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Is India Finally Waking Up to a New Reality in Western Myanmar?

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Is India Finally Waking Up to a New Reality in Western Myanmar?

An Indian delegation met a delegation of the Arakan Army recently. Does it signal a shift in India’s approach to Myanmar?

Is India Finally Waking Up to a New Reality in Western Myanmar?

Member of Parliament K. Vanlalvena, who led an Indian delegation that met an Arakan Army delegation in the southern Chin State in Myanmar, is seen here with Arakan Army fighters near the India-Myanmar border, Myanmar, March 1, 2024.

Credit: X/DIPRMizoram

On February 29, an Indian delegation led by K. Vanlalvena, a member of the Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house of Parliament and the only delegate from Mizoram, made a surprise cross-border visit to rebel-held territory in western Myanmar.

Crossing over from southern Mizoram’s Zorinpui, the parliamentarian from the Mizo National Front (MNF) and his team traveled some 12 kilometers inside southern Chin State in Myanmar and met a delegation of the Arakan Army (AA) near Paletwa. A photograph released by the Mizoram government shows the MP standing with seven AA fighters, all armed and dressed in camouflage.

Vanlalvena, according to his own admission, made the trip to assess progress on the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project (KMMTTP), a massive India-funded transregional connectivity initiative that aims to provide maritime access to landlocked Northeast India through western Myanmar.

Since the coup, construction work on the project has practically stalled, especially on the last stretch of the overland route from Paletwa, which hosts an inland river terminal, to Zorinpui in Mizoram. IRCON, an Indian infrastructure company, is tasked with building that road, but hasn’t been able to due to the ongoing conflict. Vanlalvena also met with officers from the company during his cross-border dash.

What does this rare meeting reveal about India’s Myanmar policy today? How can India navigate western Myanmar’s complicated ethno-political landscape?

Changing Attitudes?

Since the coup in February 2021, India has maintained a strict policy of formally engaging with only the Myanmar junta, which calls itself the State Administration Council (SAC). This supposedly pragmatic policy is driven by New Delhi’s belief that the military is the dominant politico-security actor in Myanmar and cutting it off could jeopardize Indian interests in the country.

At the same time, India has cultivated below-the-radar contacts with the democratic side, including the National Unity Government (NUG). However, it has done little to upgrade or formalize those ties.

Vanlalvena’s meeting with the AA, which couldn’t have happened without some degree of approval from the federal government in India, shows that the needle might be shifting in New Delhi. There is now a subtle but certain recognition in parts of the Indian political and security establishments that the SAC is losing Myanmar rapidly. This is especially true for western Myanmar – Rakhine and Chin States – where the AA, Chin National Front/Army (CNF/A) and other Chin armed groups have made sweeping territorial gains since October when the Three Brotherhood Alliance launched coordinated offensives against junta targets in the north.

India is concerned about western Myanmar because of its proximate interests, among which the security of the unfenced border and the KMMTTP are paramount. Both of these are matters of concern to not just New Delhi, but also the Mizoram government in Aizawl.

While Mizoram has welcomed Chin refugees with open arms, it is worried about rising numbers, mounting financial and logistical pressure, and direct spillover of the violence into Mizo territory. While the border state is officially hosting 32,221 refugees from Myanmar as of February 2024, unofficial figures indicate the presence of more than 50,000 asylum seekers who have crossed over mostly from Chin State. In addition, Mizoram is hosting more than 1,100 refugees from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts and more than 12,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the strife-torn neighboring state of Manipur.

Further, Mizoram also stands to benefit from the KMMTTP, which promises to open up the state to new supply routes, create transregional market linkages, and jump-start the local economy (especially in the underdeveloped south).

Beyond a possible indication of India’s changing Myanmar policy, Vanlalvena’s recent visit should be seen in this unique context of the Mizo political economy. Whether the project actually ends up generating real benefits for Mizoram (or Northeast India) is a different matter altogether, but the investments made so far have already created a network of local political-financial interests.

Complicated Battlescape

At the moment, western Myanmar is dominated by two powerful armed groups representing two different ethnic groups – the AA for the Arakanese and the CNF/A for the Chin.

The AA not only controls large swathes of territory in central and northern Rakhine State, but also in southern Chin State up until Paletwa Township, which it captured after fierce battles with the SAC in the past two months. This newly consolidated projection of power by the AA into Chin State hasn’t augured well with the Chin, including the CNF/A, who believe that the Arakanese group is trespassing into historical Chin land. In fact, the CNF had warned the AA to withdraw from Paletwa even before the coup in 2020.

Besides historical territorial claims, the AA-Chin friction over Paletwa is shaped by the town’s strategic location on the map and its potential to become a key source of revenue in the future. The India-funded KMMTTP has pushed large amounts of investments into Paletwa over the last decade, mostly in the form of connectivity infrastructure and labor input. Any political or security actor in control of the riverside town will benefit by virtue of controlling (and taxing) high-value cargo access routes. In the process, they stand to gain strategic leverage over not just India, but also any federal government in Myanmar that would seek to draw revenues from the KMMTTP.

Both the AA and CNF/A know these realities well and hence vie for control over Paletwa. This disagreement is critical for India, as it will shape the contours of New Delhi’s Kaladan-linked outreach. If India engages with just one group, the other is bound to feel slighted. So, while it is already in talks with the AA, it is time to forge a closer relationship with the CNF, Chinland Defence Forces (CDF) and other civil political actors within the newly established Chinland Council.

India must, particularly, recognize that prolonged Chin-Arakan friction over Paletwa doesn’t benefit anyone in the long term. Therefore, New Delhi should shed its diplomatic inertia and proactively mediate between both groups to ensure an amicable status quo that works equally for all parties involved. Importantly, such mediation efforts should privilege the well-being of the local people living along the borders, especially communities displaced by the war, rather than be limited to the national security interests of India. New Delhi also needs to formally engage the NUG to initiate a serious discussion on its position in post-SAC Myanmar.

These are just some practical ways for New Delhi to break new ground in its eastern neighborhood, restore old friendships, help the people of Myanmar move toward a peaceful and inclusive future, and protect its own interests.