Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 07, 2020
India’s Kachin connection in Myanmar

India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla and army chief General M M Naravane recently visited Myanmar to strengthen bilateral relations. According to media reports, the focus of the visit was to discuss India’s connectivity projects in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State, and the situation of displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh. But the elephant in the room is likely to be relations with Beijing. China and India’s increasing friction on the boundary question has brought the role of third-party states as well as communities straddling these border areas into sharper focus.

If Bhutan’s supportive positioning was critical for India during the 2017 Doklam crisis, Pakistan and Nepal’s hostile posture in 2020 has tested New Delhi’s resolve. Similarly, India’s politicisation of the Tibetan-dominated Special Frontier Force (SFF) led ops and Beijing’s silence on increased saber-rattling by the Yunnan-based United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) has played its part in an intense, and failing, conversation between the two giants.

Still, both Myanmar, a third-party state that shares a border with China and India –at the Walong trijunction that remains heavily militarized and contested– and the Kachin, who are demographically scattered across India, north Myanmar, and China, have maintained a studious silence on the ongoing standoff.

If full-scale military hostilities break out between India and China, especially in the eastern sector, how Myanmar responds –and equally, how armed outfits in north Myanmar, such as the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), who control pockets of territory near the trijunction, respond– will have consequences for India.

The KIO can generate critical intelligence for India in such circumstances and may even empower India’s so-called ‘Tibet card’. Equally, it can help generate access for Indian security officials with the Arakan Army (AA), which is challenging the Tatmadaw (the official name for the armed forces of Myanmar) in Rakhine State and has considerable influence on the ground to shape the success or failure of the Kaladan MMT project. The KIO created the AA in the first place by offering it support and combat experience in and around Laiza since 2009.

Despite having its headquarters in Laiza near the China border, the KIO has demonstrated policy independence and refuses to take strategic direction from Beijing. If anything, historically, and even now, the Kachin seek stronger relations with India. But New Delhi has shied away from strengthening such a relationship out of fear of upsetting Naypyidaw, and because of a complicated history of failed outreach.

Myanmar’s silence

Strategically dependent on China for its security and economic well-being, Naypyidaw has sought to steer clear from the Sino-Indian rivalry. Despite popular discontent against China, the government finds it difficult to wean away from its northern neighbor. If anything, Aung San Suu Kyi recently officiated large infrastructural projects under the rubric of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC).

On the boundary dispute, Burma (as it was then called) signed a boundary treaty with Beijing in 1961, wherein the latter acknowledged the ‘watershed principle’ of mapmaking based on which the McMahon Line was drawn. But Beijing refused similar treatment vis-à-vis India as tensions mounted and led to the 1962 border war.

True to its non-aligned credentials and with some degree of strategic foresight, Burma gave up its claims at the Walong trijunction. It didn’t want to be party to a costly boundary dispute with two large neighbours. The 1967 India-Burma Boundary agreement made this official. Till today, Naypyidaw maintains a studied distance from Sino-Indian territorial disputes and is unlikely to come in support of either of its two neighbours despite improved counter-insurgency cooperation between India and Myanmar.

But this is not the case for the Kachin, who are straddling the trijunction and have no option but to engage with Chinese and Indian forces on the ground, and their border security dynamics.

India’s Kachin conundrum  

At a policy level, India has been averse to engaging with the KIO overtly as the outfit is fighting Myanmar’s military. Such an outreach would complicate India’s decades-long foreign policy campaign to building confidence with the Tatmadaw, and risk being viewed as interfering in Myanmar’s domestic conflicts. Such was indeed the case in late-1980s when India did reach out to the KIO as insurgent violence in its own Northeast reached its peak.

However, in contrast to India’s Tatmadaw-centric policy approach, China built its strategic influence in Myanmar by engaging both with the government and with Myanmar’s various Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), including the KIO. In combination with mega infrastructure projects, Beijing’s manipulation of Myanmar’s insurgent landscape secured it the overseer’s role in an otherwise struggling Panglong Peace Process – wherein India has an observer status.

The history of KIO’s interaction with India and China is instructive about the movement’s strategic importance, and the potential cost of neglect on India’s part.  Let’s unpack two junctures when the KIO sought Indian support in its battles with the Tatmadaw.

1965: A Refusal

After an abortive attempt in 1964, the KIO sent a team of senior leaders –Vice Chairman Brig. Zau Tu of the 2nd Brigade, and General Secretary Pung Shwi Zau Seng– to the Chaukhan Pass in April 1965 to seek military and financial support from India. Despite fighting a war with Pakistan in the western sector, India’s military intelligence with support from civilian agencies entertained the KIO leadership for over a month and held a series of long meetings.

But as a declassified top-secret Indian intelligence report highlights, the “feelers were not encouraged”. In October 1965, India arrested a KIO operative in Tirap, southern Arunachal Pradesh, after he tried contacting the US military attaché in New Delhi to seek American support along similar lines as South Vietnam. Simultaneously, China was cultivating the Rawangs, a community in northern Kachin state, and soldiers of the People Liberation Army (PLA) routinely visited the region to deepen their linkages with local communities.

According to a retired senior KIO official privy to the PLA outreach and interviewed by this author, the Kachin, though open to engaging with China, were more interested in support from democratic India – their first choice of external patron. A pact with Mao Zedong gave them limited room for political maneuver and was loaded with ideological preconditions.  But New Delhi, distracted with its conflict with Pakistan and seeking outreach with Burma’s (Myanmar’s old name) military leader General Ne Win (who had fallen foul of Beijing), refused to engage with the KIO. Desperate for money and weapons, the KIO joined a militant coalition with the Communist Party of Burma in 1966 on Beijing’s direction. It also enabled access for India’s Naga and Mizo rebels to China via Kachin territory.

