India’s Look East Policy: Myanmar
by Ramtanu Maitra on 06 Aug 2008 0 Comment

The second initiative that India has launched to incorporate security into its Look East policy and assert full control over the Andaman Sea is New Delhi’s move to improve relations with Myanmar despite strong opposition from Washington, London and Brussels. A special relationship with Myanmar is critical to India’s policy to establish close physical and economic links with its eastern neighbours in Asia. With the decision to improve its relations with the much-despised-by-the-West military junta of Myanmar, New Delhi has sent a clear message that what is good for India and the region must be good for the rest of the world.


India is cooperating with the military junta to develop a port in Sittwe, capital of the northwest Myanmar province of Rakhine (earlier Arakan), as part of the Kaladan Multi-modal Project, which includes connecting Myanmar’s Kaladan River with the Bay of Bengal.  The project would involve linking India’s tiny northeastern border state of Mizoram through a road from Kalewa in Myanmar to Aizawl, capital of Mizoram.


Identifying Kaladan project as a part of India’s evolving Look East policy, Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh told news persons recently: “New Delhi wants to connect the northeast India with commercial sea routes. Moreover, with the development of Sittwe port and upgrading the navigability of the Kaladan River, the region is expected to have another viable access to the Association of South East Asian Nations.”


Sandwiched between South and Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a natural land bridge linking the two regions, and India is keen to exploit this by building cross-border roads into Myanmar. Geographically, the northern borders of Myanmar form a junction with Bangladesh, China and the politically-sensitive eastern frontiers of India. Myanmar is an important country on the rim of the Bay of Bengal, lying astride India's southeastern trade routes. The southeastern coast of Myanmar is close enough to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India, so that developments in that area could affect India’s security interests in the Bay of Bengal.


The coastal region in western Myanmar is separated from the mainland by the Rakhine Yoma mountain range. Sittwe port, at the mouth of the Kaladan on the Rakhine coast, is an old and important harbour that emerged as a centre of rice export after the British occupation in 1826. But soon after the port is developed by India, Sittwe will become the first peg in India’s eastern perimeter security cordon, as well as a cargo-handling center.


For Indians who are easily exercised by West-inspired human rights and democracy movements, here is some food for thought: Myanmar agreed to allow India to develop Sittwe port while Bangladesh refused to give the Indian Navy access to Chittagong port, which is 200 km closer to northeast India than Sittwe. Bangladesh, with whom India and the western nations have friendly relations, is opposed to enhancing India’s, and the regions’ security, and is even willing to put up a roadblock to India’s Look East economic policy. However, when India consolidates its grip over the waterways east of India and west of Bangladesh, it is expected that Dhaka will see the benefits and join India’s efforts to enhance regional security.


India-Myanmar relations should develop along the lines of development and regional security. Any effort to pressure Myanmar to distance itself from China will be pointless and could turn out to be counterproductive to achieving our broader objectives. The West-led campaign against the Myanmar military junta has its merits, but one must aware of the possibility that the West, once having succeeded in overturning the junta, will claim its “pound of flesh,” like the Shylock of Venice. This could very well mean a re-appearance of the West in one form or the other in Asia at the cross roads that lead to China, Indo-China, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia.  That would be an appalling security threat to China, India and the rest of Asia.


The development of the FENC, the strengthening of forces in the Andaman Sea and the opening up of a meaningful relationship with Myanmar are all steps in the right direction.


Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that New Delhi’s Look East policy is still halting and muddled.  For instance, the “Mekong-Ganga Co-operation” programme amounts to yet another thoughtless action on the part of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, putting the cart before the horse. The programme was launched on Nov.10, 2000, in Vientiane, capital of Laos, to enhance cooperation in tourism, culture and education. The signatories to the initiative are India and five Southeast Asian Nations - Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. The "Vientiane Declaration'' on the framework for cooperation reflects a concept floated by India, namely “a common desire to develop closer relations and better understanding among the six countries to enhance friendship, solidarity and cooperation.”  The six countries also undertook to develop transportation networks, including the East-West Corridor project and the trans-Asian highway.


