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Look west: where Burma meets India

The borderline between Burma and India, a remote strip of insurgent-infested jungle, will eventually be drawn with some precision. But as the line that separates the two countries becomes more distinct, their ruling administrations are ever more entwined.

A delegation of senior military officials has just left Naypyidaw for a visit to India, state media reported on Wednesday. But while the newspaper states that Vice-Senior General Soe Win and several other high-ranking officers will be traveling to Bodh Gaya to attend a ceremony at the Officers Training Academy, other sources have reported that Commander in Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing has scheduled visits with India’s Minister of Defence and President Pranab Mukherjee.

Indian daily The Economic Times reported Wednesday that, “Gen Hlaing, besides meeting his Indian counterpart Bikram Singh and Defence Minister A.K. Antony, will get an audience with President Pranab Mukherjee,” citing “diplomatic sources.”

India’s Ministry of Defence and Ministry of External Affairs were unavailable for comment or confirmation of the delegation’s arrival and roster. The Burmese government likewise did not respond to DVB’s request for comment.


The delegation’s visit follows a series of bilateral talks between Burmese and Indian military leaders that signal a strengthening of military cooperation between the two countries, which have enjoyed relatively cordial relations since the early 1990’s, when India began to implement its “Look East” policy in efforts to become more integrated with the Southeast Asian economy.

Analysts say that India’s military interests with Burma are threefold: counter China; suppress insurgencies; and access greater Southeast Asia.

Burma scholar Bertil Lintner explained the situation thusly: “India doesn’t want to be surrounded by countries that are closer to China than themselves. The other concern is that rebel groups – Naga, Assamese and Manipuri – have bases on the Burmese side of the border, and for years India has been trying to persuade the Burmese military to take action against them, but so far nothing has really happened. Then of course you have the whole Look East Policy.”

The ping-pong match of diplomatic visits between Indian and Burmese leaders sped up in October 2011 when President Thein Sein made a landmark trip to Delhi. A near-constant stream of exchanges, many geared towards increasing border security, reportedly culminated last week when the two sides “successfully concluded an umbrella border agreement,” according to India’s The Economic Times.

Burmese media has been consistently quiet on the issue, but disputes about the placement of a border fence, as well as the erection of a Burmese army outpost near Hollenphai village in August, which the Manipuri government insists is Indian territory, have brought unwanted attention to the issue in recent months.

The dispute concerns a stretch of the border between Burma’s Sagaing division and Northeast India’s Manipur, historically considered a no man’s land where borders drawn up in a 1972 agreement were never formally demarcated, and a policy created by the Indian government allowed visa-free movement over a 16km-wide strip surrounding the border. Travel is restricted on the Burmese side, and a permit is required for many neighboring parts of Northeast India.

The land in question has long been a hive of insurgent activity, where separatists from Nagaland, Manipur and Assam have established bases and conducted combat training. It is also widely known as a major heroin portal.

The Manipuri border crossing is located in Moreh, one of three operational crossings between India and Burma, though social workers familiar with the region have claimed that at least two others have been proposed. The town is situated in the centre of Manipur’s border with Sagaing division, about 60 miles from the currently stalled Indian-backed Tamanthi Dam on Burma’s Chindwin River, and is India’s only entry point to the 16,995 sq km PSC B2 natural gas block. India’s state-owned ONGC Videsh Ltd. announced in a 14 October press release that Burma’s national energy company, Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, had just awarded them this and one other much coveted block in central Burma.

Moreh could evolve into a major trade hub; some Indian officials have stated the intention to establish a Special Economic Zone in the town.

Furthermore, a trilateral highway connecting Northeast India with Burma and Thailand “hopefully will be completed soon,” according to India’s Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma, as reported in The Economic Times in late October.

The area, clearly of major interest to the Indian government, is being re-examined by a team sent by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs to assess disputed areas and draw up legal borders. The Ministry did not respond to DVB’s requests for comment.

Unsurprisingly, neither did Burma’s Ministry of Defence, famously secretive about its relationship with the Indian government, which has been offering the Burmese army military training and material assistance since the early 1990s, according to Lintner.

“In the beginning,” said Lintner, “India did support the pro-democracy movement, but sometime in the early 1990s, when it was clear that the pro-democracy movement was not going to come to power any time soon, they started moving closer to the Burmese regime.”

Around this time, he said, they began offering supplies to the Burmese military, in attempts to get Burma to quash their own troubles with insurgents. This later created even more problems for India.

“It turned into a scandal a year ago,” he said, “when it was discovered that India supplied Burma with Swedish 84mm rocket launchers.”

Lintner was referring to the news in December 2012 that the Burmese army had used weapons illicitly procured from Indian officials against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in northeastern Burma in an offensive launched after the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire between government forces and rebel armies.

As Burma’s military develops its relationship with the Indian army, Lintner predicts that China, whose ties with Burma are weakening as President Thein Sein’s government diversifies its allies, will not take the matter lightly.

“They won’t respond directly against India,” he said. “They’re trying to show the Burmese military, ‘Look, we are a friendly neighbor, too. We can give you this, we can give you that.’ But they won’t connect that to India. They will try to improve the old relations with the Burmese military, try to repair as much of the damage as possible.”


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