1989-92: A Deal

The outbreak of the democracy movement in Burma in 1988, and an uptick in separatist insurgent violence in Northeast India, pushed New Delhi to reconsider strategy. The Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s external intelligence agency created in 1968, had carefully analysed the negative consequences of rebuffing the KIO in 1965. After the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, Indian intelligence increased its networks across Southeast Asia and began to secretly cultivate KIO leaders beyond the gaze of the then Burmese military intelligence.

Intensification of violence by ULFA and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), NSCN-IM, across the Northeast, and their use of Burmese territory and links with Burma’s EAOs, ignited India’s interest in KIO, one of the strongest and battle-hardened of all EAO’s in Myanmar.

In December 1988, R&AW’s Chief-of-Station in Bangkok, B B Nandy, met with KIO’s charismatic chairman Maran Brang Seng and facilitated his first visit to New Delhi. In India, the KIO chief met with top intelligence, military, and political figures, who guaranteed him support. In 1990, the KIO was allowed to open a Representative Office of Kachin Affairs (ROKA) in New Delhi to streamline the logistics of interaction with and support from the Government of India. Not just with small arms and money, New Delhi also offered political and diplomatic training to KIO cadres in 1990-91.

Throughout this period, India was planning military operations against ULFA and NSCN-IM.  For that purpose, the one thing it sought in return from the KIO was denial of sanctuary and support to the India-centric Naga and Assamese rebels. The effect was immediate. Between July and October 1990, most ULFA and NSCN-IM cadre had to vacate Kachin-dominated territory. In November 1990, India launched Operation Bajrang, and even though the results of this operation were mixed, the KIO’s response impressed India enough that Brang Seng was invited to New Delhi again in January 1991, this time to meet with Indian Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar himself.

According to Brang Seng’s autobiography –parts of which this author was offered access to– one day after the Republic Day celebrations, on January 27, Chandra Shekhar held a thirty-minute meeting with the KIO chairman. In addition to promising more arms, Shekhar allowed Brang Seng to open an office for the Democratic Alliance of Burma, a coalition of Burmese EAOs within which the KIO enjoyed heft. Such solidification of links with the KIO was meant to lay the groundwork for Operation Rhino, which was launched in September 1991.

At this point, sensing KIO’s increased bonhomie with New Delhi, Beijing made its counter move. A Chinese arms dealer, operating on instructions from Beijing, promised to supply weapons to the KIO, took money from Brang Seng and – disappeared. Almost simultaneously, Burmese military intelligence, with support from China, succeeded in creating a fissure within the KIO as one of its brigades operating in Shan state reneged and entered a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw. Frustrated at China’s betrayal, the KIO decided to use the arms that India secretly funneled to recapture some of its old outposts from the Tatmadaw near the India border. It eventually wanted to shift its headquarters closer to India, instead of having them in Laiza, near the China border.

Brang Seng informed R&AW about his plans and went ahead with the operation in June 1992. But somehow the details of KIO’s operations and India’s secret support to the group got leaked to the Tatmadaw. The KIO lost the battles, and eventually signed a formal ceasefire agreement with the government in February 1994. Brang Seng died following a stroke in August 1994.

In recent years

In 2011, when the ceasefire between the KIO and Tatmadaw broke down, the former reached out to India once more for support. Though Indian officials –but not the prime minister– met with KIO leadership in New Delhi, they refused meaningful support. Soon after, China stepped in and enabled the KIO to mount serious resistance to the Tatmadaw, while simultaneously promising Naypyidaw to ‘deliver’ the group to the negotiations table. The irony remains that one of the reasons why the ceasefire broke in the first place was the prospect of China developing the Myitsone Dam in Kachin state that risked internal displacement of the Kachin people.

According to a retired Indian intelligence official with experience in Myanmar, the Kachin are India’s “strategic allies”, but “in New Delhi, no one listens … even though the people who know, understand”. The problem for both the KIO and India has been an asymmetry of expectation. India only views them as a tactical ally who may potentially help countering insurgencies in the Northeast but are not worthy enough to overhaul relations with Naypyidaw.

The KIO, however, wants to go back to the 1989-91 moment and have a larger, stronger relationship with New Delhi that goes beyond security issues. Ideally, it would like to sell the precious stone jade –of which it controls many mines in north Myanmar– in the Indian market in order to develop an organic economic connection with India. However, there is limited demand for jade in India, whereas in China, jade is prized, used for cultural reasons and other purposes, generating high levels of demand. As this Indian intelligence official lamented, “the Kachin want a lot from us … outlet for jade, education … and we didn’t know what to do with these connections”.

When asked what value does the KIO truly serve India now that the Northeast insurgencies don’t threaten the state of India in a fundamental sense, a serving KIO officer once told this author: “The Chinese don’t want us to talk to India because they’re worried that New Delhi would link us up with the Tibetans”. A Tibetan-Kachin connection –two rebelling border communities– facilitated by India may be far-fetched in practice, and unlikely to be on India’s security agenda anytime soon. But if achieved without complicating relations with Naypyidaw –not impossible– it may truly complicate Beijing’s coercive strategy vis-à-vis India and Myanmar.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Avinash Paliwal

Avinash Paliwal

Avinash Paliwal is an Associate Professor of International Relations at SOAS University of London and author of My Enemys Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the ...

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