Bertil Lintner, a scholar on Indo-Burmese affairs, tells Ratnadip Choudhury why it is tough for Myanmar to crack down on Northeast insurgency groups.
Edited excerpts from an interview.
You have seen the insurgencies of Southeast Asia from Ground Zero. In some areas they have joined the mainstream, in many places they continue with their struggles. How do you see the future?
It varies from country to country. In democratic countries, rebels and former rebels can join the mainstream and become politicians. But this is not possible in countries such as Myanmar. Hence, the civil war there is bound to continue. The only solution to the Myanmar problem is to adopt some kind of federalism rather than a centralised system, which the country follows. But that would also mean that the entire political system in Myanmar would need an overhaul, which is not easy.
The insurgent outfits of Northeast India have lost sanctuaries in Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Reports indicate that they are holed up in Myanmar. Do you see more disintegration in ethnic insurgency?
India wants to open a west-east corridor through Myanmar for two reasons. First, it wants to trade directly with Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Second, it would be in India’s interest to keep China at bay in Myanmar. But in order to do so, the Northeast needs to be pacified. This is why there was an expulsion of ULFA and UNLF leaders from Bangladesh – at India’s insistence – and the arrest of Anthony Shimray, the chief arms procurer of the NSCN(IM). Evidently the rebels are in a tight corner, which is why they are trying to survive by banding together into various fronts.
There are media reports of an operation by the Myanmar army against Northeastern insurgent groups from India camping in Myanmar. Does this mean that Myanmar will help India with a major crackdown?
That was a phantom operation. It never took place and it was no coincidence that the news about the alleged fighting was leaked just before the new Myanmar president, Thein Sein, was to make an official visit to India. It is like when US dignitaries visit Myanmar, the authorities always carry out a big drug bust before they arrive. It is not in the interest of the Myanmar authorities to work against rebels from the Indian side who have established a presence in Mayanmar’s Northwestern region. They see it as India’s problem. Myanmar government has too many problems of its own. I believe it is in the interest of Myanmar to have a buffer of instability with India.
Where do you think India has gone wrong with its policy when it comes to sub-continental neighbours, particularly Myanmar?
India’s policy is not wrong. Myanmar is not interested in cooperating with its neighbours when it comes to crossborder insurgencies. It fights insurgents on its own terms and doesn’t want to get into joint operations, which India wants with its neighbours.
Is there a chance that India will get Myanmar’s support?
It is not in Myanmar’s interest to launch military operations against Indian insurgents. As long as these rebels don’t bother the Myanmar army, the army won’t bother them.
In 1985, when you became the first foreign journalist to cross over from Nagaland to Myanmar, you saw two major insurgents, the Naga rebels and the ULFA, gearing up. After three decades, both are involved in peace processes at different levels. Does this guarantee a solution to the conflicts?
It depends how you define a solution. From the Indian point of view it would mean neutralising such groups by turning their leaders into politicians and businessmen. And, so far, that policy has been quite successful. But solving the underlying ethnic tensions between the Centre and the Northeast is a different ballgame.
You have been in touch with the Naga rebel leaders for a long time. The NSCN(IM) has been involved in peace parleys for four years. In ULFA, chair Arabinda Rajkhowa is leading the peace bandwagon while its army chief Paresh Baruah is waging war with a handful of cadres. Do these splits weaken the scope of dialogue?
These are exactly the developments that New Delhi wants.
India-China relations have been in trouble for some time as India says China is supplying arms to the Northeast insurgents. There are also reports that the rebels are being trained in frontier China. How big can this become?
The rebels from northeast buy weapons from the black market. But in reality, it is more grey than black. The informal weapon trade in China is run by former army officers and well-connected private dealers. The rebels have to pay for these weapons. The Chinese authorities allow this to happen as retaliation towards India allowing the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans to operate from their territory. Even though the Tibetans are not waging an armed struggle against the Chinese government, they are attracting attention and moral support from the international community, which has disturbed China. So they are letting Baruah and his comrades do what they want in China, which includes buying arms.
There are reports that the Indian rebel groups are regrouping in Myanmar, the Kachins are once again helping them with arms and Chinese help is being rendered. What is your opinion?
The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is not helping the ULFA or any other insurgent group from India. They need weapons for their own struggle especially after their ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government broke down earlier this year. They are in no position to share their weaponry with anybody else. The weapons from China that reach India’s Northeast are most probably trucked across Myanmar by the United Wa State Army, which is also a main supplier of narcotics to Manipur, Nagaland and beyond. Its ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government enables it to transport whatever it wants across Myanmar.