At the same time, China’s growing engagement with Myanmar, its assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific and its ongoing border stand-off with India have also rattled New Delhi.

Why have clashes erupted in India’s northeast?

Since the latter half of 2021, a series of separate events fuelled by historical tensions and territorial feuds have shattered the uneasy peace in India’s northeast.

In August, decades-old border disagreements between the states of Assam and Mizoram were reignited after massive crowds from both sides clashed at a contested spot, killing at least six police officers and injuring more than 50 people.

In November, militants in Manipur state linked to the separatist People’s Liberation of Army of Manipur ambushed a convoy consisting of personnel from the Indian paramilitary force, the Assam Rifles, killing seven of them, including the commanding officer’s wife and son.

In December, eight civilians in Nagaland state were killed after Indian soldiers attacked a pickup truck, mistakenly believing it to be ferrying insurgents. The shooting sparked a violent protest that led to the deaths of six more civilians and one soldier, and injured many others.

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As anger over the Nagaland killings continues to simmer, civil society organisations have demanded that the Indian armed forces prosecute every soldier involved in the December incident and that all army camps in the Mon district, where the incident occurred, be moved out of civilian areas.

On January 15, multiple representatives from the Konyak community – Nagaland’s largest tribe – held a summit to discuss a response towards the bloodshed.

“We decided to give the government 10 more days for them to ensure justice for those dead. If they don’t, then we will escalate our movement,” said Phoe Konyak, the general secretary of the Konyak Students Union (KSU).

While the KSU secretary refused to elaborate on the next steps, a statement by various civil society organisations, including the KSU, warned they would “continue the non-cooperation” with the Indian army and “abstain” from participating in any government-organised events held in the area, if there was no action taken by January 25.

Participants at the summit also announced that a “Genocide Park” memorial would be built at the spot of the clashes.

Meanwhile, there are fears a 2015 peace deal signed between the Modi government and the separatist Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland, which has yet to be fully implemented, will be scuppered.

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Village guards keep vigil at the entrance of Oting village, Nagaland. Photo: AP

What is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act?

While India’s Union Home Minister Amit Shah expressed regret and blamed the Nagaland killing on “mistaken identity”, it has triggered fresh upheaval in the state, with its ramifications being felt across the northeast.

Anti-government protests have spread in the region, with locals demanding that New Delhi repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a controversial colonial-era law that gives sweeping powers to the Indian army – including the power to shoot suspects and the ability to make arrests without warrants – in any area the government declares to be “disturbed”. The legislation also protects officials from any legal proceedings against them.

The demand is being echoed by even local government figures linked to the ruling party, including Meghalaya’s chief minister Conrad Sangma, whose party is in alliance with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

But many within the Indian army say that repealing AFSPA would affect military and paramilitary forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations. Already, the Assam Rifles has been forced to “temporarily” suspend its operations in Mon district, even though the district is a sensitive border-district along the India-Myanmar boundary.

Amid these woes, the Modi government is also dealing with a vexed question around the influx of refugees from neighbouring Myanmar.

How is Myanmar tied to all this?

India and Myanmar share a 1,643km-long porous border, where the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram lie. Many tribes in the area have close ties across the border. Hence, local Indian populations have been sympathetic to refugees fleeing from the Myanmar coup.

Unwilling to be seen siding with those opposing the Myanmar junta, the Indian government has cautioned the four states against taking in refugees, except only those in dire circumstances. But locals have strongly protested the order, which has become an emotive issue for communities along the border.

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India’s Nagaland, as seen from Longwa village in Myanmar’s Sagaing region. Photo: AFP

In addition, New Delhi might have reasons to fear that the coup has distracted Naypyidaw from taking action against India’s northeastern militant groups, who often seek shelter across the border in Myanmar.

“There is a sense the Myanmar junta has lost control over some of these Indian groups that take shelter in the country and hence, isn’t able to crack down on them the way New Delhi would like,” said Deepak Sinha, a retired Indian army brigadier who has overseen many counter-insurgency operations in the region.

In early January, local media reports said some Indian army commandos had crossed the border to Myanmar and killed at least two members of the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur. But the Indian military later dismissed the reports as “baseless and factually incorrect”.

New Delhi has long harboured suspicions that Beijing is covertly supporting rebel groups and insurgents operating in the northeast, according to Sinha.

One of India’s persistent concerns is that Beijing will exploit the unrest in the northeast. The Global Times, a state-backed Chinese tabloid, has in the past carried articles by Chinese academics who have suggested that Beijing should consider backing separatist forces in the northeast if New Delhi bolstered its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The tabloid has also said China could stop recognising the border state of Sikkim as part of India.

Already, China considers the Indian-administered region of Arunachal Pradesh as being illegally occupied by India. Both countries have been in conflict for decades over territories along their almost 3,500km border.

Last month, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs announced new Chinese names for 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh. India said assigning “invented” names would not change the issue of sovereignty, to which Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded that southern Tibet had historically been Chinese territory and the renaming it came within “the scope of China’s sovereignty”.

Such concerns have also meant that India is eager to not displease Myanmar’s military junta regime, even though New Delhi has traditionally shared warm relations with Aung San Suu Kyi, the ousted Myanmar leader who has been jailed by the junta.

New Delhi is closely watching the advances that Beijing has made in its ties with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military. Chinese special envoy Sun Guoxiang has made multiple trips to Myanmar since the coup, with China recently stepping up its defence ties with Myanmar by giving it a Ming-class submarine. The Myanmar junta, in a statement last month, said it enjoyed a special “kinship” with China and called the joint infrastructure projects with Beijing “a major priority” for the country.

As a result, ten months after the coup, New Delhi made its first outreach to Naypyidaw when it sent Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla for a two-day visit. While the differences between the two sides were glaring – Shringla’s request to meet Suu Kyi was reportedly rejected – the two sides spoke of trade, humanitarian and food aid as well as an “expeditious implementation” on ongoing connectivity projects.