File image of an ULFA camp. Image credit

Abhinav Sankar Goswami

Myanmar’s domestic political situation is extremely critical for India’s national interest. India shares a border of 1643 kilometers with Myanmar. Thus, a stable and friendly Myanmar is key to India’s security, especially in India’s Northeast. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India in a statement in relation to the visit of India’s Foreign Secretary to Myanmar last December, underlined this, expressing that “any developments in that country have a direct impact on India’s bordering regions.”

On February 1, 2021, the military in Myanmar staged a coup overthrowing the democratically-elected government of the National League For Democracy (NLD). The Nobel Peace laureate and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint among many others were detained prior to the declaration of national emergency by the military.

The coup and the subsequent ongoing rule of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) have raised serious security questions for New Delhi in maintaining peace and stability in India’s Northeast bordering Myanmar. In November 2021, the commandant of the 46 Assam Rifles, his wife, son and four jawans were killed in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Manipur Naga People’s Front jointly claimed responsibility for the attack.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), eight incidents of recovery of a large number of weapons and explosives were reported in Mizoram along the India-Myanmar International border in 2021 as against two in the year 2020. As per SATP, the growing instances of ammunition recoveries in the state is an indication of increased vigilance by Indian security forces after the coup in Naypyidaw.

Dr. Himanta Biswa Sharma immediately after taking charge as the Chief Minister of Assam appealed to the ULFA (I) to participate in the talks. The outfit responded positively, declaring a unilateral ceasefire. However, the reports of it recruiting new cadres, particularly from upper Assam did not cease to surface. According to a report published in Assam Tribune, ULFA (I) chief Paresh Baruah has softened his stand on the issue of talks with the Government. The newspaper further reported that the ULFA (I) chief is too adamant on his stand that the talks should be held on the ‘‘core issue.’’ He has reportedly made it clear that he would not join the ongoing talk between the Central Government and the pro-talk faction of ULFA as he believes that the latter has given up the original ideology of the outfit.

In view of the increase in recruitment of cadres, recent incidents in the neighboring states and the Paresh Barua’s adamant stand, Assam is still distant from achieving a permanent solution to the issue of insurgency. A regime change in Naypyidaw and current political circumstances in Myanmar furthered the instability in the security situation given the past history of safe harboring of insurgent groups including ULFA (I) in Myanmar’s territory.

In the last couple of months, there have been a considerable number of articles published in the media by prominent security and defense analysts on the regrouping of insurgent outfits of India’s Northeast in Myanmar. Nayanima Basu of Print states a range of insurgent groups that have set up their camps or hideouts in the Myanmar Naga Hills (MNH). These outfits include Manipur based-Meitei insurgent groups such as PLA, United National Liberation Front (UNLF), and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) as well as Naga groups such as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Khaplang (NSCN-K), the anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

Senior journalist Rajeev Bhattacharya in an article published in Diplomat mentioned that Tatmadaw has normalized its ties with many armed insurgent groups of Northeast India in order to utilize its resources in an optimized manner for effectively combating the armed uprisings in the hotspots such as Kachin and Karen states. Bhattacharya also added the possibility of ULFA-I reaching out to marginalized communities to expand its operations as voiced by observers in Assam. He referred to such messaging put forward along similar lines in the latest issue of ULFA-I’s mouthpiece, “Swadhinata” (Independence), which was emailed to media in December 2021.

Considering the serious security challenges in India’s Northeast, New Delhi seems to have very limited options other than to engage with Tatmadaw. More importantly, New Delhi cannot and should not overlook China’s growing role in Myanmar. Especially, the possibility of Beijing’s involvement with armed insurgent outfits in the Northeast. Thus, disengagement with Tatmadaw is giving an advantage to Beijing’s interests.

The two-day visit of India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla to Myanmar last December is an indication of a path taken along this line of thinking. Shringla brought up issues directly related to India’s security. Indrani Bagchi, a well-known foreign policy journalist in a recent column in Times of India stated that India’s outreach to Myanmar is a “fine balance between engaging the immediate eastern neighbour while pushing it towards the restoration of democracy.”

She highlights that India needs to adopt a “twin-track” approach along these lines as India, unlike the West, cannot isolate Myanmar due to geopolitical reasons. Nevertheless, what remains clear is the obvious necessity for New Delhi to engage with Tatmadaw to secure peace and stability across all the states in India’s Northeast.

Abhinav S. Goswami is a postgraduate student at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Northeast Now.

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