India in the Myanmar muddle
Desperate to complete the ambitious US$ 484 million Kaladan Multimodal Project and get it operational, India may be getting too closely involved in what is essentially Myanmar's problem, namely, tackling an invigorated insurgency in the country's coastal province of Rakhine (previously Arakan).
Policy analysts familiar with Myanmar advise New Delhi to be cautious.
The Arakan Army (AA), formed in 2009 in the northern state of Kachin, is now attacking the Burmese military called “Tatmadaw” continuously, even in urban areas, in an effort to weaken Tatmadow’s hold on the strategic Rakhine province, where both China and India have initiated major connectivity projects.
The Chinese have finished the Kyaukphyu deep sea port and are going ahead with a Special Economic Zone around it with rail-road connections and oil-gas pipelines linking it with their Yunnan province.
The Indians have renovated the Sittwe port and are seeking to use it to connect to Mizoram in India through the Kaladan river.
The Myanmar military suspects that the AA is trying to create a liberated zone with a strong base in Rakhine in keeping with its bid to free Rakhine of Myanmar’s control.
But analysts say that the Myanmar army is unable to curb the Arakan Army, which has 7000-8000 well-armed fighters trained by the Kachins.
"The Arakan Army is pursuing a different kind of warfare. It is not trying to hold territory. It hits the Tatmadaw hard and then vanishes. The Tatmadaw has no answer to this highly mobile warfare," says Myanmar specialist, Bertil Lintner.
That the Arakan Army is not to be taken lightly weighs heavy with Indian military planners. They want to back the Tatmadaw to regain control over the rebels in Rakhine so that the Kaladan project is completed and made operational. But they don't want to get too deeply involved so as to avoid Arakan Army retaliation.
"We should stay away from the Rakhine muddle. Surely we should not get involved militarily, much as the Myanmar army the Tatmadaw might want us to ," says military analyst John Mukherjee.
Mukherjee, a retired Lieutenant General and a former Chief of Staff of India's Eastern Command, heads the Calcutta-based security affairs think tank CENERS-K, which counts former army chief General Shankar Raychoudhuri among its patrons.
"The project is important for India, specially for Mizoram State, but it is not something for which we should get involved in fighting the Arakan Army rebels," Mukherjee told South Asian Monitor.
After years of delay, in 2018, India finally kicked off the construction of the 109-km road project that connects the Paletwa River terminal with Zorinpui on the Mizoram-Myanmar border. But still work on this phase of the project has been tortuously slow. One reason for this is the Arakan Army's constant disruptions. They kidnap workers involved in road and bridge construction.
The ₹1,600-crore road project that passes through dense forests and hilly areas was awarded to the Delhi-based C&C Constructions in June 2017. But the contractor had to wait till January 2018 for the requisite clearances from the Myanmar government to start work.
The company lobbied for strong military action and the Indian army conducted Operation Sunrise last year to demolish the Arakan Army's bases in southern Mizoram. The Indian army formally accepted, in a press statement, that the operation was necessary to tackle the Arakan Army which had 'emerged as a threat to the Kaladan project."
On completion, the project will help connect Mizoram with the Sittwe Port in Rakhine State of Myanmar. The project was undertaken as a sea-land access to the Northeast when Bangladesh under then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was not playing ball. But now, with the Hasina government agreeing to multi modal transit to North East India through Bangladesh (road, rail, sea), the Kakadan project is not so important anymore, except for landlocked Mizoram.
"It is not something which calls for military intervention," says Myanmar watcher Binoda Mishra of the Centre for Studies in International Relations & Development (CSIRD). "We should learn to balance, to hunt with the hound and swim with the crocodile," he says.
India has already completed the rest of the Kaladan project in Myanmar. This includes the construction of the Sittwe Port on the Lakadan river mouth in Rakhine; construction of a river terminal 158 upstream at Paletwa; and dredging of the Kaladan river.
On the Indian side, work is on to extend the Aizawl-Saiha National Highway by 90 km to the international border at Zorinpui. Also, a ₹6,000-crore project is underway for four laning the 300-km highway from the Myanmar border to Aizawl to ensure faster movement of goods.
