This column was published by The Myanmar Times on Monday, 7 September 2015
India and Myanmar have an occasionally fraught relationship that is still shaped by awkward 20th century history. Their growing friendship was tested back in June when an Indian commando raid ventured into Myanmar territory. Its targets were camps allegedly run by two of northeast India’s many insurgent organisations.
Such groups have gone toe-to-toe with Indian authorities for decades. The mountainous, forested terrain of the borderlands provides the ideal environment for guerrilla armies. They can evade capture for years, melting inandout of the local communities from which they originally emerged. It also helps that they can slip across the border to find safe haven in Myanmar or Bangladesh.
For Indian security officials the northeastern fringe has proved a persistent headache. Countless careers have been exhausted in the pursuit of rebel groups seeking greater autonomy for their people.
For anyone aware of Myanmar’s long-term problems with ethnic conflict it is an all too familiar story. Groups with their own languages, cultures and religions have put up ferocious resistance to central rule.
In northeast India the battles have led to impoverishment and a dire lack of investment. They have also created a vicious local political stew where warlords, politicians and officials pursue their own narrow agendas.
To keep the situation under control, the Indian government curtails access to vast areas of the northeast. A system of permits restricts travel in key areas, and even Indian citizens need appropriate permissions.
I remember years ago asking a platoon of Indian paramilitariesstationed in the northeast where they were from. They chuckled and told me that they were from “everywhere”.
When encouraged to clarify this bold assertion they gave me a long list of different home states: Assam, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and more. Their duty to defend the unity of the Indian system called them to those remote and unforgiving hills.
Battles in such places have continued even though many other parts of India have galloped ahead. The economies of the large cities are now fuelled by tech jobs and an overwhelming confidence that India will eventually challenge for regional primacy.
That ambition, backed of course by nuclear weapons, is one that people in Myanmar need to take seriously. The fact is that while some parts of India have prospered there are other areas where the overall picture remains bleak.
It is a sad fact that some of the toughest and most explosive areas rub against Myanmar territory. There have long been assertions that foreign security organisations, including from Pakistan and Bangladesh, are party to this instability; that the northeast is used to undermine India’s fighting spirit.
Such ideas are relevant to Myanmar precisely because the conditions of conflict in the northeast are so similar to those experienced by people in Kayin State, Shan State and so many other places. Intractable wars of this kind are the product of ethnic cleavages that even democratic governments struggle to manage.
While there are regular elections in northeast India, there are still many groups that see no alternative to future war. Such grim conditions are clearly not good for business and they tend to lead to migration and despair. Nobody ever really feels at home when the overall political situation is punctuated by bombings, murders and tit-for-tat strife.
Myanmar can certainly avoid such a scenario if the nationwide ceasefire agreement gets the local-level support that it will need. It is not enough for the top dealmakers to shake hands and offer signatures. The people need to accept the terms for themselves. Free and fair elections are one part of that story, but it is also a matter of convincing the dispossessed and downtrodden that they truly belong.
In the aftermath of the June raid, the Indian government agreed a new ceasefire with some of its northeastern opponents. There is hope that such deals can be further developed.
But peace on the Indian side of the border won’t come easily or cheaply. Unfortunately, the level of racial exclusion experienced by many locals in the northeast discourages them from developing common cause with their compatriots elsewhere in India. They feel disconnected from the priorities of the government in New Delhi and tend to imagine that at some stage they will be liberated.
From that perspective, Indian authorities are anxious that China does not meddle in its internal affairs. It is more than 50 years since the last major conflict between the two countries, but if a future contingency brings them to blows Myanmar is likely to get caught up in the cross-fire.
For this reason, Myanmar will benefit from facilitating the joint development of its Indian borderlands. Remote areas in Chin State, Sagaing Region and Kachin State need to be given a chance to build the robust links that will help people on both sides of the border. If this fails to happen then we will not have seen the last of the cross-border commando raids.
Nicholas Farrelly is co-founder of New Mandala and director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University.