While one hears a lot about military operations across our western borders with Pakistan, very little is known about the challenges posed by armed separatist outfits operating from across our eastern borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar. Prior to the birth of Bangladesh, East Pakistan was a safe haven for armed separatist outfits in our northeast.
This situation ended with the birth of Bangladesh. Support for separatist outfits was, however, resumed there when Begum Khaleda Zia and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, backed by the Jamat-e-Islami (JeI), assumed power. The ISI again developed a substantial presence in Bangladesh.
It was during Begum Khaleda’s rule that India turned to Myanmar for active support to deal with separatist groups from Nagaland, Manipur and Assam. These groups were getting weapons in Bangladesh and being infiltrated back into India, after traversing through Mizoram and Manipur. Their weapons were purchased in Thailand and brought by sea to Bangladesh. Despite domestic opposition, including from high levels of his Congress party, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao worked quietly to enhance diplomatic, economic and intelligence cooperation with Myanmar’s military government.
The results of this policy change were dramatic and have been long lasting. In May 1995, the Indian Army’s Eastern Command mounted a 45-day operation codenamed ‘Golden Bird’, to eliminate separatists along and across the Indo-Myanmar border, with Myanmar blocking separatist exit routes.
Thirty-eight separatists were subsequently killed, 100 captured and more than 100 weapons seized, opening the door for us to learn how our northeast insurgents were being backed by the intelligence services of Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh and Pakistan’s ISI. The operations sadly ended prematurely. Disregarding Rao’s wishes, Vice President K R Narayanan announced that Aung San Suu Kyi, then under detention, was being given the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. Infuriated by this, the Myanmar Army withdrew its support.
India has, thereafter, been realistic in recognising that while quiet moral support can be given to the cause of democracy in Myanmar, realism demands recognition that democratisation in Myanmar will be slow. Thus, while our diplomatic dealings with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government have been cordial, our channels of communication with the Myanmar army remain discreet, but strong. Equally importantly, Sheikh Hasina has effectively ended the presence of groups like ULFA in Bangladesh, while virtually decimating Khaleda Zia’s BNP and its JeI allies.
In recent weeks, the Myanmar army has effectively cordoned off elements of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and insurgents from the Manipur Peoples’ Army, in operations across Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, bordering Manipur and Nagaland.
The real problem that Myanmar and India face is that both Myanmar insurgent groups and members of Indian groups like ULFA and the NSCN (K) move freely across Myanmar’s borders with China. They quite evidently receive support and safe haven in China’s Yunnan Province. China’s links with these groups pose continuing security problems for India, notably in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur.