India’s Arakan Problem: Jaffna Lesson in Avoiding Myanmar’s Muddle

India has to play its cards very carefully in the Rakhine problem if it has to avoid a bloody nose a la Jaffna ‘87.

4 min read

Only once in India's recent history has it got dragged into a conflict as a sequel to its backing of an ethnic minority struggle in a neighbouring country. Having backed the Tamil separatist movement with moral and material support for four years, the sudden change of Delhi's Sri Lanka policy led to Rajiv Gandhi's disastrous military adventure.

The Indian Peace Keeping Force or IPFK took huge casualties trying to tame a Tiger created by its own intelligence services at the behest of Rajiv's mother Indira Gandhi.

Mrs Gandhi had brought Sikkim into India and backed the Shanti Bahini rebels of the Chakma-Marma-Tripuri tribes in Bangladesh's strategic Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in what was seen as a punitive move against Bangladesh's military rulers responsible for the assassination of India's great friend Mujibur Rahman in 1975.

After twenty years of backing the Shanti Bahini, India got a deal going between them and the Sheikh Hasina government in 1997 that brought the curtain on 20 years of insurgency. CHT is in ferment again. The Bangladesh army keeps pushing Muslim re-settlers into the Buddhist-Hindu tribal region in a bid to change its demography. But by brokering a deal between Dhaka and the Shanti Bahini leadership, India managed to extricate itself from CHT.

Indian intelligence backed the MQM in Sindh and the Baloch rebels in Balochistan in a tit-for-tat for Pakistan's backing of Kashmiri and Khalistan Sikh insurgents. It also backed for a while the Kachin, Chin and Arakanese rebels in Myanmar during the 1990s to counteract the Northeastern rebel presence in these borderlands where the Burmese army had no control.

But in none of these shadow war theatres did India get dragged into a costly military adventure or an embarrassing covert offensive which might backfire.

Two of RAW's legendary operators, B Raman and B B Nandi, have provided accounts of how the Indian covert offensive in Sindh and Balochistan forced Pakistan to scale down its backing to insurgents in Punjab and Kashmir in the late 1980s.  Nandi admitted to me the deal with the Burmese rebels lasted for a decade and helped India neutralise Northeastern rebel bases in the border region, where Burmese military had little presence (Subir Bhaumik; Troubled Periphery: Crisis of India's Northeast).

Tatmadaw's Jayawardene Trick

Just like the shrewd Jayawardene trapped India into the Jaffna conflict by getting Rajiv Gandhi to guarantee the implementation of the SriLanka peace accord in 1987, the Burmese military dominated administration of Myanmar is using India's Kaladan Multimodal project in Rakhine and Chin state to get Delhi involved in its own offensive against the Arakan Army.

The $484 million Kaladan project that envisages a sea-to-river-to road corridor from Rakhine's Sittwe port has been implemented at a snail's pace. The Chinese have finished the Kyaukphyu deep seaport in Rakhine and are going ahead with a special economic zone around it with rail-road and oil-gas pipelines linking it to Yunnan.

India has renovated the Sittwe port and is seeking to use it to connect to Mizoram through the Kaladan river. But the road from Paletwa in Chin state to Zorinpuii on the Mizoram border is unfinished and the Arakan Army's recent depredations on this stretch has delayed the project still further.

The Indian army conducted 'Operation Sunrise' against Arakan Army bases in southern Mizoram last summer on request of the Burmese army Tatmadaw. The rebels began targeting the Indian contractors in the Kaladan project and Arakan Army spokesperson Khaine Thukkha told media persons that  China "recognised" them but India did not.

The broad hint was that while the Chinese might have paid off the rebels , India did not and rather unleashed its army to support its foe, the Tatmadaw. Since then, the 7,000-strong Arakan Army has regularly attacked contractors, engineers and workers in the Kaladan project.

Divisions in Delhi on Rakhine Handling

The Indian Army and the intelligence services are divided over how to handle the Arakan Army which is apparently jeopardising the Kaladan project. Some want tough action including coordinated operations with Tatmadaw against the rebels but others suggest a more realistic approach of equidistance.

Still others feel India should get Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga, known to be close to the Arakan Army (AA) and also Myanmar's state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to take the lead to mediate an end to the escalating conflict that's unsettling the borderlands of South and South-east Asia.

The former rebel chieftain, whose MNF was based in Arakan (Rakhine) during its insurgency days (1966-86),  is a respected figure among multiple Burmese and Northeast Indian rebel groups.

Especially those seeking to return to the mainstream seek his advice on negotiations. Zoramthanga, who has played some initial role in the Burmese peace process, would thrive in such a role. He told this writer recently he had negotiated the release of an MP of Suu Kyi's NLD party after 79 days in AA captivity.

He also said India should change the contractor on the Kaladan project who seems to have used his influence in Delhi to push for military action that is obviously proving to be counter-productive.

The 7000-strong Arakan Army is a new-age rebel group, adept at riverine and land guerrilla warfare, use of the internet and social media for psy-war (psychological warfare) purposes and avoids big encampments and bases that could be targeted from the air or by a huge conventional assault.

Like boxer Muhammed Ali, their strategy is – 'float like a butterfly and sting like a bee'.  The Arakan Army was recently in news for having carried into its Rakhine-Chin battle zone a huge quantity of weapons after landing them on the extreme southern Bangladesh coast and then carrying it through the rugged terrain of Chittagong Hill Tracts and Mizoram's Parva hills.

Myanmar suspects Bangladesh, fed up with its failure to repatriate the one million-plus Rohingya refugees back to northern Rakhine, perhaps looked the other way to inconvenience the Tatmadaw.

The Rakhine-Chin muddle is becoming a regional crisis, with Burmese-Rakhine and Burmese-Rohingya (also Buddhist-Muslim ) fault lines appearing sharply on a chessboard where China and India, with their connectivity projects ( Kaladan and Kyaukphyu-Yunnan oil-gas pipeline ), have huge stakes.

India has to play its cards very carefully if it has to avoid a bloody nose a la Jaffna 1987.

(Subir Bhaumik, former BBC Correspondent and author, is now editorial director of is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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