Jaideep Saikia poses with Assam Rifles Personnel on the Road to Myanmar.

Kangleipak Diary-I is the first of a series of articles by celebrated conflict analyst and author Jaideep Saikia on his recent visit to Manipur.

India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, 27 February 2008: Ramon Magsaysay awardee, information adviser to former Indian prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri and former editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, B.G. Verghese during the course of inaugurating one of my books “Frontier in Flames: North East India in Turmoil” (Penguin Books India, 2007) had stated that “There is no point “Looking East” unless you actually “Go East”.”

The recollection of the 2008 event is also important at this juncture, not only because of Verghese’s sage remark but because the India Habitat Centre auditorium audience who had gathered to witness the launch of my book had many important policymakers from the present Modi dispensation including the present national security adviser of India, Ajit K. Doval.

As a matter of fact, Doval had even written a blurb for the book stating “Jaideep Saikia’s keen insight into national security issues has made a significant contribution to its study and analysis. As an analyst, he painstakingly marshals his facts and provides original perspective. With the sort of scholarship and application he possesses, he will continue to make important contributions to the scarce security literature in India.”

In any event, six years later, in 2014, the “Look East Policy” was rechristened by the Narendra Modi government as India’s “Act East Policy”. In so doing he sought not only to infuse a fresh spirit of cooperation with South East Asia but counter Chinese designs to stymie India’s growth engine by way of the North East that was looking up after decades of neglect. However, closer to a decade has passed since the “paradigm shift” was initiated, but the policy has not been translated on ground.

There has been neither an effort to “Go East” nor engineer a tectonic shift across the core sectors of what constituted Modi’s “Four Cs” of “culture, commerce, connectivity and capacity building”. The late lamented B.G. Verghese’s dream of “Going East” was all dressed up but was not going anywhere. Or, rather it had nowhere to venture into. The gates that would have shipped Indian goods via the North East which in turn too would have resonated commercially to the hum of the transportation and the attendant frills that would have accompanied it had been shut.

If the pandemic halted the “Free Trade Regime” between India and Myanmar, the 1 February 2021 military takeover sealed the fate of any movement between the two countries. Furthermore, the Indian insurgent groups, primarily the Valley-based ones, were coerced by the Myanmarese army into signing an agreement with the junta. Operations against the Indian insurgents that had “reluctantly” been undertaken (or at least photographs of burnt down camps of Taga were later shown to India even as the inmates spirited away into the dark “Naypyidaw Night” of the Indian insurgent-Tatmadaw nexus) in the past by way of Op Sunrise-I and Op Sunrise-II would no longer be undertaken by the Myanmarese army.

In return, the Indian insurgent had to join hands with the junta to quell the rebellion that had erupted after the 1 February 2021 putsch. But the Indian insurgents—despite sops of safe haven—had been forced to join the Myanmarese army ranks and operate alongside it. An important source informed me that there have been of late desertions by the Indian insurgents. But I could not ferret out as to where the deserters had gone. There had been no surrenders to the Indian authorities. Is it possible that some Indian insurgents are joining the People’s Defence Force which was battling the Myanmarese army?  

On 22 April 2022, delivering a lecture on “Future Contours of India’s Act East Policy in the Emerging Geo-strategic Environment” in Imphal in a joint venture of the Assam Rifles and the Manipur University, I reiterated Verghese’s 2008 observation. But it was also made clear to a capacity audience in the Manipur University auditorium that unless the road from Manipur—the gateway to South East Asia—could thoroughfare the present “killing fields” of Myanmar and into places such as Mandalay and beyond, there can be no talk of “Going East”.

Indeed, when I took a tour of Moreh, the township from which the much-hyped “Act East” was to “Go East” I was met only with a deserted Integrated Check Post, a few bored street peddlers and a hostile gate to the east that was locked so forbiddingly that one could actually smell the rust on the iron gates that should have flung open the future of the Northeast onto a beckoning horizon. The sound of gunfire and grenade explosions that could be heard from Tamu across, I was told by the Assam Rifles officer who accompanied me to the gate, were from the battle that was raging between the Myanmarese Army and the People’s Defence Force, the latter a rag-tag band of resistance fighters which the exiled National Unity Government of Myanmar had succeeded in cobbling, but not quite together.

