Friday, March 23, 2007

CALCUTTA — India is supplying arms to Burma’s military junta to counter China’s influence in the neighboring country, but pro-democracy activists fear the junta will use the weapons to suppress opposition and resist democratization.

Though New Delhi says the Indian arms are meant for use by the Burmese army only against northeast Indian rebels who have jungle bases on Burma’s side of the border, Burmese democracy activists are concerned that ethnic minorities and pro-democracy activists will be the targets.

Analysts say the cooperation goes beyond targeting insurgents: India is courting Burma to counter China’s expanding influence in the region.

On a visit to India last December, Gen. Thura Shwe Mann, the No. 3 ranking member of the junta, asked New Delhi for a range of military equipment.

In January on a visit to Burma, India’s Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told the junta’s vice chairman, Gen. Maung Aye, that a “favorable response” would be granted.

Although no details were disclosed regarding the arms, news reports said Burma sought field guns, helicopters, submarines, mortars, submarine-detecting sonar equipment, surveillance aircraft and spares for its MiG fighter planes.

Indian arms for junta

India was already supplying Burma with military hardware, including field guns and howitzers, Lt. Gen. S. Pattabhiraman, the Indian army’s vice chief, revealed in October. Also, the Indian navy last year gave Burma two BN-2 Defender maritime surveillance aircraft, deck-based air-defense guns and surveillance equipment.

Burmese democracy activists say India began supplying arms to Burma in 2003, with 139 truckloads of apparent military consignments entering the country through the northeast Indian border town of Moreh over the last four years. Indian military consignments are also reaching Burma by sea, activists report.

While the United States and the European Union seek to isolate the junta through an arms embargo and wider sanctions, India has taken the opposite tack in the hope of getting Burma’s rulers to crack down on insurgents, especially in the northeast Indian states of Manipur and oil- and tea-rich Assam.

Insurgents eyed

For years, about a dozen Indian secessionist rebel groups have maintained bases in Burma’s jungles.

In January, one such group, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) — still its name in English, although the correct spelling is Asom in Assamese, and ULFA now calls itself the United Liberation Front of Asom — killed 70 migrant laborers from Bihar in a campaign against non-Assamese people in the region.

In February, 24 Indian soldiers were killed in two ambushes by United National Liberation Front (UNLF) guerrillas in Manipur.

“Our crackdown on the groups was never successful in the past — every time the guerrillas fled across the border. It is impossible to crush these secessionist forces unless we get Burma’s help and target them inside the forest there,” Mr. Mukherjee said on his return from Burma in January.

“A joint operation is not workable in this situation, so we have decided to offer Burma whatever help is required — including arms supplies and development of infrastructure — in taking action against the insurgents. And the authorities there have promised full cooperation.”

Democracy ‘internal matter’

Shrugging off questions about “denial of democracy” in Burma, the minister said it is “an internal matter” for that country.

In February, another high-level Indian delegation visited Burma and asked the generals to break up the rebel camps there immediately.

A week later, Burma attacked Naga rebels in the Sagaing jungles. In the weeklong offensive, Burmese soldiers killed 14 Nagaland rebels and destroyed one of their key bases in Burma.

For more than 50 years, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which has two factions now, has been demanding a separate homeland, carved out of Naga-dominated areas in India and Burma.

But longtime Burma watchers doubt that India’s plan to get the junta to crack down on those Indian insurgents who are really troubling northeast Indian states will work.

“In 1995, Burma took part in India’s Operation Golden Bird, promising to flush out the Indian insurgents from Burma’s territory. But most of the insurgents still roam freely in western Burma. Some of them are sometimes arrested by the authorities, only to be released a few days later,” said Soe Minn, a Delhi-based Burmese journalist.

“Last month, the Burmese soldiers attacked only the Naga guerrillas because NSCN poses a threat even to the sovereignty of Burma. They [Burmese soldiers] have never launched any serious offensive against ULFA or UNLF.”

Army officers bribed

In the remote northwest of Burma, many army commanders enjoy free rein. Former rebel sources say many local army commanders regularly get a cut from the Indian insurgents who moonlight as smugglers.

