(The Northeast region is set to witness large-scale violation of Human Rights in the backdrop of India’s Look East Policy as the policy is predominantly guided by militaristic concern to subdue the armed struggles in the region.)
The hype generated over India’s Look East Policy did not come as a dramatic surprise to the people of Manipur since the opening of the “Eastern Gate” as a belief was rooted in their consciousness. It has been predicted in the ancient Manipuri sacred text called Puya that “Nongpok Thong” or the “Eastern Gate” would eventually open after a long period of “enforced closure”. The general belief went parallel with India’s announcement of a policy of looking eastward which marked a major shift in its economic and foreign policies. Even as the news of India’s Look East Policy spread rapidly, people remained optimistic about the possible economic advantages that could be derived from such an initiative. Ironically, however, the logic of impending militarization of the Northeast region made many informed quarters skeptical about the Look East Policy despite India’s grand design to project it as a viable development alternative. This write-up is an attempt to scrutinize India’s security and strategic concerns vis-à-vis its Look East Policy.
Constructive Engagement or Strategic U-turn
The enthusiasm exhibited by India towards Myanmar in the post-cold war era can be gauged from the unfolding security paradigm in the Eastern Front. Earlier, India had staunchly supported the movement for democracy in Myanmar prompting many pro-democracy activists and student leaders to take refuge in India following the military take-over of Myanmar in 1988. India had maintained an isolationist policy vis-à-vis Myanmar while simultaneously extending all sorts of logistic support to the dissident groups fighting for restoration of democracy. India also joined the international community in criticising human rights violation by the military junta and endorsed all the United Nations resolutions demanding restoration of democracy in Myanmar. The conferment of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding, the most prestigious international award conferred by India, to Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the dissident National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1995 marked the zenith of New Delhi’s support for democracy movement in Myanmar. Such diplomatic postures adopted by India widened the gulf existing between the two countries. It gave impressions of mutually irreconcilable differences between the two Asian neighbours.
Of late, however, a reversal of policy could be witnessed with the gradual shift in the Indian attitude towards the military rulers in Yangon. Observation made by certain analysts indicates that the twin factors of Chinese expansion and containment of insurgency in North East India made it imperative for India to reassess its policy towards Myanmar. In fact, the growing expansion of Chinese influence in Myanmar which eventually pose a strategic threat to India’s national security coupled with series of armed resistance movements launched by various shades of insurgent groups taking shelter in Myanmar compelled India to review its foreign policy towards Myanmar. Therefore, India’s Look East Policy, which finds its articulation partly in Indo-Myanmar Border Trade, is deeply intertwined with the existing as well as the emerging security and strategic development.
The political vacuum in Myanmar created by international isolation in the wake of the popular 1988 uprising provided China with an opportunity for economic and strategic penetration into Myanmar. Intensive research indicates China’s desperate search for markets for its cheap finished consumer goods even as it became more interested in the contracts for extracting Myanmar’s rich natural resources. The reciprocal visits between Chinese and Myanmarese officials led to gradual opening of Myanmarese economy to China with the latter becoming the first country to establish formalised border trade with the former. Separate trade agreements were signed between the two countries in 1989 and 1993 that ultimately resulted in increased trade volume. China extended possible economic assistance to Myanmar in the form of soft loans, technical knowledge and expertise thereby rendering Myanmar a Chinese satellite. Through its economic power China intends to exercise political influence over Myanmar in its bid to enhance its strategic interests in the region especially the Indian Ocean region. In turn, China provided Myanmar with all the diplomatic protection from international pressures against the junta apart from supplying military equipments to Yangon.
China’s help to the Myanmarese government with telecommunication network in Northern Myanmar and also the Chinese plan to construct a 1,350 kilometres-railway tract through Laos, Myanmar and China (Kunming) going up to Thailand (Bangkok) is seen by India with suspicion. The emerging strategic configuration in Southeast Asia has rendered Myanmar an important component of Chinese strategy to prevent its encirclement by the United States and its allies as well as to secure vital naval routes to oil supplies from the Middle East. The Chinese maritime expansion in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea with the logistic support of Myanmar and Pakistan respectively has created a situation of perceived Chinese encirclement of India. In fact, Chinese maritime expansion and inroads into the Indian Ocean through Myanmar is a cause of serious concern for India mainly in the light of Chinese assertion that the Indian Ocean is not India’s Ocean. In the strategic perception of India, Chinese dominance in the Bay of Bengal is an obstacle to its aspiration for economic and strategic influence in Southeast Asia. India finds it hard to tolerate the installation of Chinese monitoring centre in the Coco Island, close to Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is an overt strategic incursion into the Indian maritime zone. Besides, the Chinese presence all along the Myanmar’s border is perceived as a direct threat to India’s security. As such, the strategic concern caused by Myanmar-Pakistan-China nexus in an attempt to encircle India in the long run entails the need on the part of India to reverse its foreign policy in dealing with the military regime of Myanmar.
Another significant factor accounting for India’s strategic shift towards Myanmar is the security threat to India’s territorial integrity posed by numerous armed resistance groups of the North East with sanctuaries in Myanmar. Constant Myanmarese encouragement to the insurgent groups in India’s North East was largely responsible for the Indian government to reverse its earlier isolationist stand. It became indispensable for India to elicit the support of the Myanmar military regime in flushing out the insurgent groups, some of which are of Myanmarese origin or having connections with Myanmar insurgents. India had to seek the military junta’s co-operation due to growing realisation of Myanmar’s geo-strategic importance to counter insurgency. Consequently, as revealed by certain informed sources, a number of officials from the foreign office, defence and intelligence establishment had opposed Indian Government support extended to the pro- democracy movement and the “limited support” extended to the Myanmarese rebels. The logic behind their argument was that if India did not improve relations with the junta, Myanmar would become a Chinese satellite. This argument received due weightage chiefly on account of the understanding which was generally held in certain quarters that the junta is there to stay as transition from military rule to democracy in Myanmar is a distant dream. As a matter of policy based on real politick, India refrained from lodging a formal protest to the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) regime against its policy of dishonouring the electoral verdict of the Myanmarese people in 1990 thus paving way for normalising diplomatic relations with Yangon. In this context, India’s security anxiety ––– getting Myanmar to act against North East Indian insurgent groups taking shelter in Myanmar ––– rather than a desire to give the Look East Policy a continental orientation explains India’s U-turn vis-à-vis Myanmar. It is pertinent to note that India had all along maintained a maritime outlook towards Southeast Asia.
It was against this backdrop that U Ba Swe, Vice Foreign Minister of Myanmar paid a visit to India in 1992 on the invitation of the Indian Government. His visit resulted in identification of concrete areas for bilateral co-operation including border trade, prevention of narcotics trafficking and contact between the civilian and military authorities in the border regions of the two countries to prevent illegal activities (Ministry of External Affair Annual Report 1992-1993). Later, the Indian side intensified diplomatic offensives against Myanmar marking an era of “Constructive Engagement”, a policy which implies active co-operation with that country in the economic sphere without interference or intervention in its domestic political affairs. Such a policy adopted by India towards the military rulers in Yangon was much to the displeasure of the Myanmarese pro-democracy groups. Thus, India virtually deviated from its cherished principles of supporting democracy movement in Myanmar as it found its own interests increasingly paramount in the backdrop of various considerations like the emerging strategic equation in Southeast Asia. In spite of being the largest democracy in the world, India could hardly stand the trial of circumstances mainly when it comes to questions involving its interest. By aligning itself with the junta, India had laid a bad precedent for extending recognition and conferring legitimacy to the military regime of Myanmar. Serious fallout of such an alignment is the militarisation of the Indo-Myanmar region in an unprecedented scale. Mention may be made of the joint counter-insurgency operation consisting of Indian and Myanmarese armies known as “Operation Golden Bird” launched in 1995 in the Indo-Myanmar borders resulting in busting of many North East Indian insurgent camps.