There was no central command and control or a unified HQs to direct the resistance. I was puzzled, but my limited comprehension of the military idiom quickly surmised that there was actually sound logic, motivation and might in the disunited manner in which the People’s Defence Force and sundry ethnic militia groups such as the Chin National Army were engaging the Myanmarese army. After all, a united command would have made the task of the Myanmarese army to identify and neutralise the leaders of the resistance relatively easier, marking thereby a dismantling of the structure that oversaw its operations. But absurd as it might seem in the mire of confusion that Myanmar has been transformed into since 1 February 2021 the best way to battle the government forces was by acting disunitedly, independent of one another.

Therefore, even if the People’s Defence Force’s unit operating from say Hesin were to fall to elements of the Myanmarese army’s 266 Light Infantry Regiment in Mintha, the ones in Bogjang or Witok would not be affected. I was also not surprised to learn that 5 Lakh Kyat was being offered for every defection from the junta and there have been quite a few such from the Myanmarese army.

It was, of course, left for me to fathom in solitude as to who was actually funding the People’s Defence Force and what the clandestine conduits were by which arms, supplies and money were making their way into the innards of Myanmar from all around the world. Incidentally, although I had all along been under the impression that the People’s Defence Force had the support of the people, the fact of the matter is that the groupings are collecting taxes from the populace which was not voluntary. There was more than meets the eye in the “Land of Jade”.

In any event, the battle for Naypyidaw is far from over. The trip to Moreh and thereabouts gave me a pretty good idea about the way the Irrawaddy was meandering. I also recalled the manner in which New Delhi has been dealing with Myanmar. It was a policy—if indeed there was one—that had inherent flaws. I remember the “Track II Dialogue” with Myanmar that I had been an Indian member of in 2014. The senior-most person in the Indian delegation had got us into a huddle and among the perfunctory dos and don’ts, the “leader” quite categorically told us, “No mention of the lady and the Rohingyas in this Hall”. I was horrified. I clearly remember the day.

It was 21 November 2014 and there was enough “chatter” around the world that Myanmar would be holding its general elections in exactly a year hence. If it was to be free and fair elections, many observers including my friend the well-known Burma expert, Bertil Lintner who had visited me in Guwahati (I chaired the lecture he delivered in the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati) a few months earlier told me that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy would win a landslide majority in the elections.

Indeed, that was exactly what happened in the general elections of 8 November 2015. The Rohingya issue and the manner in which it continues to impact India is known to all. Yet we were asked not to raise these two issues. I have been to “Track II Dialogues” with Bangladesh and China earlier and never had I encountered such a lack of foresight. At any rate, during the session on bilateral security, I posed, much to the chagrin of the then Indian envoy to Myanmar, a rather embarrassing question to the Myanmarese counterparts about NSCN (K).

Why had Naypyidaw gotten into an agreement with NSCN (K) when New Delhi had signed a ceasefire with the group in 2001? I was brusquely told that Myanmar did not consider the Nagas to be insurgents and Naypyidaw had as a result entered into an “agreement” with the organisation. I also recall counselling an important government functionary in New Delhi immediately after my return from Yangon that old man Khaplang should be accorded some attention. I told the official that just because he is considered to be a Myanmarese “Hemi” Naga (ethnicity blurs as borders begin) and New Delhi was keen to earn “brownie points” with its bête noire, NSCN (IM), there was no need to be brusque with Khaplang. Offending him would have serious consequences for India and alienating him should be avoided at all costs.

No stranger to the Indian “Kautilyan” stratagem of “Saam-Daam-Dand-Bhed” (reconciliation-monetary inducement-punitive action-division) I know New Delhi could have continued to humour the group and pacified Khaplang. But someone in New Delhi who had absolutely no knowledge of the North East and the region’s emotions blundered and the ceasefire was abrogated. I am no soothsayer but my prophecy proved to be correct. 18 brave soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment were killed in an NSCN (K) led an ambush on 4 June 2015. The incident took place just a few months after New Delhi did not deem it fit to placate the tribal sentiments of the vice president of the once united NSCN, Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang.

Jaideep Saikia is an internationally acclaimed & renowned conflict analyst and author of several best-selling books. He is also Fellow, Irregular Warfare Initiative, West Point, USA

Jaideep Saikia

Jaideep Saikia is a well-known terrorism and conflict analyst. He can be reached at jdpsaikia@gmail.com.