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India’s equation with generals

world Updated: May 28, 2012 23:43 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Myanmar’s military regime assured New Delhi they would act against Northeast insurgents “and anti-India groups” on their territory. This was given to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his state visit to Nawpyitaw. This comes at a time when more such insurgents have moved to north Myanmar for sanctuary.

Indian authorities say hardline fugitives of the United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, following a two year-long crackdown by the Sheikh Hasina government of Bangladesh, have fled to Upper Burma. The Naga fugitives have hidden themselves among the Naga minority who live in north Myanmar. The ULFA, who have no ethnic brethren in Myanmar, have move further afield. ULFA’s secretary, Paresh Barua, is believed by Indian intelligence to be hiding in China’s Yunnan province.

Indian foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai said, “The prime minister personally raised the issue of Northeast security and received an assurance from President Thien Sien that Northeastern insurgents and anti-Indian groups would not be allowed to operate on Myanmar soil.”

He added that this would necessitate “intelligence sharing between the two sides and that armed forces cooperation would have to intensify.”

This reflects the long and continuing success of military-to-military relations with Myanmar. These relations have helped New Delhi develop a more nuanced view of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese name for Myanmar’s armed forces, than the West.

First, New Delhi’s interactions with even brutal military rulers, like Than Shwe who suppressed the monk protests of 2007, have led it to conclude they are Burmese first and everything else second. Even the present decision to open up, say Indian officials, is “driven primarily by a sense of nationalism.”

Second, the top brass have long communicated that they did not see themselves being in power forever. In his meetings with Than Shwe, says Rajiv Bhatia, ex-Indian ambassador to Myanmar, the general recognized the army would have to give up power one day. India contributed quietly by giving the military chiefs access to Buddhist shrines in India to weaken their political instincts. The butcher of the 1988 protests, Maung Aye, for example, reportedly spends all his time in meditation.

“They go to China for guns and India for salvation,” say Indian officials half-seriously. Third, India had noticed the Myanmar military had been moving to a more flexible view on the minority issue and the pro-democracy movement of Aung San Suu Kyi. The original strategy of the Tatmadaw ws to absorb the country’s ethnic minorities into the dominant Burmese culture.

The army believed, writes Thant Myint-U, author of Where China Meets India, a policy of “Burma-ization” would secure their frontier – until they found their culture being pushed back by the more dynamic Chinese economic frontier. As the military saw its strategy fall apart, it began a carrot-and-stick policy with the minorities before moving on to striking a deal with Suu Kyi.

One of the key proponents of this shift is the present Myanmar military commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the man India believes is the “sheet anchor” behind Thien Sien and the present reforms.