A Volatile Myanmar Could Be A Big Obstacle To India’s Act East Policy – OpEd

Insurgency has long been a major cause of concern for successive Indian governments since the country’s independence in 1947. Kashmir and the North-East have been the major hotspots that have threatened India’s internal security and the list only appears to be widening.

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The newest threat to India’s security as well as India’s geostrategic interests is the burgeoning insurgency in the Rakhine state of Myanmar; writes Subair Bhaumik for the Telegraph.

The South-East Asian region including the neighboring country Myanmar is of vital importance as India’s mega-connectivity projects, part of the Act East Policy, that acts as a counterweight to the strategic influence of China, are located here.

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But now, the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project (which connects Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in the Rakhine State) appears to be dragging India into the domestic conflict of Myanmar involving the Burmese(Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army(AA).

In recent times, as the EurAsian Times reported earlier, the Tatmadaw has been heavily involved in fighting the rebels in order to regain control of the territory but has incurred heavy casualties due to aggressive warfare tactics by the AA.

While India undoubtedly would back the Tatmadaw to regain control, it must be careful to avoid retaliation by the rebels. Military officials and strategic analysts have advised caution, saying India should avoid getting involved in the Rakhine imbroglio.

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Kaladan Project

The $484 million Kaladan project aims to connect southwestern Myanmar to northeastern India by creating a multi-modal trinary of sea, river and road transport corridor to boost interconnectivity.

The majority of the project has been completed including the construction of the Sittwe port, building a river terminal upstream at Paletwa, and the dredging of the Kaladan river. A Rs 6,000-crore project is under progress for four-laning the 300-km highway from the Myanmar border to Aizawl to ensure the faster movement of goods.

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The completion of the Paletwa-Zorinpui road, therefore, holds the key to operationalizing the Kaladan project. However, the work on the last phase of the project has been severely affected and delayed by the actions of the Arakan Army. The AA is responsible for regularly kidnapping workers involved with road and bridge construction.

They also set ablaze a vessel carrying construction material for the project. The importance of the project and the growing menace of the AA forced India to take action. So, it launched Operation Sunshine, which although was successful in destroying Arakan Army bases in Mizoram, generated a backlash and led to an increase in attacks.

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A spokesperson for the AA, U Khaing Thukkha, recently told Burmese media that ‘China recognizes us but India does not. This statement provides a possible situation for India’s crisis in the Rakhine State and gives us an insight into the Chinese situation for the issue.

China too has strategic interest investments in the region but has not been subjected to any attacks by the Arakan Army. This means China is playing on both sides, the Burmese and the Arakanese, and maintains cordial relationships with the federal government, the Tatmadaw, and the insurgents in the Rakhine State to secure its interests and investments.

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The Arakan Army has maintained it is not against trans-national projects in Rakhine, provided they ‘recognize’ AA and don’t cooperate with the Burmese military. Zoramthanga, a former rebel leader and current Chief Minister of Mizoram, is clearly against any Indian military adventure in Rakhine.

He would much rather use his influence with the Arakan Army to get the Kaladan project, so important for his Mizoram state, completed without a fuss.

India’s response to the crisis holds the key to the success of the project. While on one hand it can ‘pay-up’ to the Arakan Army and ensure the security of its project, it risks drawing the wrath of Myanmar and a possible crack in Indo-Burmese relations.

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Supporting the Burmese or military intervention on the other risks further attacks by the Arakan Army leading to loss of life and capital and delay in the completion of the project and re-ignites the possibility of a deadly Sri-Lanka like situation once again.

One possible solution is bringing the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw together using ex-rebel Zormathanga and seeking a peaceful solution. The violent outbursts of the AA and the Tatmadaw’s relentless effort to use force instead of dialogue has made the situation difficult.

As Binoda Mishra of the Centre for Studies in International Relations & Development (CSIRD) eloquently says, “We should learn to balance, to hunt with the hound and swim with the crocodile.”