India-Myanmar Border: Is there a Third Player?

30 Aug, 2013    ·   4101

Yves-Marie Rault comments on the alleged incursion into Indian territory by Myanmarese troops

Yves-Marie Rault
Yves-Marie Rault
Research Intern

On 22 August 2013, Myanmarese troops crossed the border and began to set up a camp in a village of Manipur located 3 km from the international border pillar number 76. The officer in charge claimed to be in his jurisdiction, blaming the Indian officials for coming into Myanmar’s territory. This event comes at a time when the ongoing India-Myanmar border fencing work has raised public ire in Manipur, as the delimitation of the border is controversial. Besides, the timing of this intrusion seems even more deliberate given that several Chinese soldiers were camping in Arunachal Pradesh less than one week earlier. What is at stake across the India-Myanmar border?

Truth on this Side of the India-Myanmar Border, Error Beyond
When the Indian officials asked the Myanmarese commanding officer to halt the settlement of his military camp, he replied that the request was non-admissible, arguing that the land belonged to his country according to a British map. As it is often the case along the Indian border, the official territorial delimitation differs from the neighbouring country's one.

The India-Myanmar border stretches over 1,643 km, from Arunachal Pradesh to Mizoram. In 2003, both sides agreed to the erection of a fence along the border. This is a highly sensitive issue as the project will divide the ethnic communities. In 2007, several boundary disputes concerning the work of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) arose. Recently, in the beginning of August 2013, the major political parties of Manipur protested against the present exercise in the area of Moreh, obtaining the suspension of the 10 km-long border fencing from the state. They accused the fencing exercise of eating into Indian territory, with forty to one hundred Indian villages likely to be included in Myanmar.

Consequently, the Manipuri cabinet set up a high-level committee to assess the truthfulness of these complaints. While the issue is being reviewed by government officials, several leaders of Manipur and chiefs of the affected villages are furbishing their arguments to prove that the parts likely to be lost belong to India. Just as the Myanmar officer referred to British cartographical evidence, the Manipuris are arguing that the territory was defended by Manipur against the British invasion up to 1891.

Stakes in the Fence's Shadow
The Assam Rifles, in charge of guarding the border, were asked to give a status report on the intrusion. This event surprised them as three days before the intrusion, a border liaison meeting with Myanmarese officers was held at the headquarters of the army near Imphal. Indeed, the border is porous on both sides, and the number of meetings to curb activities of insurgents groups, i.e. drug trade, arms smuggling and terrorism, has increased recently. Earlier this year, both governments expressed their willingness to enhance cooperation, especially concerning the struggle against insurgent groups and the dismantlement of their camps based in Myanmarese territory. For instance, on 16 August, one of these groups attacked an Assam Rifles convoy with a roadside bomb in the area of Moreh, the same area where the fence is being constructed. Few weeks earlier, three members of the United People's Revolutionary Front were arrested in possession of guns, ammunitions and bombs. They allegedly crossed the border from the same porous part.

However, several social organisations and opposition parties suspect Delhi and the state government of having a hidden agenda. The opinion is that the Indian government is willing to sacrifice border areas of Manipur in order to please Myanmar in the name of the struggle against militant groups. In addition, according to the same organisations, several village chiefs have been lured with huge sums of money in exchange for their cooperation.

Myanmar's Chinese Blessing?
The incursion has not led to an armed confrontation, and will probably have a limited influence on the border issue in Manipur. However, its timing raises concerns about the role of China. Indeed, the Communist country has recently been intruding in several parts of Indian territory, the most remarkable being the five-day camp of Chinese troops in Arunachal Pradesh, 20 kms away from their national border.

Coincidently, China recently found itself at odds with Myanmar. If the country had in the past limited its interest in Myanmar to stability, border security, trade, and security of its investments, the Chinese shadow has been increasingly felt during the last years by the newly democratised country. But the Myitsone hydroelectric power plant and the Sino-Myanmarese pipelines have undoubtedly a diplomatic relevance, showing that China is looking to expand its handhold on Myanmar, and have a say in their domestic policies. In January 2013 for instance, Chinese officials called upon Myanmar’s government to focus its strength on the security of the border region and regain control over the insurgency.

After the recent Chinese intrusions in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi has fixed its eyes on the border with its Communist neighbour. However, as Myanmar is a close Chinese ally, India should also wonder if the event in Manipur is not part of a common strategy.