Completion of the Paletwa-Zorinpui road, therefore, holds the key to operationalize the Kaladan multi-modal project.
However, after Operation Sunrise, the Arakan Army has attacked Indian interests more regularly than before. In November2019, five Indian workers and four local workers involved with the Kaladan road project were kidnapped, along with a Maynmarse MP from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) MP in Chin State of Myanmar.
Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, a former rebel leader with extensive contacts among the rebel groups on the India-Myanmar border, played a key role in getting all workers except one, and the Myanmarese MP released. One of the workers had died in captivity.
A similar incident of abduction of local workers involved with the Kaladan project took place in March 2019. The Arakan Army set ablaze a civilian vessel carrying 300 steel frames for the Paletwa bridge and the crew were abducted. That perhaps influenced India to undertake Operation Sunrise in close coordination with the Tatmadaw.
But instead of being cowed down, the operation seems to have provoked the Arakan Army more.
AA spokesman U Khaing Thukkha recently told the Myanmar media: “China recognizes us but India doesn't." Analysts say that because India has refused to pay up, the Arakan Army is upset. They feel China may have already done that to ensure there is no disruption of its Kyaukphyu deep sea port and the SEZ project. Initially that project was pitched at US$ 6 billion but has now been scaled down to below US$ 2 billion because Myanmar fears an unsustainable debt burden.
"In Myanmar, China maintains fine relations with both the federal government and the Tatmadaw on the one hand and also with rebel groups, specially those in the Northern Alliance. It is an open secret and widely reported in the media that it has armed the Wa and Kokang groups. It is possible that Chinese agencies have already paid the Arakan Army," a leading military analyst with a top Delhi based think tank told Southasian Monitor.
There is no evidence of Chinese assistance to the Arakan Army though. Butthe fact that the Chinese project at Kyaukphyu has not been disturbed and the Indian Kaladan project has been, has raised suspicions about Chinese payments.
“We should follow the Chinese model of playing all sides rather than get dragged into the Rakhine conflict by the Myanmar military," John Mukherjee said.
The Tatmadaw had recently requested the Indian army to provide it passage through some strategic corridors in southern Mizoram. That has raised questions in New Delhi. The lessons learned from the involvement in Sri Lanka's Tamil conflict weigh heavy on India, specially its army. The Indian Peace Keeping Force not only suffered major losses in Jaffna but it also provoked the Tamil Tigers, once backed by India, to attack and kill former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga recently told South Asian Monitor that he had asked Prime Minister Modi and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar to appoint a new contractor for the Kaladan project because C&C has gone bankrupt .
"The C&C has no idea how to do business in this area. Rakhine is not Indian territory and the Indian army can't do much. I have asked Delhi to appoint a new contractor who can then be properly advised," Zoramthanga said, hinting that the new contractor can be put in touch with the Arakan Army and could pay up to buy peace.
The Arakan Army has maintained that it is not against trans-national projects in Rakhine, provided India "recognizes" AA and does not cooperate with the Tatmadaw.
Zoramthanga, a former rebel leader who now helps Modi bring other northeastern rebel groups to the table, is clearly against any Indian military adventure in Rakhine. He would much rather use his influence with the AA to get the Kaladan project going, as it is very important for his State, Mizoram. But such a course risks upsetting the Yangon government, specially its all-powerful military.
Stretched in counter-insurgency duties in Kashmir and the North East and having to stand guard over the long borders with China and Pakistan, the Indian army can ill afford to get dragged into the Rakhine muddle by the wily Myanmar Generals as it got dragged into Jaffna by a shrewd Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene.
The million dollar question before India now is whether it can develop its Myanmar policy entirely on good relations with the ruling regime and the military or it will have to revert back to the 1987-96 policy of "selective relationships" with rebel groups like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) or the National Unity Party of Arakans (NUPA) to protect its interests on the border which the Myanmar military has failed to control.
With someone like Zoramthanga (who admits to having played some role in the Burmese peace process in the pre-SuuKyi era) around, India could actually consider a role in bringing the AA and the Tatmadaw to the negotiating table.