On 22 August 2013, Myanmarese soldiers reportedly crossed the International Boundary between India and Mynmar, at Holenphai village near Manipur’s border town of Moreh, 110 km south of Imphal in Chandel District and started cutting trees to set up a temporary camp. Holenphai village is next to a disputed pillar, numbered 76, along the border. Myanmarese soldiers reportedly claimed that the village was part of their territory.
A high-level state committee led by Manipur State government’s Principal Secretary (Home) Dr. J Suresh Babu visited Moreh to assess the situation. “There are nine boundary pillars which are still not settled between India and Myanmar. So Government of India and the State Govt have been requesting the Ministry of External Affairs to take up the matter with the Burmese authorities to do a joint survey so that these nine pillars are also settled. “As far as the settlement of the boundary dispute is concerned we can only express our views… ultimately it has to be done by the governments of both the countries, so we alone cannot make a settlement,” Dr. Babu was reported to have said.
Ministry of external affairs reportedly stated that it is not an intrusion or an incursion, that Assam Rifles, are already in touch with the Myanmar Army and that issue of the area near undemarcated border pillar 76 will be taken further. Of the four Indian states Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, which share 1643 kilometres of land border with Myanmar – the first two are plagued by insurgent-turnedterrorist groups, who have been getting shelter and support from Myanmar Army. At least eight groups of Manipur, Nagaland and the so-called ‘anti-talks faction’ of United Liberation Front of Asom [ULFA] have had bases in Myanmar for many decades. With this entire border being very porous, the activities of these insurgent-turnedterrorist groups have also involved cross-border crimes like drug trafficking (which goes hand in hand with trafficking of illicit arms and ammunition), smuggling of goods and counterfeit Indian currency, which has been organized by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence operatives, a good number of who were posted there during the long tenure of the pro- Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Following both India and Myanmar agreeing to erect border fencing India’s MHA and its Myanmarese counterpart completed the survey within six months and in March 2003 began erecting a fence along the border. In 2004, the border fencing work in Manipur was reportedly stalled owing to protests raised by the local Chin, Hmar, Kuki , and Naga communities, whose apprehensions are that a huge stretch of land would become Myanmar’s territory and foment unrest among people living on both sides of the border and that the fencing will divide many ethnic communities, whose lands straddle the regions between the two states. The protests from people living in the Moreh, Chorokhunou, and Molcham areas constrained the Home Ministry to refer the matter to the Manipur government.
The high-level state committee led by Principal Secretary Babu visited Moreh to assess the situation, inspected different locations of the ongoing border fencing construction sites, including Govajang village which is said to be divided by the fence. According to media reports, the Centre in consultation with the Manipur Government started building the border fence measuring around 10 kilometer at Moreh along the porous border. According to the villagers, about 10 houses out of 25 in the village, including a church, will go to Myanmar once the fencing comes into existence. In view of the development, the authorities stopped the ongoing construction works at Govajang. The visiting team also visited the Holenphai village, about two kilometers away from Moreh to verify the allegations that Myanmarese troops are preparing to set up a temporary camp within the village land. Later, Dr. Babu said a report would be submitted to the authorities for further steps to be taken.
Meanwhile, the newly floated Committee on Protection of Land in Border Fencing (CPLBF) has reportedly demanded a joint border survey along the 398 km Manipur section of the India-Myanmar border involving State, Centre and Myanmar authorities. According to media reports, the CPLBF, has threatened to launch various forms of agitation if the authorities failed to meet their demands. When the pro-Pakistan Bangladesh Nationalist Party came to power in Bangladesh, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence [ISI] presence in that country substantially increased. When Indian Army was called to deal with the United Liberation Front of Asom [ULFA] in Assam in end November 1990, its top leadership under Paresh Baruah escaped to Bangladesh giving the ISI there the golden opportunity to enter Assam and other parts of the Northeast and woo other insurgent turned terrorist groups in Manipur and Nagaland, which also set up camps there. Following Awami Leagues massive electoral victory in December 2008, its government led by Sheikh Hasina began a crackdown against northeast militants, many of them returned to take shelter in the jungles and hills of Myanmar. From these areas in Myanmar, ULFA has been making trips to China, which has been providing it support and weapons for them and for supplying to Left Wing Extremisits [LWEs]/Naxal-Maoists. Myanmar army has never seriously/meaningfully chased out or handed over to India any of the terrorists hiding on its soil.
In 1988, India decided to stop openly supporting the Burmese democracy movement and began negotiating for bilateral cooperation with the State Law and Order Restoration Council [SLORC] military junta. The junta always had a long wish-list of military hardware from India with a quid pro quo of putting pressure or chasing out leaders and elements of these groups.
With a view to garnering support from Myanmar Army in dealing with the menace of insurgency and to counterbalance the Chinese influence in Myanmar, India began engaging the military junta quite extensively since 2006. However, the State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] leaders/Myanmar army have only been making more of a show of cracking the whip on ULFA and National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Khaplang led faction, which is the ULFA’s mentor in Myanmar, but have never effectively destroyed their hideouts on Myanmarese soil, nor ever arrested and handed over any of them to India There was an India-Myanmar joint operation launched in the 1990s to nab Indian insurgents, from which Myanmar dropped out midway owing to India conferring the Nehru Award on Aung San Suu Kyi. That award was finally given to her during her recent visit to India.
The agreements mentioned for India- Myanmar bilateral cooperation, whenever implemented, will be a great boon for both Myanmar and India’s northeastern states, but these projects can only succeed if militant groups enjoying sanctuary in Myanmar are neutralised. Coming back to the recent alleged Myanmarese intrusion, which both MHA and MEA are denying and trying to assure that all is well, some questions come up. The boundary pillars issue has been discussed often during army to army meetings held every year and it is something both nations have so far lived with. Then why such a move by Myanmar army now? The other is a more worrisome possibility of the Chinese, riled as they are against India for its waking up on long overdue infrastructural development and armed forces modernization, putting pressure on Myanmar to follow their example of heckling on the border.
According to R.K. Shivachandra’s article in a local daily “By all accounts Mr. Suresh Babu, Principal Secretary (Home) is neither a politician nor an emissary who should speak on the India Myanmar border imbroglio. He should have carefully assessed the prevailing situation and conveyed it to the Home Minister where he can assert his wisdom. The oversimplified and misleading statement of Suresh Babu, Principal Secretary, Home that the said erected fence is a “security fence” and not a border fence could spark off a devastating inferno. If the fence was a security one then what about the 14 tribal villages that have been pushed off to Myanmar territory after the erection of the fence? The emotions of the disgruntled people of Manipur should not be taken in a light vein. The border fencing issue is a serious issue for the people of Manipur and should not be entrusted to someone who knows nothing of the feature”.While India has asked Myanmar to set up a Joint Border Working Group ( JBWG) to address the issue of demarcation of border between the two countries, New Delhi must be wary and assertive.
The author is the Associate Editor of Salute