The India-Myanmar border has recently made the headlines after the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) reportedly conducted counter insurgency operations against Indian insurgents groups. But cross border movement of insurgents is only one of several security challenges facing the policing of the border. Pushpita Das (Research Fellow, IDSA) examines the other security challenges currently emanating across the India-Myanmar border.
In February 2019 the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) reportedly conducted counter insurgency operations against the Indian insurgents groups based at the Naga self-administered zone in Sagaing region of Myanmar. The news reports alleged that the Tatmadaw destroyed a number of insurgent groups camps, seized arms and ammunition, and arrested several cadres of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K) and Meitei insurgent groups.
It is also reported that the Tatmadaw asked all non-Myanmar insurgents to leave the country and warned the NSCN (K) against giving shelter to any Indian insurgent groups in their headquarters at Ta Ga. It is estimated that around 2,000 cadres of Indian insurgent groups active in the Northeast, such as the United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland –S (NDFB-S), the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), etc. continue to hide in Myanmar.
The normality of crossing the border
That the Indian insurgents can cross the international border and hide in the neighbouring country is not new. Since the inception of insurgency in the Northeast in the 1950s, the Naga, Mizo, Meitei, and Assamese insurgents have been crossing over into Myanmar to set up bases, especially in the Chin state and Sagaing Region, where they rest, recoup, train, plan and launch future offensives, and take shelter when pursued by the Indian security forces. Tacit approval of the Myanmar government and fraternal ties with other insurgent groups have facilitated the establishment of these safe havens. In fact, the shelter and support that the Indian insurgent groups receive from across the border have been one of the most important factors which has helped them in sustaining their rebellion even when faced with the superior might of the Indian security forces.
Gun running and drug trafficking across the India-Myanmar border
Besides cross border movement of insurgents, rampant gun running and drug trafficking are other significant security challenges emanating across the India-Myanmar border. The Indian insurgent groups have been procuring arms from the black markets of Southeast Asia as well as from Myanmar-based rebel groups such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA). While the bulk of the weapons from Thailand and Cambodia are smuggled through the sea route, some of them are also smuggled overland through the India-Myanmar border with the help of Chin and Arakanese insurgents. These weapons are often brought in as headloads by the insurgents as well as the local villagers because these headloads are seldom checked by the border guarding forces. Weapons produced in China are also routed across the Myanmar border at Ruili and then trucked via Lashio, Mandalay and Monywa to enter the Indian border through Phek, Chandel, Churachandpur and Champai.
Narcotics and the ‘Golden Triangle’
Proximity to Myanmar in the ‘Golden Triangle’ makes the India-Myanmar border vulnerable to trafficking of heroin and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) produced in Myanmar. These narcotics are trafficked into India through the states of Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland from Bhamo, Lashio and Mandalay. The most important trafficking route is the one which enters Moreh in Manipur through Tamu and travels thence to Imphal and Kohima via National Highway-39 – vividly described by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy in Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy (Harvard, 2011). Reverse trafficking of precursor chemicals such as ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine as well as codeine-based medicinal preparations from India to Myanmar takes place through the same route. While the bigger insurgent groups are not directly involved in drug trafficking to generate funds, they do so indirectly by demanding protection money from drug mafia for allowing safe passage to the drug consignments through their area.
The 1967 boundary agreement
The susceptibility of the India-Myanmar border to these threats and challenges stems from a number of factors. First, even though the international boundary between the two countries had been formally delimited and demarcated (except the northern tri-junction where India-Myanmar and China meet, pending the final resolution of the India-China boundary dispute) following the boundary agreement on March 10, 1967, the boundary has not crystallised on the ground as lines separating two sovereign countries. This is because like most of the boundaries that India shares with its neighbours, the India-Myanmar boundary is also superimposed on the socio-cultural landscape of the borderland, dividing several tribes and forcing them to reside as citizens of different countries. These tribes, however, refuse to accept the artificial line and continue to maintain strong cross-border ethnic linkages. Such linkages are often exploited by the insurgents to find shelter across the border among their own kinsmen who are sympathetic towards their ‘cause’.
The Free Movement Regime
Second, the India-Myanmar border has a unique arrangement in place called the Free Movement Regime (FMR). The FMR permits the tribes residing along the border to travel 16-km across the boundary without visa restrictions. While the FMR has helped the tribes continue maintain their age old ties, it has also become a cause of concern for the security establishment as its provisions are exploited by the Indian insurgents to cross over to Myanmar unrestricted and establish safe havens. Another provision in the FMR, which allows tribal people to carry headload has also been misused to smuggle in drugs, weapons and other contraband.
The terrain of the India-Myanmar border
Third, the terrain of the India-Myanmar border also adds to its vulnerability. High mountains, deep river channels together with lush forest characterise the borderland. Such a terrain does not lend itself easily to the construction of means of transportation and communication, and as a result, the border area remains sparsely populated with depressed economic development. Absence of roads, communication links and other border guarding infrastructure also adversely affect policing as they hamper the easy and rapid movement of the border guarding forces along the border.
Last but not least, attention accorded to the India-Myanmar border by the Indian government has been woefully inadequate. The Assam Rifles, which is the designated border guarding force for the India-Myanmar border, deploy only 15 battalions out of 46 battalions for border guarding purposes and the rest are engaged in counter insurgency operations. These 15 battalions are also not deployed at the border or spread along the entire border but clustered as company-operated bases (COBs) stationed deep inside, thereby preventing the force from dominating the border domination and restricting their ability to prevent illegal cross-border movements. Efforts to build a 10 km fence to prevent cross-border movement of insurgents have also been stalled because of protests by local residents. More importantly, the Indian government’s efforts to garner Myanmar’s help in addressing the insurgency issue by jointly managing the India-Myanmar border have not produced desired results in the past.
Given that poor security along the India-Myanmar border poses a challenge to India’s security, it is imperative that India strengthens security of the border and redoubles its efforts to meaningfully engage Myanmar to effectively manage this border. To begin with, it should give the Assam Rifles the sole responsibility of guarding the India-Myanmar border and strengthen it with adequate manpower and equipment. At the same time, through sustained community interaction programmes, the border community should be sensitised to participate in the nation building project. International borders are best managed when neighbours cooperate to secure their mutual borders. For such cooperation to materialise, political and diplomatic initiatives requires to be carefully crafted. India has been constructively engaging Myanmar so that it remains sensitive to India’s security concerns. In fact, the latest crack down on Indian insurgent groups by the Tatmadaw is a successful outcome of such engagements. India should maintain this momentum of cooperation with Myanmar for better managing their shared border.
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Pushpita Das is Research Fellow and Coordinator of the Internal Security Centre at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.