Mekong-Ganga Cooperation is India’s major cooperative venture in its Southeast Asian neighbourhood, after Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC), a regional grouping formed in June 1997. But the Mekong-Ganga initiative never took off and was, in fact, finally virtually abandoned. It was designed to counter the influence of China, which is a riparian Mekong River country, and China was not included.  Some believe that is why it failed.  But the fact remains that nothing much has materialized from BIMSTEC either, where China was not an issue at all.


There may well be a number of reasons why the Mekong-Ganga initiative did not take off.  But the underlying one is that it was not grounded in reality; it was a mere group-forming, declaration-issuing exercise drawn up by New Delhi’s South Bloc to make a prime ministerial visit look like a “success.”


An initiative of the kind expressed through the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation concept could work for countries such as the United States and perhaps China, which have the economic strength and military reach to assure participating nations of both trade and security benefits.  As of now, India has none of that. To carry through such initiatives in the future, India needs to concentrate on ensuring security along the western shores of the Southeast Asian nations and developing the necessary infrastructure to make it happen.


Security Challenges on the Andaman Sea’s Eastern Shores


Along large sections of Myanmar’s and Thailand’s west coast, there are serious security problems. Most have existed for decades and are related to drug and gun running. More recently, particularly since the 9/11 events and the US-declared “war on terror,” an additional threat is emerging. Some parts of Myanmar and a pocket in southern Thailand are being populated with Muslim extremists who claim to be jihadists. Now, besides money and gun power, which drug and gun-running relate to directly, a new “cause” has emerged in the area, and there is little doubt that many have begun to fish in these troubled waters already.


Longstanding security problems in Thailand are due to the rapid expansion of meth-amphetamine narcotics trafficking by the Wa tribal army (United Wa State Army) of Myanmar. The Wa have expanded trafficking routes into Laos and Cambodia and down the central and southern Myanmar-Thai border to areas opposite Mae Hong Son and Mae Sot, reports indicate.


Ephedrine, the base-chemical used to make the meth, comes largely from mainland China.  From 600 million and 1 billion meth-amphetamine pills - at a street value of over $1 billion - are reportedly getting trafficked into Thailand, recent reports indicate. It is evident that such a huge trade has developed a wide protection network, which involves arms and ammunition, and also transport access to the outside world via waterways, land and air.


The insurgency movement in southern Thailand is decades old, but has picked up momentum in recent years. While many local Muslims in three districts of southern Thailand are deeply involved, there have also been reports of trained and armed outsiders moving into the area.


On Jan. 4, 2004, Islamic militants in southern Thailand launched a daring and well-coordinated raid on an army post and got away with a large cache of weapons that included some 300 M-16s. Since then, Thai militants have killed over 1,300 people and wounded thousands more. Their attacks have become more brazen and are meant to terrify; they are now held responsible for more than 24 beheadings.


Though the government repeatedly asserts the situation is under control and that it has made more than 700 arrests, Thai security forces have detained very few leading militants and have acquired very little actionable intelligence. There are frequent assertions that the insurgents have linked up with militants from Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh, but there is no clear evidence of this yet. What cannot be denied, however, is the fact that in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, violent jihadists have grown multifold over the last decade.


According to a reputed Indian analyst writing in 2007 in an Indian journal: “Many of these Thai Muslims have enrolled themselves in the madrassas of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan, which are the hotbed of the activities of the Taliban and the Wahabi-Deobandi organizations of Pakistan. Some of them have also undergone training in the jihadi training centers of the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizbe Islami (HEI) and have been participating in the current Taliban-HEI-Al Qaeda offensive in Afghanistan from sanctuaries in the NWFP and Baluchistan.”


In Bangkok, there are concerns about small numbers of radicals who may have returned to southern Thailand with militant Islamic notions and links. But none has so far managed to gain any traction in organizational terms or popular support. Early in 2005 it was believed that one such group had set up a small cell in Songkhla province. There was also a report of a militant group of Pattani students operating out of Sudan’s Khartoum University.