Behind the Veil of Border Trade
It was in the midst of such development that the idea of Indo-Myanmar border trade got revived after decades of hibernation when the then Foreign Secretary J.N Dixit led a delegation to Myanmar in 1993; informal trade between the two countries is not a new phenomenon. Ironically, a sincere desire on the part of the Indian government to promote a smooth and efficient border trade was absent right from its very inception as India’s policy towards Myanmar is guided overwhelmingly by its security obsession. It had always remained conspicuous that the logic of enhancing border trade as such was not the decisive determinant behind India’s recent engagement with the military junta. The concept of border trade has been meticulously dragged into the picture only with a design to lend an economic facade to the various diplomatic initiatives undertaken with regard to Myanmar.
Formalisation of border trade between India and Myanmar was secured through the signing of Indo-Myanmar Border Trade Agreement on January 21, 1994, which was operationalised on April 12, 1995 with Moreh in Manipur officially declared open for trade. However, an interesting revelation points to the fact that the main area of discussion between the Indian delegation and the Myanmarese authorities in all rounds of talks during 1994 had always focused on “better border management” which in turn covered issues like insurgency, terrorism, narcotic trade and boundary issues. Pertinent to recall in this context is the fact that another agreement in addition to the border trade agreement known as the “Memorandum of Understanding on Co-operation between the Civilian Border Authorities” of the two countries to prevent illegal and insurgent activities was also executed on the same day. The reasons behind India’s security concerns along the Indo-Myanmar border can, however, be explained by the existence of small arms trade and insurgency. Border trade, therefore, in India’s perception is an institutional device to monitor movement of insurgent groups in the border areas and Chinese incursion into Myanmar. It is worth noting that exchange of visits between the Indian and the Myanmarese authorities from 1992 to the present revolved round the issues pertaining to tackling of insurgency and its associated phenomenon of arms trade. In all the agreements reached between the two countries, mutual understanding is demonstrated for a well-coordinated military campaign against armed-insurgent groups in the border regions. Myanmar went to the extent of declaring that it would not allow its soil to be used by any group against India while the latter tried its best to appease the junta. One glaring example is the gifting of the 165 kilometres long Indian-built Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road linking India’s North East as a token of improving relationship. India stressed on construction of roads and development of the border areas with a strategic calculation for containment of insurgents operating in the region.
One significant aspect of Indo-Myanmar relations lies in convergence of strategic interests between them as the Naga insurgents campaigning for “Nagalim” or Greater Nagaland, which includes certain portions of Myanmar, poses a security threat to the military rulers in Yangon. The junta is also apprehensive of the Naga insurgents lest they could be used by the Western powers especially the United States to topple the military regime and restore democracy in Myanmar. The junta badly needs Indian help to fight against Myanmarese ethnic separatist groups that control several provinces in its North Eastern parts. The inaccessibility of the geographical areas controlled by the ethnic minorities called for joint military operations.
The year 2004 witnessed a great improvement in the bilateral relations between India and Myanmar when senior General Than Shwe, Chairman of the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) paid a state visit to India from October 25-29 holding talks with Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India on a wide range of issues. The two sides reiterated their firm determination to maintain peace, tranquility and stability along the entire length of their border as an essential pre-requisite to successful implementation of cross-border projects and to bring about economic prosperity in the area. Both sides have also come up with several other cross-border projects such as the Tamanthi Hydro-electric project, the Rhi-Tiddim and Rhi-Falam roads and the Kaladan Multi-modal Transport project. Such projects are apparently meant for uplifting the economic condition in the border areas and improving connectivity between the two countries. However, it has been widely argued that the implementation of such projects will certainly lead to human rights violation and environmental problems. Both sides have already reached an understanding on clearing the areas of hostile elements as a necessary pre-condition for smooth and meaningful execution of the projects. In this regard, large-scale deployment of army for maintenance of security in the areas is quite imminent.
Following the understanding between India and Myanmar, a number of military operations have been launched by the Myanmarese army busting many camps of the insurgent groups from the Indian side. The Burmese military also sealed its border to block the fleeing insurgents when the Indian military forces launched a major operation codenamed “Operation All Clear” involving 6,000 troops to crack down the insurgents in Manipur during 2004-05. It can be recalled that even in the late Nineties, Yangon literally gave consent to the Indian Army to track down the North East insurgents in Myanmarese territory and uproot them on foreign soil. A top-secret operation, it indicated the extent of cooperation and understanding between the world’s largest democracy and the repressive military junta.