Neneo Haokip, a former rebel of the Kuki National Army in Manipur that has a guerrilla training base in Burma, said: “The insurgents who fund themselves by smuggling arms and narcotics are in fact sheltered by corrupt military officers, and these rogue army commanders would never want the anti-India rebels to be driven out from Burmese territory.”

Last year, during a gunfight, the Indian army found that Manipur rebels based in Burma were using Burmese ammunitions, which are issued only to Burmese soldiers.

“The guerrillas use arms and ammunition borrowed or supplied by Burmese troops, and sometimes those guerrillas are used in attacks on the Burmese democracy activists in Indian border towns, as they did last year,” said a Manipur-based Burma democracy activist, referring to a January 2006 incident in which two Burmese pro-democracy activists were abducted by Burmese commandos from the Indian border town of Moreh, with the help of Indian UNLF rebels based in Burma.

“In an attempt to wrest control of the Indian border area [from Kuki tribal insurgents in the second week of March] UNLF insurgents abducted 400 Kukis at gunpoint from an Indian village,” said the Manipur-based Burmese democracy activist, “and took them across the border to Tamu with the help of Burmese soldiers. There are hundreds of instances of cooperation between anti-India insurgents and Burmese military officers. We strongly believe the Indian arms and ammunitions are going to be used to crush ethnic minorities, like the Karens, and pro-democracy activists.”

Burmese help doubted

A New Delhi-based Burmese journalist said his country’s troops would never try to drive the guerrillas out of its territory because they need the guerrillas to help keep in check the activities of Burmese pro-democracy activists living in northeast Indian border states.

India is also helping to build military and civil infrastructure projects in Burma.

After the military crackdown on Burma’s pro-democracy movement in 1988, India became a vocal supporter of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But in 1993, India did a U-turn, becoming equivocal in its support of Mrs. Suu Kyi and her movement. It began mending fences with the generals and sought better economic and military ties.

Balancing China

“China is modernizing at least six naval bases in Myanmar,” said New Delhi-based security analyst Rahul Bedi, using the Burmese government’s name for its country. “The Indian navy fears this could support Chinese submarine operations in the region as part of Beijing’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy of clinching regional defense and security agreements to secure its mounting fuel requirements and enhance its military profile in the Indian Ocean region.”

Beijing has also reportedly established an intelligence facility on Burma’s Coco islands, less than 20 miles from India’s Andaman Islands. Some security analysts think China is trying to secure a military corridor to the Indian Ocean from the South China Sea, via Burma.

“China has raised the naval facilities to back up the option of containment should India’s rivalry become intolerable to the Chinese,” said Graham Lees, a Bangkok-based Burma watcher.

But India faces an uphill task in neutralizing China’s influence in Burma. “For more than two decades China has single-handedly helped that country develop its military infrastructure. It recently [in January] bailed Burma out of trouble by vetoing a Washington-backed U.N. resolution against the military regime. Friendship with a permanent member of the Security Council is far more valuable for the junta than that with India,” observed Indian analyst Shyamal Sarkar.

“Circumstances have forced India into a competition for influence in Burma now. But in the race of military and economic influence in Burma, China is decades ahead of India.”

‘Regional cold war’

Pro-democracy activists also argue that it is not in the junta’s interest to either act against the anti-India rebels nor to distance itself from China.

“India, being the largest democracy in the world and a regional power, is supplying arms and supporting the anti-democracy military regime in Burma. Without India’s support neither a democracy nor a military regime can function in Burma,” said Tint Swe, a member of Burma’s parliament representing Mrs. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

“With Burma forcing India and China into a regional cold war and both powerful neighbors striving hard to keep the military regime pleased, hopes of democratization of Burma are getting grimmer.”

Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that if the democratization of Burma is to be supported, India should keep itself engaged with Burma, trying to reduce the Chinese influence as much as possible.

“I’m sure many in the U.S. administration have mixed feelings about this report. On the other hand, no one wants to see Burma become a Chinese client state, so India provides useful balance in this regard. …

“Countries seldom do things for just one reason. It is probably ‘all of the above,’ although concern and suspicion about Chinese influence in Burma runs high in Delhi, as it does in Washington,” said Mr. Cossa.

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