Beyond the menace of terrorism, northeast India has also to grapple with a fresh influx of drugs and guns. The instability in Nepal, growing insurgency in southern Bhutan and strengthening of India’s Maoist movement, which stretches from the India-Nepal border to the shores of Tamil Nadu in the south, is bringing more drugs and more guns into India through hidden and not-so-hidden trails. Earlier, opium and heroin were pushed across Myanmar into the states of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal; these also found their way into the streets of Kolkata. Now trafficking of synthetic designer drugs -particularly meth-amphetamines and amphetamines (also called speed) - is beginning to mount. One Indian government official went on record saying, “India is likely to be flooded by drugs from Myanmar’s Golden Triangle in the coming year unless Rangoon takes greater preventive measures.”


Synthetic drugs from Myanmar have begun flowing into Laos, China and now, increasingly, into India. Those destined for India are trafficked through Myanmar's western areas and also through China down into India. A substantial amount of these synthetic drugs into India also come through Kolkata port and across the border with Bangladesh via the port of Chittagong.  A senior European anti-drug expert pointed out: “there is an increasing flow of drugs from Myanmar passing through the port of Rangoon and ending up in southern Thailand and India.”


The region’s drug barons also employ ships and boats, moored off Myanmar's coast as floating amphetamine factories, say drug enforcement agents in Myanmar. Smaller vessels transport the tablets to nearby ports in Thailand, Bangladesh and India.  “It’s impossible to estimate the Myanmar-India drug flow,” says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC head in Rangoon.  Senior Myanmar anti-narcotic officials say this is because the drug routes into India are far more numerous and varied than to Thailand or China. “But it is significant and growing,” one Myanmar police colonel told newspersons.


One of the basic outcomes of multi-polar globalization - in which China, India, Singapore, Thailand, Brazil and Russia have become important players - is reduced leverage for the West. The business interests that benefit from drug running in Myanmar are not necessarily sitting in London, Paris or New York; they are more likely to be found in Kolkata, Beijing or Singapore. 


Drug and gun-running is often carried out by the most desperate groups. One such group belongs to the displaced Rohingyas of the Arakan Hills.  In 1991, waves of Rohingya refugees fled across Myanmar’s western border to Bangladesh to escape oppression. Most were repatriated, sometimes forcibly, under an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, with the involvement of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But observers say repatriated refugees and new arrivals have continued to enter Bangladesh. The flow of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh - and now into the open sea off the Arakan coast - is actually being encouraged by the Myanmar regime, according to Chris Lewa, a researcher on Rohingyas and coordinator of the Bangkok-based Arakan Project. Lewa says regime policy is to make life so difficult for the Rohingyas, even to the extent of restricting their access to food, that they are forced to seek livelihood elsewhere. Unwanted in both Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Rohingyas look south; some have moved to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation.


What India Must Do


To ensure security to the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal, and in the process provide security to the western part of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia, India must negotiate with these nations for joint coastal infrastructural development. This must include roads, high speed railroads carrying both cargo and passengers, deep sea ports, and the accompanying power and water requirements for the proposed infrastructure.


This is of particular importance for Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand, where infrastructure along the coast is weak or non-existent. In Malaysia, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) is professional and better equipped than others. In 2005, Malaysia launched its national coast guard, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), which is responsible for enforcing maritime law in both east and west Malaysia.


On the issue of developing infrastructure to ensure both trade and security, New Delhi has made a modest beginning, upgrading the almost 100-mile-long (160-km) Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo Road in Myanmar across Manipur. The Border Roads Organization originally completed this in 1997, but India decided in 2006 that the road needed to be resurfaced and repaired. India is building more roads in Myanmar, which is woefully poor in infrastructure and communication, and a highway from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand through Bagan in Myanmar. Ultimately, the road will be a key link in a proposed Asian Highway linking the continent to Europe.


Malaysia’s road system is extensive and considered among the finest in Asia. The roads are good enough to carry heavy trucks. The inter-urban North-South Expressway, New Klang Valley Expressway (NKVE) and Federal Highway Route 2 (FHR2) constitute the main road transportation infrastructure in Peninsula Malaysia. The 848-km expressway links major industrial areas and urban centers in the country from Bukit Kayu Hitam in the northern Kedah State to Johor Bahru in the state of Johor in the south.


