The resumption of peace talks between the Myanmar government and 16 ethnic armed groups in Yangon is a welcome development for Northeast India too, because any peace dividend will have a beneficial effect on the entire region. New Delhi may have upgraded its ‘Look East’ policy to ‘Act East’, but this enhanced focus will yield results only if the country’s Northeast frontier to the ASEAN bloc becomes stable enough to facilitate sustained linkages. After the rapprochement between Myanmar’s military backed government and Aung San Suu Kyi’s ‘tiol League for Democracy’, India has been on a better footing to pursue with ypyidaw the issue of rebel outfits operating from Myanmar soil. The Myanmarese army has been periodically carrying out operations against such outfits in the bordering areas, reportedly in tacit understanding with the Indian army. This may explain why the ULFA(I), NDFB(S), NSCN(K) and some other rebel outfits have shifted base to the Myanmar-Chi border. So any diplomatic initiative that New Delhi takes up with ypyidaw has to factor the ground situation in a volatile, lawless frontier and relations with other neighbours. Presently, parts of the Myanmar-Chi border too is highly disturbed due to heavy fighting between the Myanmarese army and ethnic Chinese rebels in that country’s north and north-east.
When Myanmarese air force jets shelled rebel strongholds in Kokang region of Shan state recently, an explosion on the Chinese side killed five Chinese workers. Chinese air force jets responded by patrolling their side of the air space — putting the relations between the two countries under unprecedented strain. For long, Beijing has been cultivating Myanmar as a satellite tion in its expanding sphere of influence southwards to the Indian Ocean. Chi has invested heavily in Myanmar, particularly in energy, dams and mines. But ypyidaw is now opening out to other countries in a determined push to end its long intertiol isolation, which is not to Beijing’s liking. Now thousands of refugees of ethnic Chinese origin are fleeing from mountainous Kokang into Chi’s Yunn province since fighting began in early February. ypyidaw is accusing Yunn provincial authorities of helping the rebels, resulting in an upsurge of anti-Chinese sentiment in Myanmar. It is in this unsettled backdrop that the Myanmar government has resumed peace talks, suspended since September last year, with the 16 ethnic armed groups’ tionwide Ceasefire Coordition Team (NCCT). The present round of talks will seek ways to reduce conflict in the Kokang region and Kachin state, as well as to strive for a draft tionwide ceasefire agreement. The insurgent Kachin Independence Army, with links to rebel groups in India’s Northeast, is also taking part in the peace process for the first time in months.
New Delhi has been pursuing a markedly pragmatic foreign policy with Myanmar in the last few years, driven by realism and its own economic and strategic interests. Prime Minister rendra Modi has followed Dr Manmohan Singh in visiting Myanmar, so as to maintain the continuity in bilateral relations. In the fifth India-Myanmar joint trade committee meeting in February this year, the two sides explored ways to remove bottlenecks in bilateral trade and investment, as well as renew their commitment to develop infrastructure and promote border trade, connectivity, agriculture, energy, skill and entrepreneurial development and people-to-people contacts. While work is already underway to upgrade infrastructure at the existing Moreh-Tamu trade route in Manipur, the two countries are also slated to begin formal border trade through Zokhawthar in Champhai district of Mizoram. Union Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman will iugurate a land customs station in Zokhawthar during her upcoming visit to the state this month. To its credit, the rendra Modi government has been keeping NE states in the loop as was evident from Sitharaman’s visit to Manipur, just a few days before she traveled to Myanmar in February last. But for the long term benefit of the Northeast, New Delhi will need to coordite with Beijing to bring about lasting peace in India. ypyidaw may seek to balance Chi with India, but the two Asian giants cannot afford another thorn in their mutual relations. After all, India and Chi are yet to resolve their boundary dispute in Aruchal, which Beijing continues to claim as its ‘South Tibet’ frontier.