Event ReportsPublished on Mar 30, 2015
The reality of India-Myanmar land connectivity is increasingly becoming a possibility as militancy and insurgency are on the decline in the region, says Mr. Rajeev Bhattacharyya, a journalist who has lived with several insurgent groups in Myanmar and India?s North East.
India-Myanmar land connectivity increasingly becoming real

The reality of India-Myanmar land connectivity is increasingly becoming a possibility as militancy and insurgency are on the decline in the region, said Mr. Rajeev Bhattacharyya, eminent journalist at a lecture-discussion on Rebel Camps in Myanmar: Will They Impede India’s Look East Policy? organized jointly by Observer Research Foundation and the Jadavpur Association of International Relations at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata on 21 March 2015.

Mr. Bhattacharyya was of the view that the Arakan army which was once a potent group in the region has been dwindling due to the tight whip of Myanmar’s Army as the latter is interested in increasing the flow of Indian investments in Myanmar.

Mr. Bhattacharyya has lived with several insurgent groups in Myanmar and India’s North East.

In the lecture discussion, he shared his life experiences with the groups, the terrain, the living conditions, people’s plight, the politico-economic choke points and possible breakthroughs concerning the region.

Mr. Bhattacharyya began his talk by drawing a vivid geographical layout of the area he has been to, the strategic positioning of the groups and assessed the politico-economic overtures of their ambitions and operations.

Kachin Independence Army (KIA) had several camps in the Vijaynagar area on the Myanmar side near Indo-Myanmar border. These camps are close to the Assam Rifles quarters on the Indian side. According to Bhattacharyya, KIA has a representation in Delhi. He also spotted on a map a no man’s land dominated by Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). This area is co-habited by eight militant outfits from Assam and Manipur. This is being developed as a Chinese sphere of influence as the Chinese frequently visit these camps.

Mr. Bhattacharyya also showed pictures of a remote village in Upper Sagaing division of Myanmar. The village seemingly belonged to a different era altogether where development and modernity are conspicuous by their absence. Money is a new commodity in the village as the economy still thrives on barter and subsistence farming. Head hunting was practiced till three decades ago.

He said at least nine militant groups exist in Upper Sagaing Division: NSCN (K), United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit), People’s Liberation Army (PLA), United National Liberation Front(UNLF), People’s Republican Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), People’s Republican Party of Kangleipak - Progressive(PREPAK-Progressive), Kannei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), and Kangleipak Communist Party(KCP-Noyon).

Mr. Bhattacharyya was of the view that these camps are secure. This is because they are hand in gloves with the Myanmar Army. Mr. Bhattacharyya then drew attention to the militant camps near Moreh and adjoining Chin dominated areas and also the Rakhine state dominated by Arakan Army. However, Myanmar’s Army has neutralized the militancy of Arakan Army to a great extent. Mr. Bhattacharyya said, whereas the Chin and Rakhine areas have become less militarized, the KIA dominated areas are still difficult to penetrate into. The KIA also dominates the mineral rich areas. For instance, they have camps near gold mines around Chindwin river.

Indian investments are directed in diverse projects in Myanmar which include Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport, Tri-lateral Highway, Rhi-Tiddim, Tamu-Kalewa-Kalay road, IT projects, Upgradation of Yangon Children and Sittwe hospitals, Industrial Training Centres (Pakokku and Myingyan), Restoration of Ananda Temple (Bagan), Three Power Transmission Lines project, Telecom projects, Special Economic Zones, Advance Centre for Agricultural Research and Education, Yezin Rice Bio Park. The Trilateral High way and Sittwe port projects have brighter prospects as militancy have been largely controlled in surrounding areas of these projects. KIA has also been brought under negotiation process. Mr. Bhattacharya at the same time had little expectation of an expanding water trade between the two countries, precisely because there is not enough demand for the same. The Stilwell road has been in news more because of the Chinese developing it on their side. There are serious apprehensions regarding developing this road on the Indian side, said Mr. Bhattacharyya. This road may add to the income of insurgent groups; also an increasing influx of cheap Chinese goods may give a stiff competition to Indian handloom goods and may wipe them out from Indian markets. India, on the other hand, may not have many goods to export through this road to the Chinese side.

In summing up the Junta’s intentions, Mr. Bhattacharyya referred to a secret Army document of Myanmar which had reasoned why Myanmar needs to reduce overwhelming Chinese presence and may consider US and India as alternatives with whom close relations may be established.

The second speaker, Dr. Langpoklakpam Suraj Singh, Department of Political Science, D.M. College of Arts, Imphal, Manipur , focused his deliberations on the conditions and potentials of Manipur in the broader context of India-Myanmar relations. He introduced Manipur as a state recognized for its culture and traditions. The cult of Vaishnavism brought by the Maharaja in the past was the harbinger of peace and harmony in the state. Politically, Manipur has been very progressive. In 1948, Manipur held elections far ahead of the 1951 general elections in India. Manipur is also richly endowed with natural resources and a wide diversity of flora and fauna.

However, the past glory of the state has been depleted. It has been grappling with several internal problems. The state is still victim of excessive militarization and oppressive martial laws. This is evident in a report brought out by Joint Commissioner in 2006. The report states that there are no less than 53 check posts between Imphal and Dimapur. Indian Army has put hoardings near Myanmar border which reads, "Respect all, Suspect all".

The sugar factories and public sector enterprises are fast shutting down. Manipur’s much acclaimed pineapple exports, especially to Singapore is declining at alarming rates . Manipur’s fertile land could produce cotton at a low cost. However due to vested interests of few, supply of cotton seeds from outside north east has been stalled. . Border trade between Manipur and Myanmar was formalized in 1995. However, the informal trade figures are galloping far ahead of formal ones. Moreover, in informal trade, the smuggling of arms and drugs are rampant. The nexus of smuggling is widespread and China continues to be a dominant player in it.

In terms of hard connectivity, Tri-lateral Highway still remains an open question and the region is in dire need for ample development investments. This raises in turn several questions over the progress of Look East Policy and connecting North East India to the world, most of which remain unanswered.

(This report is prepared by Swagata Saha, Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata with inputs from Natasha Sharma, Research Intern)

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