Fourteen years ago, in New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, senior journalist the late BG Verghese, inaugurating a book this author had edited, Frontier in Flames: North East India in Turmoil, had said, “There is no point Looking East unless you actually Go East.”
Six years later, in 2014, the Look East Policy was rechristened by the Modi government as India’s “Act East Policy”. In so doing, he attempted to not only infuse a brand new spirit of cooperation with South-East Asia but counter Chinese designs to disrupt India’s growth engine that the North-East was being projected as.
Almost a decade has passed since the “paradigm shift” was engineered, but the policy has not translated into reality. There has been neither an effort to Go East nor initiate the expected tectonic shift across the core sectors of what constituted Modi’s “Four Cs” of “culture, commerce, connectivity and capacity building”. Verghese’s dream of Going East was all dressed up but with nowhere to go. The gates that would have shipped Indian goods via the North-East were shut.
If the pandemic halted the Free Trade Regime between India and Myanmar, the February 1, 2021 military takeover at the neighbour’s sealed the fate of any movement between the two countries. Furthermore, Indian insurgent groups, primarily the Valley-based ones, entered into an agreement with the junta. Operations against the Indian insurgents that had been half-heartedly undertaken in the past by way of Op Sunrise-I and Op Sunrise-II would no longer be undertaken by the Myanmarese army. In return, the Indian insurgents had to help quell the rebellion that had erupted after the February 1, 2021 putsch.
Battle for Naypyidaw far from over
Delivering a lecture on “Act East Policy in the Emerging Geo-strategic Environment” on April 22 in Imphal, the author reiterated Verghese’s 2008 observation. But, it was also made clear to a capacity audience in the Manipur University auditorium that unless the road from Manipur – the gateway to South-East Asia – could thoroughfare the present “killing fields” of Myanmar and into places such as Mandalay and beyond, there can be no talk of Going East. Indeed, when a tour of Moreh, Manipur was undertaken on April 23, the township from which the much hyped Act East was to Go East, the author was met only by a few bored street peddlers, a deserted Integrated Check Post and a gate that should have opened the North-East to dynamic S-E Asia but was firmly shut.
The sound of gunfire that could be heard from Tamu across, it was informed, was from the battle that was raging between the Myanmarese army and the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the latter a rag-tag band of resistance fighters which the exiled National Unity Government of Myanmar had succeeded in cobbling, but not quite together. There was no central command and control or unified HQs to direct the resistance. The author was puzzled, but his even his simplistic understanding of the military idiom quickly surmised that there was actually sound logic in the disunited manner in which the PDF was engaging the Myanmarese army.
After all, a united command would have made the task of the Myanmarese army of identifying and eliminating the leaders of the resistance easier. Consequently, the PDF structure would have crumbled. But ridiculous as it might seem, the most appropriate way to battle the government forces was by acting disunitedly, independent of one another.
Therefore, even if PDF elements, for instance, in Bogjang were to fall to the Myanmarese army, the ones in Witok or Tamu would not be affected. It was also learnt that 5 lakh kyat was being offered for every defection from the junta and there have been quite a few such from the Myanmarese army.
In any event, the battle for Naypyidaw is far from over. The trip to Moreh and thereabouts provided a pretty good idea about the way the Chindwin was flowing. The author also recalled the manner in which New Delhi had been dealing with Myanmar. Not only was the policy – if indeed there was one – ambivalent but it had serious flaws. He remembered the “Track II Dialogue” with Myanmar that he had been a member of in 2014.
Consequence of isolating Khaplang
The “leader” of the Indian delegation had categorically told, “no mention of the lady and the Rohingyas in this hall”. There was enough “chatter” around the world that Myanmar would be holding its general elections in exactly a year later. If the elections were held in a free and fair manner, observers felt that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy would win. Indeed, that was exactly what happened in the general elections of November 8, 2015, and with a landslide majority.
The Rohingya issue and the manner in which it continues to be an irritant is an established fact in 2022. But, in 2014, even broaching the “Rohingya issue” was taboo. In any event, during the session on security the author posed a question to the Myanmarese counterparts about NSCN (Khaplang), which had been waging insurgency in Naga-inhabited areas of both India and Myanmar. Why had Naypyidaw gotten into an agreement with NSCN (Khaplang) when New Delhi had signed a ceasefire with the group in 2001? The answer was Myanmar did not consider the Nagas to be insurgents.
The author had also advised people in the corridors of power in New Delhi immediately after his return from Yangon that Khaplang should not be alienated at all cost. The policy that New Delhi had adopted, that as SS Khaplang was a Myanmarese Naga there was no need to hold dialogue with him, did not make sense! The real reason was that it was eager to do the bidding of Khaplang’s arch enemy. The consequence of isolating Khaplang was forcibly conveyed when several soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment were killed in Manipur’s Chandel on June 4, 2015 by a group led by the estranged NSCN (Khaplang).
(Jaideep Saikia is a conflict analyst and author of several best-selling books)