India’s Burma Problem

The carnage in Burma after the junta cracked down on widespread protests in September and October appears to be stirring unrest in India’s own remote northeastern states.

Surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh, the region is only tenuously connected to India itself and has long been beset by numerous insurgencies.

Bangladesh juts up to the north from the Indian Ocean, nearly severing the region’s eight states from India itself. Scores of rebel groups in the area have been fighting the government virtually since India’s independence from Great Britain.

Despite the fact that New Delhi has created a separate ministry for the region and begun building a wide range of infrastructure projects, public resentment against the central government remains high. Indigenous activists complain that the government is only interested in exploiting the region’s oil, coal, tea and timber resources while remaining deaf to their needs. Armed groups also use the jungles of northern Burma as their hideouts and training camps.

The northeast has a volatile stew of militant organizations, most of them ethnically based and some so small that even the locals don’t know who they are. According to some counts, there are as many as 35 such groups in Manipur, with another 34 in Assam, many of them Islamist. Only the states of Arunchal Pradesh and Mizoram are relatively free of rebel groups, perhaps because of Indian infrastructure development efforts in the latter.

The sudden uprising in Burma has changed the scenario. While New Delhi has maintained a studied silence on the junta’s crackdown, public meetings and rallies in the northeast have condemned Burma’s military rulers and offered support to pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, which overwhelmingly won 1991 parliamentary elections whose results were thrown out by the generals.

In recent weeks the northeast has seen a growing number of pro-democracy rallies and conferences, prayer meetings, candelight vigils and other events that have drawn tens of thousands of people. Nearly 20,000 assembled at Mawphlang, near the Meghalaya capital of Shillong, for instance, urging New Delhi to intervene in the Burmese crisis. Robert Kharshing, a Member of Parliament elected from Meghalaya and one of the organizers of the public meeting said, "We want the government to withdraw its present policy on Burma and extend support to the democratic movement led by Suu Kyi."

Officials are unsure how much the anti-Burma sentiment is being transferred into anti-New Delhi sentiment, but the possibility is growing. Some 40,000 Chin refugees from Burma have settled in the tiny state of Mizoram since the 1988 democracy uprising was crushed. Although the Chin have not been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, they lead a relatively comfortable existence in Mizoram, since the Chin and India’s Mizo peoples share similar linguistic and religious traditions.

New Delhi has responded to the restive region with ambitious efforts to build infrastructure. The famed Stillwell Road, which passed through some of the toughest terrain in the world during World War II as a vital link between Burma and India, is being rescued from ruin and will be reopened and repaved. In 2001, then-Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh inaugurated the construction of a road connecting the Burmese towns of Kalewa and Tamu with Moreh in Manipur, one of three historic trade routes linking the northeast to Burma.

New Delhi, even after inviting criticism for its strategic ties with Burma’s military rulers, justifies its stand, emphasizing engagement rather than alienation. During a recent visit to the northeast, External Affairs Minister Shri Pranab Mukherjee, reiterated that New Delhi had been involved “in a variety of projects with Myanmar in diverse fields,” such as roads, railways, telecommunications, IT, technology, and power.

"As a close and friendly neighbour, India hopes to see a peaceful, stable and prosperous Myanmar, where all sections of people will be included in a broad based process of national reconciliation and political reform," Mukherjee said, using the junta’s name for the country.

The foreign minister's comments invited criticism from many. "India cannot take a contradictory position on democracy in the region by advocating it for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Bhutan and not least for Nepal – and stay silent on its other large neighbour, Burma," Sanjoy Hazarika, an author and filmmaker, told Asia Sentinel. "We can no longer say that Burma's turmoil is that country's internal politics. It directly impacts our security and economic interests in the northeast, not to speak of larger national concerns."

Certainly India, which was supportive of the pro-democracy movement in Burma until 1993, has legitimate concerns on its eastern flank, given growing Chinese influence in Burma. Burma, with proven reserves of about 2.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, is being pursued feverishly by India and China, both of which are starved for energy. But an Indo-Burma gas pipeline, projected to pass through Bangladesh and which was regarded by New Delhi as an economic opportunity for the northeast, has been put on hold.

A destabilized Burma is causing problems for the northeast on various fronts, says Hiten Mahatna, a Guwahati-based political analyst. Not only is the region bearing the brunt of Burmese refugees, its residents have been exposed to illegal drugs and arms trafficked from the country. With Burma’s proximity and high HIV/AIDS rates, Manipur has become one of the highest HIV-infected states in India, and its youth are falling prey to drugs illegally supplied from Burma’s Golden Triangle, says Mahatna.

"New Delhi cannot overlook these troubles. In fact, it is in the northeast’s interest to have a stable regime in Burma. Being the largest democracy in the globe, we obviously want a democratic government there," Mahatna said.