This week, India and Myanmar kicked off a new military exercise between them that focuses on peacekeeping operations. The drills once again placed the spotlight on a budding defense relationship between the two neighboring states as part of their broader foreign policy objectives.
As I have noted before in these pages, India and Myanmar have looked to strengthen their defense ties over the past few years. Seen from a broader perspective, this is part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Act East” policy – a more action-oriented variation on the “Look East” policy first formulated under then-premier Narasimha Rao in the 1990s, which seeks to strengthen relationships with Southeast Asia specifically and East Asia more generally (See: “Modi Unveils India’s Act East Policy to ASEAN in Myanmar”).
But more specifically, it is an acknowledgement of the need for Indo-Myanmar security cooperation in several areas. Though the focus is often on the naval realm, given the fact that both sides share a long maritime boundary in the strategically significant Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal, they also share a land border, which has led to concerns around transnational issues. Chief among these is the range of insurgent groups in India’s northeast, bordering Myanmar, a security risk for New Delhi that occasionally produces cross-border issues for both sides (See: “The Truth About India’s Militant Strike in Myanmar”). There have also been conversations around boosting cooperation in areas like training and capacity-building of Myanmar’s military. These areas have been addressed both sides during recent engagements, including Modi’s first-ever bilateral state visit to Myanmar in September.
On November 20, both countries kicked off the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise (IMBAX-2017). Indian officials said the exercise was the first military training exercise between India and Myanmar on United National Peacekeeping Operations (UNPKO) that was held in India. The exercise, which focuses on training Myanmar forces on the conduct of such operations, features 15 officers from the Myanmar army and 16 officers from the Indian Army and will last until November 25.
Though few specifics were provided on the nature of the drills, the focus comes as no surprise. Myanmar has previously expressed interest in gaining more expertise in this area given its participation in PKOs, which currently is quite limited with only a handful of military personnel currently participating in such operations in Liberia and Sudan. Naypyidaw’s involvement has often been cited as part of a broader case for strengthening engagement with its military, known as the Tatmadaw, despite growing scrutiny including most recently with the plight of the Rohingya.
The exercise was conducted at the newly established Joint Training Node in Umroi, Meghalaya. Though the Indian Army has other joint training centers in Belgaum, Vairengte, and Bakloh, Umroi, which opened earlier this month for engagements, is the Eastern Command’s first independent and fully integrated joint training node for foreign armies. It features training facilities including a jungle lane shooting range and a network-enabled computer warfare center.
IMBAX 2017 is the second such exercise conducted at the facility following the command post exercise (CPX) component of the India-Bangladesh joint exercise SAMPRITI 2017 which was held from November 6 to November 11. Indian officials have said that they expect other drills, including one with China, to take place here as well in subsequent months.