The visit by President Kalam to Yangon in March 2006 is crucial in a sense that it was the first by an Indian President. Sources from the media indicate that Kalam’s visit to Yangon was meant to oversee the implementation of several strategic projects undertaken by India. One of such projects is the Kaladan Multi Modal Transport Project, an artery that will link Calcutta to South Mizoram, through the Arakan Coast of Myanmar. Construction of road through Arakan will help India check anti-India rebel groups operating from there. It may be recalled that the Indian government had cultivated the National Unity Party of Arakan (NUPA) in a larger strategy to counter rebel groups from the North East. India also maintained close ties with the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) and CNF (Chin National Front) for the same purpose i.e., to deny the use of their territory for anti-India activities. Visit of the Indian President also secured the signing of a framework agreement on the setting up of a ground station in Myanmar for receiving data from the Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) satellite. The Indian space agency was reportedly involved in building the facility, which is now ready for use. Such a facility will certainly help in gathering information about the locations of the insurgent camps and monitor their movements. In this context, mention may be made of the request made by General Than Shwe to the Indian government for emergency military supplies including helicopters, helicopter gunships, heavy rockets, navigation equipments and most importantly the global positioning system devices for his beleaguered troops in countering anti-India rebels based in Myanmar. However, India had suggested that the equipment be deployed in joint operations with the Indian military given the lack of training on the part of Myanmar’s military forces to use the equipment. Both the countries have been deliberating on a joint counter-insurgency operation inside Myanmar.
More check posts are coming up in the Indo-Myanmar Border to facilitate meetings between the armies of the two countries as part of India’s Look East Policy. A check post which has already been set up near the Border Gate No.1 at Moreh is said to house office of central and state governments, including land customs, taxation, forest police and para-military forces, and medical as well as food-testing laboratories. Reports indicate that new posts would be opened at Lungwa in Nagaland’s Mon district, Bihang in Churachandpur district of Manipur and at Sapi and Lokawather in Mizoram. Pertinent to note in this regard is the nod given by the Union Home Ministry to a scheme to raise the iron fencing equipped with concertina ring, along Mizoram’s 404 kilometres border with Myanmar. The 8-ft high iron fencing along the Indo-Myanmar border has been erected to stem the rising trend of cross-border movements. Similarly, about 400 kilometres of Tripura’s 856 kilometres long borders with Bangladesh has already been fenced by the central government to prevent cross-border insurgency. The Union Home Ministry is also determined to complete fencing of 736 kilometres even if it has to resort to force for ensuring smooth completion of the said project. The fencing is primarily intended to curb recent trends of North East insurgent groups’ crossing over to training camps in Myanmar. The construction of the controversial security fencing along the Manipur’s borders with Myanmar is also a case in point.
Inspite of the fencing, several projects to improve connectivity in the country through construction of roads on both sides of the international border have been undertaken by the respective government to check movements of insurgents. In March 2006, Dr Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India informed the Lok Sabha that Myanmar had agreed to a suggestion offered by India regarding facilities for joint interrogation and consular access to Indian insurgents apprehended in the neighbouring country. As the unfolding events demonstrate, the understanding between India and Myanmar is not confined to the higher echelons of the two governments but also gets reflected at the levels of sector commanders on either side of the borders. Media reports reveals that the Indian and Myanmarese armies would embark on a “strategic co-ordination” between themselves immediately with an objective to tackle the insurgent outfits based in each other’s territories in a “meaningful way”. As such, the Indo-Myanmar region is likely to witness a series of joint counter-insurgency operations in the near future.