Since these countries are long in the north-south direction and narrow from east to west, Myanmar and Thailand, in particular, need coastal infrastructure development along their western coast. The objective of coastal development will be to develop a number of cross-links to the countries’ east coast. These cross-links will help in bringing goods and products from the east, and moving goods and products coming in from the west through the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal to both Myanmar and Thailand.  This infrastructural development will ensure better trade and security.


It is important for New Delhi to pursue closer intelligence-sharing relationships with coastal nations. Until recently, it was possible to buy an old AK-47 in the underground market in Cambodia for as little as 1,000 Thai baht, and a bullet would cost no more than five baht. International arms dealers based in Singapore charged 4,000 to 5,000 baht for used AK-47s.  LTTE would purchase walkie-talkies and radio equipment through contacts in Singapore.  Both Indian and Sri Lankan authorities have urged Phnom Penh to clamp down on LTTE activities, but to no avail.  


Meanwhile, security officials in Bangkok point out that more than 10,000 fishing trawlers roam the seas around Thailand, making it almost impossible to curb smuggling. In this context, Indian naval intelligence is critical. India must assist the Thai army’s counter-narcotics forces with improved communications equipment. The Thai 3rd Army Region counter-narcotics forces are hindered by the lack of adequate communications equipment to match the narcotics traffickers, reports indicate.


A large portion of illegal lethal weapons that come into northeast India originate in Cambodia. The underground route to South Asia reportedly begins on the Ranong islands off the Thai coast, from where the arms are shipped via the Andaman Sea to Cox’s Bazaar along the Bangladesh coast. There, the weapons are divvied up into smaller consignments and dispatched to various destinations in Myanmar and northeastern India along different hidden trails.


In April 2004, Bangladeshi joint forces seized 10 truckloads of submachine-guns, AK-47 assault rifles and other firearms and bullets in a swoop on the Karnaphuli coast in the port city of Chittagong.  It was the largest-ever arms haul. Police and coast guard forces found the new submachine guns, AK-47 rifles, submachine carbines, Chinese pistols, rocket shells and launchers, hand grenades and bullets stuffed in about 1,500 wooden boxes.  But long before the big haul was reported, it was widely known that international arms smugglers were active in the coastal belts in Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar. The vast coastline in the bay near Ukhia in Cox’s Bazaar and border points between Bangladesh and Myanmar had become a sanctuary for arms smugglers, mainly in the absence of adequate security watch.


Indian naval intelligence claims it is through these waters that guns have been run into south Bangladesh and the northwestern coast of Myanmar, to arm Naga insurgents in India and the Rohingyas of Myanmar along the Arakan Coast, as well as the Karens and the Kachins of northern Myanmar.




By developing its security perimeter, India would do well to focus its efforts to enhance trade and security in this specific region, which encompasses the shore of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. And, the entire waters of the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Sea and all the islands situated in these waters.


While international attention is focused on the Strait of Malacca, the security situation in the sea lanes linking the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia has been allowed to deteriorate. This area - known as the tri-border sea area - opens to the southwest through the Makassar Strait, increasingly used by large crude oil tankers unable to use the shallower Strait of Malacca. This will remain, however, the concern of Indonesia and the Philippines. India must make sure that it does not get dragged into this area without getting its immediate proximity adequately secured.


With growing economic and military power, India will be increasingly dependent on the cooperation of smaller nations in maintaining regional security. Unless New Delhi does a better job providing security to its own people, and to the people of its smaller regional partners, against rebels, secessionists, drug runners and arms traffickers, it will not be able to generate much confidence in the capitals of surrounding nations. In fact, it would tend to encourage organized anti-India outfits, such as the Pakistani ISI and outside-linked Maoists, to exploit these networks and weaken India's eastern flank.


The issue at hand is not only to ensure India’s economic prosperity, but to ensure regional stability as well. India is a large nation with enormous capabilities. But unless India exploits its capabilities to provide security to the region as a whole, India will remain vulnerable to the growing powers in the region, and beyond. 


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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