Not Only In Ladakh, China Is Needling India In Myanmar As Well Through Its Proxy Rebel Groups There

Not Only In Ladakh, China Is Needling India In Myanmar As Well Through Its Proxy Rebel Groups There

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Saturday, June 6, 2020 08:01 AM IST
Not Only In Ladakh, China Is Needling India In Myanmar As Well Through Its Proxy Rebel Groups ThereThe flags of India and China.
  • Since the militant outfit, Arakan Army (AA), is only disturbing India’s Kaladan project, and not Chinese projects in the region, analysts feel that China is encouraging AA to target the Indian venture.

India’s crucial Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project that aims to provide a direct route from Kolkata to Myanmar and then to Mizoram through sea, river and land has come under fresh threat from the Arakan Army (AA).

There is evidence that the Arakan Army, which is fighting for greater autonomy for the Arakan people in the restive Rakhine province of Myanmar, is aided and armed by China. The AA has repeatedly targeted the Kaladan project, and has been demanding huge sums of money from contractors engaged in the project.

India has refused to pay up, and has been cooperating with the Myanmarese army, called the ‘Tatmadaw’, to tackle the threat posed by the AA. The Indian Army and the Tatmadaw have carried out joint operations, codenamed ‘Operation Sunrise’ (read this) in two phases in February and May last year to strike at the AA and also militants from Northeast India sheltered in western Myanmar.

The AA was on the back-foot after the successful joint operations, but has since regrouped and struck back.

Last week, the AA attacked and overran a Border Guard Police outpost in Rakhine State’s Rathedaung Township. They also abducted four police officials. The attack is said to be in retaliation for Tatmadaw's attack on a medical shelter for AA rebels in Chin state’s Paletwa.

The AA has warned of more such attacks till government forces leave Rakhine state.

The AA’s influence extends to Chin state, where Paletwa river port is located. AA has been trained by and has close links with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a separatist rebel outfit in Myanmar. The KIA is believed to have strategic ties with China. The AA is believed to get it arms and ammunition (read this) from China.

The AA has not disturbed Chinese projects like the US $ 1 billion Kyaukphyu deep sea port,  Chinese oil pipelines and railways and roads that pass through Rakhine and Chin provinces and connect southwestern China to the Bay of Bengal.

Since the militant outfit is only disturbing India’s Kaladan project, which is in its final stage of completion, and not Chinese projects in the region, analysts feel that China is encouraging AA to target the Indian venture.

The AA has destroyed steel girders and other construction materials and equipment meant for the Kaladan project and has been abducting workers engaged in the project. In November last year, the rebels abducted six Indians engaged in the project. India’s intervention secured the release of five of them (one died due to exhaustion in captivity).

India’s consistent refusal to cough up the large sums of money demanded by the AA has angered the rebel outfit. New Delhi feels that acceding to the rebels’ demands will not only encourage them to demand even larger sums more frequently, but will also anger the powerful Tatmadaw in Myanmar who India has cultivated very painstakingly in recent years.

India has managed to wean Myanmar’s military generals from China’s overwhelming control in recent times, and fears that paying the AA to secure the Kaladan project would undo a lot of the work done in cultivating the Tatmadaw.

India’s Quandary

India faces a peculiar quandary here. Myanmar’s generals want India to get closely involved in fighting the AA. That’s because the Tatmadaw is not as well-trained in counter-insurgency warfare as India’s security forces and also lacks adequate military equipment. It also has little control over vast sweeps of Rakhine, Chin and Sagaing provinces that border India’s Mizoram state.

The AA has proved to be highly elusive and the Tatmadaw has, despite its best efforts, not been able to inflict much damage on the outfit. That is why the Tatmadaw wants India to get physically involved on the ground in Myanmar in fighting the AA.

But New Delhi realises fully well that setting foot in that quagmire would yield no benefits and will, in fact, be detrimental to India’s interests. The hard lessons learnt from Rajiv Gandhi’s IPKF misadventure in Sri Lanka are only too fresh in Indian leaders’ minds. Fighting someone else’s war, even if India’s own interests are intricately involved, doesn’t find favour with New Delhi.

Analysts feel that China, which still has considerable influence over the Tatmadaw, is egging the latter to get India involved in fighting the AA. China’s intentions here are sinister: it knows very well that getting too closely involved in the fight against the AA that it (China) provides arms to will be risky for India and can jeopardise its Kaladan project. That is exactly what Beijing wants.

India, thus, has to play a fine balancing act. India cannot get too closely involved in the Tatmadaw’s fight against the AA, and also cannot play footsie with the rebels. But New Delhi wants swift completion and early operationalisation of the Kaladan project and for that to happen, the AA’s interference has to stop.

One way forward for India would be to get Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga involved in getting the AA to withdraw its demands for money from the Kaladan project contractors. Zoramthanga, a former Mizo National Front (MNF) rebel, has considerable influence among rebel groups of the Northeast and, through them, with the AA. Zoramthanga was reportedly instrumental in securing the release of the five hostages in November last year from the AA.

New Delhi is planning to involve Myanmar’s charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi to reach out to the AA rebels and explain to them that the Kaladan project will immensely benefit the Arakanese people who the AA claims to be fighting for. Hence, it will be in the AA’s interest to allow the project to continue unhindered.

But the success of such outcomes depends on how quickly the AA, and the Tatmadaw, see through China’s plans of using them to disturb India and derail Indian projects in Myanmar. India will have to convince them that playing into China’s hands will ultimately be a self-defeating exercise for them because Beijing’s sole aim is expansionism and establishing its hegemony over south and southeast Asia.

Importance of Kaladan Project

The multi-modal sea-river-road project is an alternative route to link Kolkata with Mizoram. This will be the third route to connect Bengal, and mainland India, with the remotest parts of northeastern India.

The first is the overland but very circuitous route through the ‘chicken’s neck corridor’ of northern Bengal which is a potential choke point. The second is the land and river route through Bangladesh which is becoming operational in phases now.

The first component of the Kaladan project--sea route covering 539 kilometres from Kolkata to Sittwe port that has been upgraded by India--is already operational. The next part of the multi-modal project involves the 158 kilometres route from Sittwe sea port through the Kaladan river to Paletwa river port. India has built a hydro-power plant at Paletwa, dredged the Kaladan river and constructed a jetty there.

A special economic zone at Ponnagyun town, 60 kilometres north of Paletwa on the Kaladan river, is being developed by India. This is being projected as an exclusive export oriented zone that is expected to draw investments from India and other countries.

The last component of the Kaladan project is the 62 kilometre highway from Paletwa to Zorinpui in Mizoram on the India-Myanmar border. It is this part of the project that has been mired in delays, thanks to the demands being made by the AA on contractors working on this road. An additional road to connect Paletwa to Asian Highway 1 is on the cards.

The entire project is critical to India’s ‘Act East’ policy that aims at seamless connectivity between India and through Northeast and Bangladesh landmass to Southeast Asia.

Once complete, this project will boost the stagnant economy of northeastern India and open up markets in Southeast Asia to goods and products of the northeast.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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