Inconsistencies in Indian foreign policy remain exposed when India reversed its policy towards Myanmar in the post-Cold War era. Thirst for alternative energy sources, strategic competition with China and internal security obsession wove together into a policy that in a way exhibits a marked betrayal of the very principle India had purportedly cherished for so many decades. Initial support for democracy movement got gradually supplanted with active diplomatic engagement towards the military junta. In the process, India has virtually abandoned democracy, the very basis of its own existence on the pretext of promoting “national interests” which in reality is the interests of a miniscule Indian corporate class. Any form of maintaining formal diplomatic relations with the military junta amounts to recognizing the regime and this is not without numerous implications. Extending recognition to Yangon conspicuously defies the logic of claiming to be the largest democracy in the world. Recognition also implies endorsement of the policies adopted by the junta. Viewed thus, India has directly or indirectly become a party to the atrocious military regime, which perpetrates human rights violation against the Myanmarese people. Therefore, India deserves equal condemnation for patronizing and legitimizing the military dictatorship of Yangon at the cost of democracy and human rights. By aligning with the dictators, India has neutralized the mounting international pressure built up over one and half a decade against the military junta for restoration of democracy in Myanmar. India’s hypocrisy and double standards become stark in its relentless criticism to the erstwhile military regime in Pakistan and elsewhere.
The indigenous peoples of the North East have nothing to expect from India’s Look East Policy, as the prospect of economic gains to be derived from it is still fuzzy. Certain informed quarters have observed that despite the rise in the overall volume of trade between India and Myanmar, trade through the Moreh-Tamu route has been declining over the years. The border trade posts on the Indian side is also said to be lacking in infrastructure and supportive institutional structure. Owing to such an absence of appropriate domestic preparedness, border trade has not shown any significant stride even after the signing of the border trade agreement about two decades back. This is not unexpected since economic development of the North East did not figure prominently in framing this policy. So far, the Indian Government cannot produce a blueprint of the Look East Policy for the North East. It is an irony that trading infrastructures and facilities are reportedly coming up in West Bengal ostensibly bypassing the North East. Observations coming from analyst indicated that security considerations far outweigh economic considerations as far as the Indo-Myanmar border trade is concerned. Security and strategic consideration is the prime mover of India’s LEP. Here, it needs to be stated that border trade constitutes a significant component of the Look East Policy.
AHN & TAR: Road to Militarization
A grand scheme of the Look East Policy is the Asian Highway Network Agreement, which came into force on July 4, 2005. The Inter-governmental Agreement on Asian Highway Network, which aims to complete 14,000 km of standardized roadways spanning 32 Asian countries including India with linkage to Europe, has been a landmark agreement. To be known as the Asian Highway I, the highway will enable direct travel from Tokyo to Istanbul and an estimated 18 billion US dollar is needed to upgrade and improve the highway. This inter-governmental agreement on the Asian Highway Network is the first treaty developed by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UNESCAP). It is deposited with the UN Secretary General. UNESCAP is working with the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the Japan Bank for International Co-operation and the Islamic Development Bank to help countries identify sources for investment. India became the 24th country to sign the Agreement on April 28, 2004 at the 60th Session of UNESCAP.
Apart from the Trans-Asian Highways sponsored by the International Financial Institutions, the Government of India (GoI) has recently initiated a new railway scheme in pursuit of India’s Look East Policy. The rail link scheme proposed by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) is part of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Project. The scheme, which is in its nascent stage, envisages bringing the Asian countries closer to each other for ensuring more interactive economic cooperation. Keeping this aspiration in view, India and Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on July 29, 2004 under which India would make available a line credit of US dollar 56 million to Yangon authorities to facilitate them to build a modern utility along the North Western and Central flank of that country. The Rail India Technical and Economic Services (RITES), an ancillary of the Indian Railways had already completed the drawing up of a preliminary feasibility survey to build a broad-gauge track between Moreh in Manipur and Segyi in Myanmar with an estimated cost of Rs.13.39 billion. In conjunction with this plan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the then Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav had laid the foundation stone of the railway line from Jiribam to Tupul in Manipur’s Tamenglong district in November 2004. The Indian Railways had also initiated the preliminary task to extend the broad gauge track from Jiribam in southwest Manipur and the state’s lone railhead to Moreh via Tupul and Imphal in phase manner. The construction of the railways is currently underway.
