The escalation of conflict in the Myanmar’s disturbed Rakhine state has triggered the deployment of additional troops by India along the international border to thwart attempts by rebels and refugees to sneak into the country.
The Assam Rifles – the oldest paramilitary organization in India, which has been guarding the India-Myanmar border for decades — is now being assisted by a few companies of the army along a vulnerable stretch east of Parva village in the Indian state of Mizoram that has witnessed infiltration from Myanmar in the past several years.
The border passes through some settlements of Rakhine Buddhists in Lawngtlai and Saiha districts of Mizoram. Insurgents belonging to the Arakan Army have been frequenting these remote villages in India for shelter – especially when the Myanmar Army intensifies anti-insurgency operations.
There were ample indications that the conflict in Rakhine state would spiral out of control after the outbreak of hostilities in late 2017, when as many as 11 personnel of the Myanmar army were killed in an ambush on the Kaladan river at Paletwa by the rebel group. Subsequently, the army moved additional battalions for operations along the border of Chin and Rakhine states, where the Arakan Army has a formidable presence.
“Myanmar is facing an entirely new kind of insurgency in Rakhine state. While most other ethnic rebellions are being fought by hill peoples in remote border areas, the Rakhine — or Arakanese — are lowlanders who have not forgotten that they, until 1785, had their own independent kingdom. Insurgency in Rakhine state is not a tribal uprising in some peripheral areas, it is a rebellion in the heartland of political activism in Myanmar,” said Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner.
The Indian government is concerned that conditions in Rakhine state could lead to an influx of refugees, like in the previous year when a large group of 1,484 people from Myanmar landed in Mizoram. While most of them have returned to their homes, around 500 Myanmarese citizens can still be found in the border villages.
The ongoing clashes in Rakhine state could also cause a further delay in the construction of the 109 kilometer highway from Zorinpui on the Indian side of the border to Paletwa in Myanmar, which is a crucial component of the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project envisaged to provide an alternative outlet to India’s landlocked northeast.
Arakanese Rebels in Mizoram
The association of Arakanese rebels with Mizoram began more than two decades ago after the emergence of the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA) in 1994. It was headquartered at Parva – the trijunction of India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar – which was also frequented by officials of Indian intelligence agencies.
Like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the NUPA was cultivated by Indian security agencies for espionage in Myanmar and was given access to Mizoram for setting up camps and access to essential commodities. The situation headed for a change after the Myanmar Army lodged complaints with New Delhi against the increasing assistance to NUPA functionaries.
During a 1998 exercise codenamed Operation Leech, Indian military intelligence killed six senior leaders belonging to the NUPA at Landfall Islands in the Andaman Islands and jailed 36 functionaries on charges of gun-running — some of whom were also functionaries of another Myanmar insurgent group named the Karen National Union (KNU). Later, it emerged that the rebels were on their way on a boat from Thailand after being invited by the Indian military to set up a base on the island.
The episode ruptured the ties between the NUPA and Indian intelligence agencies. The NUPA grew weak and fizzled out, but a bigger and more resourceful outfit, the Arakan Army, was founded in 2009 to carry on with the campaign for self-governance and autonomy of Rakhine state. Its chief, Tun Myat Naing, was quoted by the media in Myanmar as saying that the Arakan Army’s goal was to “keep the sovereignty of our state in our hands.”
The Arakan Army is part of the Northern Alliance in Myanmar, which is a conglomerate of four organizations, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). On January 18, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) classified the Arakan Army as a terrorist group. It was also not invited to the negotiations for a nationwide ceasefire agreement held between 2011 and 2016.
However, it did not take long for the Arakan Army to realize the benefits of a foothold in Mizoram. According to informed sources, the group has a strong presence in some border villages considered to be active sympathizers of the rebel outfit.
Arakan Army cadres are apprehended by the police in Mizoram at regular intervals, and sent to jail. Lawngtlai’s superintendent of police, Amit Goel, said that around 10 functionaries were arrested and convicted last year, but denied any such incidents in the district after additional troops were deployed.
Quid Pro Quo by Indian Army?
The army’s deployment in Mizoram has offended not only the state government but a large section of civil society organizations in the border state.
The state government is upset because it was not informed about the plan to deploy extra forces along the border. A complaint lodged by the Mizoram government with the federal ministry of home affairs in New Delhi argued that law and order is a state subject and any decision to station central forces must have the concurrence of the state government.
The state government’s protest came soon after media reported that the army had assembled inhabitants of three villages – Vathuampui, Laitlang, and Zochachhuah – on the pretext of organizing a free medical camp. They were reportedly instructed to stay away from the India-Myanmar border due to disturbed conditions. The People’s Representation for Identity and Status of Mizoram (PRISM) has even alleged human rights violations by the army while rounding up the villagers.
Some Mizoram government officials believe that the army is unlikely to move out of the state soon since the deployment is also aimed at assisting the Myanmar army’s operations against the Arakan Army. They are of the opinion that the militaries of both countries have arrived at an understanding to act tough against the rebel groups that have a presence in each other’s territories.
“The Myanmar army has initiated action against the Indian insurgent groups from Assam and Manipur, two other states of India’s northeast, operating from Taga. As a quid pro quo, the Indian army has committed that all efforts would be made to check the entry of Arakan Army rebels into Mizoram,” an official claimed.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam, India.