Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Another Great Game is silently unfolding in the South East Asia conflict theatre

The Unfolding Great Game in South East Asia Impacting Northeast States

India’s decision to scrap the Free Movement Regime or FMR across the 1,643-km border with Myanmar as well as to fence it for stricter vigil have been making headlines in the northeast—Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram in particular. Earlier, the central government also proposed a 100-km wide belt along the international borders where no environmental clearance would be necessary to take up infrastructural development projects. Let there be no doubt, all of these are interrelated and have the same goal of securing India’s border. There are, of course, those who see these policy overtures as overkills, and that there are better ways of dealing with this concern.

There is, however, more than meets the eye in the matter. These moves, as several knowledgeable observers have pointed out, have little to do with the demands for them by any of the concerned states, including by a section of the population in Manipur, just as protests against it in states such as Mizoram and Nagaland will have equally scant effect in making the central government change its posture. As the chairman of the Politeia Research Foundation, Sanjay Pulipaka, has written, these moves are prompted by India’s unease at China’s influence penetrating deeper into Myanmar in the wake of the present turmoil the country is engulfed in.

This nagging apprehension became alarming for India after an alliance of three pro-Chinese ethnic armies, together known as the Three Brotherhood Alliance, took control of several major trading towns along the Myanmar-China border on October 27, 2023 in a landmark reversal for the Myanmar junta—a storming now codenamed Operation 1027. This alliance, formed in June 2019, comprises the Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

Except for the AA, which is from Myanmar’s south-western state of Rakhine, the latter two are based in Shan state close to the Chinese border. Of these, the MNDA is of the Kokang community, who are ethnic Chinese, and the TNLA is of the Ta’ang (or Palaung) ethnic group, who are also very close to the Chinese.

Myanmar expert and well-known journalist and author, Bertil Lintne, has been emphasising that the Chinese are fishing in the troubled waters of Myanmar—playing a double game to make sure the Myanmar junta sees China’s cooperation vital in keeping the inferno in the country under control.

Many observers had earlier thought this problem was solely for the Myanmar junta to worry about, and this is what is proving wrong. First of all, China’s strengthening grip in Myanmar means that China’s opponents—who, at this juncture of history, are primarily the US and its allies in Western world—also would begin to turn their attention to this conflict theatre.

There are already indications that this is happening and they have their own proxies in Myanmar to put hurdles before China’s expanding influence. As another well-known Indian public intellectual and former foreign service officer, M K Bhadrakumar, has written, the latest and most advanced American small arms are reaching many anti-junta rebel groups, and these may actually have begun seeping into India too, particularly into Manipur.

Under the circumstance, there can be no reason why India would not feel concerned. Not only does it consider China its regional adversary, but a geopolitical conflict arena shaping up in its backyard in Myanmar would surely be legitimate cause for worry. The recent move for border fencing and cancellation of the FMR must also be seen in this light.

Is India overreacting, considering this would likely have a profound effect on its Act East policy, besides disrupting ties between trans-border communities? This could very well be the case, and the current debates among the Indian intelligentsia, though barely audible, is precisely about this. Whatever be the case, the point to underscore here is that the driving logic behind these new policy moves is fired by larger geopolitical anxieties than local political pressures.

The concern is also of the fate of India’s Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project. This worry is undoubtedly legitimate, but here too a second consideration is called for. Perhaps the Kaladan project’s importance has been overrated—and India’s policymakers know this, therefore the low priority given to it.

As also pointed out in the same article by Pulipaka, the project was conceived as an alternative route between mainland India and the Northeast, which today are connected only by a narrow land corridor often referred to as the Chicken’s Neck or Siliguri Corridor—a wedge between Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and, importantly, China. India’s strategic concern is that if any escalation of hostility with China puts this land route in jeopardy, the Northeastern region would become altogether detached from mainland India. The Kaladan project was meant as an answer to this anxiety.

Otherwise, it is a route hardly likely to be preferred by merchants and transporters. A brief sketch of the route will illustrate this clearly. Goods are to be loaded on to ships at Kolkata and then shipped to Sittwe in Rakhine state in Myanmar over a distance of 539 km. Here, the goods would be offloaded and transferred to smaller barges which can sail along the Kaladan river for 158 km to Paletwa town on the edge of Rakhine and Chin states.

Here, the goods would again be offloaded to be reloaded onto trucks, drive 110 km through Chin state and then enter Mizoram at the Zorinpui crossing. Here again, the goods would be transferred to Indian transport vehicles, as it is unlikely that vehicles from either country would be allowed to ply on both sides of the border considering also that Myanmar follows the right-hand-drive norm and while it is left-hand-drive in India. From Zorinpui to Aizawl it is 325 km, Aizawl to Silchar in Assam 172 km, and from Silchar to Guwahati another 302 km via Meghalaya.

Considering the arduous nature of this route, it is anybody’s guess that few would prefer using it if China and India refrain from hostilities and the Siliguri corridor remains serviceable. Again, if India improves its ties with Bangladesh further, the importance of Kaladan project will deplete even more. For then, numerous alternative land routes, including rail lines, connecting mainland India and Northeast can become possible.

This article was first carried in The New Indian Express. The original can be read here

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