Here’s Why Foreign Secretary Shringla Went To Myanmar And What He Told The Military Junta

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Dec 24, 2021 12:59 PM +05:30 IST
Here’s Why Foreign Secretary Shringla Went To Myanmar And What He Told The Military JuntaForeign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla (wikipedia/Chandan Shah)
Snapshot
  • Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla's two-day visit to Myanmar that ended yesterday was India’s first outreach to the country after the military seized power in a coup in February this year.

    The message conveyed to Tatmadaw was to stop supporting rebels of outfits belonging to India’s northeastern states based in Myanmar.

Foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s two-day visit to Myanmar this week was India’s first outreach to that country after the military seized power in a coup in February this year.

The visit, which ended Thursday (23 December), was quite an unusual one. Shringla drew some red lines and delivered a tough message to the military (known as the ‘Tatmadaw’) which rules the country now.

The most important message to the Tatmadaw was to stop supporting, even indirectly, rebels of outfits belonging to India’s northeastern states who are based in Myanmar.

“The message delivered to the military rulers there was unequivocal and stern: that they will have to stop supporting the northeast rebels who are sheltered in that country,” a senior officer of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) told Swarajya.

The 1 February military coup and the crackdown on political parties triggered widespread protests in Myanmar. Brutal retaliation by the Tatmadaw in pro-democracy protests have led to more than a thousand deaths.

The Tatmadaw has, covertly, been using the Northeast India rebels sheltered in that country to quell protests in the restive provinces bordering India. India’s intelligence agencies have uncovered newly-forged links between the Tatmadaw and some Manipuri rebel outfits.

These rebel outfits have been assisting the Myanmarese army in identifying pockets of resistance in the Rakhine, Chin and Sagaing provinces that border the Indian states of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Many ethnic groups in these provinces have been carrying out armed struggles and have targeted Myanmarese forces, resulting in considerable casualties and losses for the Tatmadaw.

“The Myanmarese military has been covertly providing assistance in the form of arms and logistical support to some of the Northeast rebel outfits like the Yung Aung faction of the NSCN(K) and Manipuri outfits like the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) to carry out secret strikes on ethnic groups and pro-democracy activists in that country," said the MEA officer.

"It is suspected that this is being done with tacit approval from China which has strong links with some of these Northeast India outfits,” the officer added.

This support from the Tatmadaw has emboldened the Northeast outfits to step up their activities in India. “The attack on a senior army officer (Colonel Viplav Tripathi) and his family in Manipur’s Churachandpur district in mid-November is the direct fallout of the encouragement that the rebel groups which carried out the ambush have received from the Myanmarese military,” said a senior officer of a central intelligence agency.

“The Manipuri groups and the NSCN(K) have become very active and are planning more strikes. They are being assured immunity by the Tatmadaw in return for attacking ethnic groups and pro-democracy activists in Myanmar. They (the NE rebels) have their bases in the thick forests just across the international border in Myanmar and that makes it easy for them to sneak through the porous international border into India, carry out attacks and flee back to the safety of their bases across the border,” the officer said.

The botched operation that resulted in deaths of many civilians and one army jawan in Mon district of Nagaland earlier this month is also the fallout of the covert support that the NSCN(K) receives in Myanmar.

“The Yung Aung faction of the NSCN(K) has become very active in Nagaland and has been planning strikes against the armed forces here. A lot of intelligence had been received on their activities and movements. It was one such intelligence input that led to the army setting up an ambush that went terribly wrong and resulted in so many deaths. This unfortunate incident is the direct fallout of this rebel group receiving support by the Myanmarese military,” said the senior intelligence officer.

A senior officer at the Indian Army’s 3 Corps headquarters in Rangapahar (Nagaland) told Swarajya that militants belonging to the NSCN(K) and some Manipuri outfits have become active and cross-border movement has also increased.

“We have information on some of their bases inside Myanmar, but it is not possible always to carry out surgical strikes (like the one in June 2015 in response to an ambush on an army convoy in Manipur by militants sheltered in Myanmar) on them for various reasons,” said the officer.

Another cause for alarm (for India) is the tensions that have been sparked by the strikes by the NE rebel outfits on some Chin ethnic groups in Myanmar. Over the past few months, more than 10,000 Chin refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar have taken shelter in Mizoram.

“The Chin refugees have close ethnic ties with the Mizos and the attacks they faced in Myanmar from some of the NE rebel outfits (the Manipuri ones) can trigger enthic tensions in the Northeast itself,” said the intelligence officer.

Foreign secretary Shringla made it clear to the military junta in Myanmar that the use of northeastern rebel outfits to quell rebellion and pro-democracy protests in the provinces bordering India must stop.

“The foreign secretary also said unrest in the three provinces of Myanmar bordering India has a spillover in the Northeast and, thus, peace and stability in those provinces of Myanmar) is important for India,” the MEA officer said.

Shringla also elicited a commitment from Myanmar’s top general who heads the State Administration Council (SAC)--General Min Aung Hlaing--to not only stop all forms of covert support to the NE militants who have taken refuge in Myanmar, but also take measures to force out these rebels from Myanmarese territory.

In return, Myanmar was promised aid in the form of food and medicines. Shringla handed over one million doses of Covid vaccines to the Myanmar Red Cross Society and committed a grant of 10,000 tonnes of rice and wheat to that country. More aid has been promised in return for the Tatmadaw’s “cooperation”.

India has also promised to help the Tatmadaw overcome international isolation and western sanctions in return for the military junta taking concrete steps towards restoration of democracy. Shringla made it clear to General Hlaing that only a return to democracy can ensure progress for Myanmar and that it is also in India’s interests for Myanmar to become a democratic country again.

Shringla made it clear to the generals as well as leaders of the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) that there was no way the country could continue to be ruled by the military junta and ensure peace and progress at the same time.

The Indian foreign secretary made a pointed reference to the five-point plan for Myanmar laid down by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and said India fully backed that plan. What was also unique about Shringla’s visit was his meeting with the envoys of USA, Australia, Norway, the Czech Republic, Cambodia (the current chair of ASEAN), Thailand and Japan, as well as senior UN officials stationed in Myanmar.

“The strong signal that went out to the military junta from these meetings was that New Delhi stands by the international community that is demanding an end to military rule and restoration of democracy in Myanmar. But India will also continue to engage with the Tatmadaw,” said the MEA officer.

The foreign secretary also elicited a promise of support from the Tatmadaw in expediting work on the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project and the Trilateral Highway Project. Shringla sweetened the pill for Myanmar’s generals by promising to enhance financial aid for the Rakhine State Development Programme and the India-Myanmar Border Area Development Programme.

India has been funding these two development programmes to provide housing, roads and other infrastructure as well as livelihood to the impoverished people living in Myanmar’s provinces bordering India. “The objective is to ensure development and prosperity for the ethnic groups in these border provinces of Myanmar that will lead to these restive areas becoming peaceful. This is in the interests of both the countries,” the MEA officer added.

Shringla, thus, did some tough plain-talking with Myanmar’s ruling generals, and also made them see the benefits of cooperating with India and also steering the country towards restoration of democracy.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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