India expands roads to unstable border

A planned 1,500-kilometre road network along India’s porous frontier with Burma will be accompanied by some 50 helipads as Delhi looks to stifle the cross-border movement of arms and insurgents.

It comes as the Indian paramilitary unit charged with protecting the border, the Assam Rifles, continues to vacillate over its role in routing the separatist United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which operates along the lengthy border between India’s northeastern states and western Burma.

The ULFA is believed to have several bases in Burmese territory, which the Burmese junta has vowed to remove, but the location of the Rifles’ deployment some 100 kilometres inside Indian territory makes the task difficult.

It is hoped that the ambitious proposal to develop the border region will allow India’s military greater access to areas close to ULFA territory. The Hindustan Times reported that the plan will soon be put to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CSCS) for approval.

The terrain along the border is mountainous and the ULFA has for decades been able to use this to its advantage. The ease of movement across the shared border has also been readily exploited, with ULFA leader Paresh Barua rumoured to be sporadically in northwestern Burma’s Kachin state, while its former spokesperson, Sunil Nath, has claimed the group established relations with the Kachin Independence Army in 1987.

During a controversial visit to India in July last year, Burmese junta chief Than Shwe signed a counter-terror pact with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh believed to be primarily aimed at crushing the ULFA, which is fighting to establish a sovereign Assam state, although that stance has softened in the past year as it eyes talks with the central government. Moreover the pact potentially allows both countries access to one another’s detained persons or witnesses.

Delhi is also concerned about the flow of illegal drugs from Burma into its northeastern states, as well as allegations that arms for both northeastern insurgents and India’s resurgent Maoist rebels enter the region from the east.

The Singh administration is hoping that Burma will follow the example of Bangladesh, which recently launched an effective crackdown against ULFA units in the country that nudged the separatists towards greater dialogue with the government.

Than Shwe’s trip also secured a number of bilateral economic agreements that will see India building on its business presence in the country, as well as India’s offer of a US$60 million grant to build a road connecting Burma with its northeast state of Mizoram.

The Indian government has also looked to expand on its transport routes along the border with China, also as means to more effectively deploy troops in the event of unrest. That frontier is undermanned as India’s 4.5 million-strong military focuses its efforts on the volatile Pakistan border, as well as tackling several insurgent groups.

As the speed of China’s economic growth in the mid-1990s began to unnerve India, it reneged on years of support for Burma’s opposition in order to secure business deals with the ruling junta, largely as means to stifle Beijing’s regional dominance.

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