India Strengthens Military Ties with Burma

Indian security forces, frustrated by cross-border raids by armed rebels in the remote northeast, are looking for increased military ties with Burma and possible joint operations to flush out separatist guerrillas.

A steady parade of senior officials and high-ranking military officers has trooped to Rangoon in recent months to offer military equipment, training and cooperation aimed at spurring the Burmese junta to take action against ethnic insurgents using the country as a safe haven.

Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited the new Burmese capital of Naypyitaw last week for meetings with officials of the ruling military junta. The visit caps an escalating series of discussions between India and Burma and seems set to lead to a substantial increase in arms sales and other forms of military cooperation with Burma.

“I told them (Myanmar) that it will be possible to supply them certain equipment so that defense cooperation is expanded,” Mukherjee told reporters after the visit, according to press reports.

“I asked them to help us tackling problem of insurgent groups operating from their side of the border. They have assured their cooperation,” he added.

Thus far, the country seems unconcerned about Burma’s status as an international pariah state for its human rights abuses and heavy handed military rule.

On January 12, human rights campaigners were dealt a defeat in the United Nations Security Council when a US-backed resolution demanding an end to political repression and human rights violations in Burma was rejected when China and Russia cast a rare double-veto. China is one of Burma’s few allies, seeing the country as a strategic trading partner.

India’s moves toward Burma stem from incidents like the carnage during the first half of January when armed rebels of the United Liberation Front of Assam took the lives of more than 70 migrant laborers. Most of the victims were identified as Hindi-speaking milk vendors, workers in brick kilns and daily wage earners.

ULFA rebels have been fighting New Delhi since 1979 for an independent state in Asom, known until recently as Assam. The group, little-known outside India, claims that Asom is illegally occupied by India and deserves to be a sovereign country.

They have tied down nearly 20,000 soldiers in search and control operations in the territory. Recently, security forces arrested seven rebels, said to be from the ULFA’s 28th battalion, who operate from the Mon district of Nagaland. Security forces seized a variety of communications gear.

Asom chief minister Tarun Gogoi claims that ULFA carried out the early January killings under the direction of Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence agency. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also has cited alleged links between ULFA and the ISI while Bharatiya Janata Party chief Rajnath Singh repeated the charges that ULFA leaders were being used by the ISI to kill Hindus in order to make room for migrants from Muslim Bangladesh.

All Assam Students’ Union activists have also echoed the view that the carnage on migrants from Bihar and other Indian states would only help economic migrants from Bangladesh.

In another incident, two ULFA cadres were killed and more than 10 militants were apprehended by the Indian army. However, no specific reports are available from the remote areas of Arunachal, where the operation continues.

In the meantime, New Delhi has shifted its focus to Burma and Bangladesh, as both countries are suspected of ignoring training bases used by the militants, who stage raids into India and then withdraw. India and Burma share a porous 1,640 km long border through which armed rebels can roam with relative ease.

During his visit to Asom on January 16, Prime Minister Singh reiterated New Delhi’s commitment to deal firmly with terrorism.

“There should be no room for violence in a civil society, and violence will not be tolerated”, Singh said, while declaring that “intensified counter-insurgency operations will continue to create a sense of security among all people, including Hindi-speaking people.”

Singh confirmed to reporters that he had spoken with Burmese Prime Minister Soe Win during the 5th India-ASEAN summit in the Philippines, where his counterpart said he would agree to cooperate with attempts to flush out Indian insurgents from Burmese soil.

India wants the junta to launch a massive military crackdown along the lines of a similar operation that took place in Bhutan in December 2003 to crush militant bases belonging to a wide range of rebel groups that remain in India’s poverty-ridden, isolated northeast.

Defence Minister AK Antony, during a recent visit to the troubled region, suggested that New Delhi would seek help from both Burma and Bangladesh to deal with the rebels operating from their territories. Earlier Home Ministry-level meetings between the neighboring countries involved detailed discussions on cross-border terrorism. Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil explained the areas of interest for India to his Burmese counterpart during a December 21 meeting in New Delhi.

Burmese junta chief and head of State, Senior General Than Shwe, visited India in 2005. The visit of General Shwe Mann, Burma’s army chief, in December 2006 was another example of the growing military relationship with India.

All three military service commanders have visited Burma in recent months, offering military support to the junta, which has been on a buying spree of its own as the country’s coffers have been enriched by timber and energy sales to China.

Air Marshal S P Tyagi highlighted military hardware sales to Burma’s junta during a November visit. The package reportedly included helicopters and radar manufactured by Bharat Heavy Electricals. Prior to Tyagi's visit, army chief, General J J Singh was in Rangoon to offer counterinsurgency training. Earlier the Navy chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, also paid a visit.