While the importance of such transport facilities cannot be overridden, apprehension looms large on the negative consequences likely to emerge from such a developmental project. Firstly, in the absence of a viable market structure and trading infrastructure, construction of highways and extension of railways will not augment much to alleviate the existing predicament. The North East will be reduced to a mere transit point or a corridor route in the whole scheme of things. Transformation of the region from the “local” to the “global” will not entail any guarantee for development as already depicted by Myanmar unless the local economy is restructured. And economic gain, if there could be any, would be neutralised by the surplus migrant population that shall arrive with the coming of highways and railways. Impending demographic pressure of the migrant population will undoubtedly result in shrinking of social and economic space of the indigenous peoples. The North East will experience intensified immigrant influx from mainland India in addition to aggravation of existing social problems including AIDS, prostitution, illegal arms-trade, illicit drug smuggling and human trafficking. The fragile local economy already in the grip of the outsiders will ultimately crumble and consequently, the indigenous peoples of the region have a chance of becoming beggars in their own land. Ultimately, the land and its distinct identity will perish.
The most immediate danger lies in further militarisation of the already militarised North East. Heavy deployment of security forces along the highways and railways will become highly inevitable given the prevalence of conflict situation in the region. Illegal detention, involuntary disappearance, arrest without warrant, undesirable frisking, summary execution, staged encounter, torture and rape can be expected on an unprecedented scale if past experiences are any indication. The military establishment and the central government will find a more suitable ground to justify the continued imposition of the draconian AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), 1958 while much new inhuman legislation may be forthcoming. In this way, the security forces will be far better equipped to launch counter-insurgency operations with increased brutality and immunity.
The operational aspect of India’s Look East Policy in the context of the North East remains heavily confined to development of surface transport infrastructures like highways and railways. The emphasis attached to construction of highways and railways seems loaded with military objectives to conduct military operations against the insurgents. Once considered a landlocked region, those in the corridors of power in New Delhi had cited the topographical terrain as the major cause of inaccessibility and transport bottleneck of the North East. But the onset of economic liberalization in India since the early Nineties has led to falsification of such a traditional notion. The logic behind such a paradox infers that the central government had deliberately kept the region backward on one pretext or the other. It is only when the Indian corporate class began to realize the importance of the North East that the Government of India started acting on their behalf in collaboration with the Multinational Corporations (MNCs). However, in the absence of any concrete policy framework committed to bringing about a sustainable economic development in the North East, the peoples of this region can hardly expect a qualitative change in their social and economic conditions from the much hyped Look East Policy.
An interesting aspect of the Look East Policy, which needs serious introspection, is New Delhi’s attitude towards the North East. The notion of North East as a ‘frontier’ has dominated the mindset of the Indian ruling elites for a long time and there seems no break to such a legacy inherited from the colonial past. Even after sixty years of independence, there is no paradigm shift to the outlook of Indian political leadership. In spite of the new policy initiative, economic integration of the North East with mainland India still remains a far-fetched dream. Development in the last six decades has not shown any meaningful step to transform the frontier concept of the North East. The concept of frontier that denotes an area which needs to be defended militarily still holds true even today. The possibility of the North East to be rendered merely as a transit point or rather as a corridor lends authenticity to such an understanding. Because, one can hardly see any tangible development of trading infrastructure in the region except for the limited construction of roads and highways, that too for military purpose.
India’s Look East Policy is fraught with the state-centric notion of viewing any development project in the North East from the security paradigm. The military implications inherent in any of these projects ––– be it the Tipaimukh High Dam, the Border Trade, the Trans-Asian Highways, the Trans-continental Railways or the Shwe Gas Pipeline ––– reflect the persistence of a colonial mindset. It is colonial in a sense that the development projects which are purportedly undertaken in the name of effecting economic upliftment is overshadowed by the underlying logic of militarisation. The notion of development is employed as a mere pretext for deployment of more military personnel and structures. Legitimacy to conduct military operations is also derived from the notion of development that asserts peace as a necessary pre-condition for development. Maintenance of peace and order makes it imperative for the state to use forces. Developmentalism, therefore, has been a powerful justificatory doctrine of state violence against the civil population. It is in line with this understanding that the logic of economic development is employed as a mere façade of India’s Look East Policy to conceal the inherent militaristic design to subdue the armed struggles launched by different nationalist groups in the North East. Such a policy will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications on the state of Human Rights in the region.
The writer is ICSSR Post Doctoral Fellow, Department of Political Science, Manipur University. He is currently working on “Peace Initiatives and Conflict Transformation in Manipur”. He can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>