The Indo-Myanmar border bridge at Moreh, Manipur (Photo: Reuters)
GEOGRAPHICALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY distant from any other Indian region and connected to the rest of the country by the fragile 22km-wide Siliguri corridor, the Northeast has escaped mainstream consciousness. With over 220 ethnicities and a complex history of institutionalised isolation and exclusion, the most seasoned conflict and political analysts have found the region’s seven states difficult to decipher. Yet, one has seen not just opposition parties and lay observers but even members of European Parliament and United Nations “experts” who have never so much as stepped into India, let alone Manipur, comment on the violence there that took over 175 lives and internally displaced thousands.
Western commentators widely argued that the genesis of the conflict could be traced to the demand from the “dominant Hindu” Meitei community to be included in the Scheduled Tribes list, which according to them, somehow infringed on the rights extended to the “minority Christian Kuki” community under the Constitution. This narrative has since been proved erroneous. Tribal identities not just in India but across the colonised world were forged through the colonial lens in an effort to demarcate remote populations that were labelled pagan, savages or barbaric. The basis for such labelling was, of course, the Western lens of morality and modernity, both rooted in Christian foundations, through which British anthropologists studied these communities.
It has never seemed to occur to the West that due to their historical involvement in this region and beyond (in neighbouring territories such as Myanmar), the responsibility of the conflict extends to them and not just to the communities involved. After all, the seeds of “otherness” were institutionalised under the British thanks to the mishandling of Northeastern affairs through administrative divisions like Inner Line Permits and Excluded Areas. These divisions in reality were created to limit tribes from interfering with British trade routes under the guise of presenting them as policies to protect the uniqueness of these communities. They not only ushered in uneven development but emotional distance between communities that historically lived alongside each other. Unfortunately, most of these policies continued post India’s independence resulting in old conflicts flaring up in new contexts.
However, the new contexts of these conflicts are still associated with Western powers invested in these areas. In the true spirit of colonialism, the aftermath of historical decisions and impact of present-day active Western interest in the region is being borne solely by the communities impacted. The evolving situation demands foresight lest the future of the Northeastern frontier of India becomes another Northwestern Frontier, except that it would be more complex with Manipur at its epicentre.
Manipur is central to India’s Act East Policy, the border city of Moreh being the South Asian gateway to Southeast Asia. However, this is not possible without the stability of neighbouring countries like Myanmar. With over 1,640kms of thickly forested porous land borders that India shares with Myanmar, developments in the country have a direct impact on not just border states but also on its infrastructural projects in Myanmar. In addition, the role of Western powers and their relationship with the current regime have the potential to have repercussions on the stability of the whole Northeastern region.
Across the border in Myanmar, after the regime change in Naypyidaw, the military crackdown has caused many to be displaced. In the Sagaing region across Manipur, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk has said, “Since the beginning of the coup, the military has scorched at least 70,000 homes across the country, 70 per cent of which were in Sagaing region. Over 1.5 million people have been forcibly displaced with minimal access to humanitarian aid.” The porous border of Manipur has absorbed this influx with Mizoram next door recording over 40,000 Myanmarese refugees. In addition, active anti-Junta insurgent groups, such as the Chin National Army (CNA) or the Arakan Army, are only a few outfits operating across the border of India, with many like the CNA and Kachin Independence Army having transnational ethnic ties with communities in the Northeast.
Successive US, EU and UK policy failures in this region have created a complex situation. They have altogether imposed over 26 rounds of sanctions without any definitive results on the ground, except for causing further economic destablisation. It has not only exacerbated the insurgency in Myanmar but also given China a stronger foothold. To make matters more complicated, the US has imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s defence ministry and two banks used by the military regime to buy arms and goods from foreign sources. Washington has accused Myanmar’s defence ministry of importing at least US$1 billion worth of material since the coup. But most importantly, the US Congress has passed the HR 5497 Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act of 2021, which authorises appropriations to provide humanitarian assistance and “other” support to Myanmar, in addition to taking upon it to promote democracy and human rights.
Manipur is central to India’s Act East policy, the border city of Moreh being the South Asian gateway to Southeast Asia. However, this is not possible without the stability of neighbouring countries like Myanmar
Share this on
On the other hand, Myanmar has found friends in Russia and China. Therefore India in a mature diplomatic move has kept its channels of communications open while advocating for democracy and peace with the military junta, irrespective of international pressure and sanctions by the West. India understands that China’s influence in Myanmar needs to be balanced. Naypyidaw is also playing a balancing act by keeping its channels of communication open with India to counter China’s excessive influence. However, since the change in power centres in Myanmar, China has retained its position as being a major source of foreign investment. Conversely, Myanmar also owes 40 per cent of its foreign debt to China. Therefore, China remains the largest trading partner for Myanmar in terms of bilateral trade. Rich oil and natural gas reserves of Myanmar along with its geographical location has made it a priority in China’s future plans. China has constructed a natural gas and oil pipeline, which starts from Kyaukphyu city of Myanmar’s Rakhine State, traversing through Chin state to China’s Yunnan region, which is China’s springboard to the ASEAN, just the way the northeast region is a springboard to the ASEAN for India. Gwadar port, part of CPEC along with Kyaukphyu port, gives China an advantage at strategically containing India and blocking our access to both West and the East. Even though India-US relations have strengthened, especially after Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US this year, US’ concerns in the region may have an impact on India’s ACT East policy. For instance, in May 2023, Adani Group’s ports arm APSEZ had to sell its Myanmar port project for an enormous loss due to the sanctions imposed by the US on Burmese military-owned Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited. This project could have established India’s port footprint in Southeast Asia.
In an investigation by Associated Press, Myanmar was called the “Sacrifice Zone” because of the price it is paying for the world’s transition to green energy. Amongst other findings, the investigation revealed that even though the US Congress required companies to disclose conflict minerals with an assurance that it does not benefit armed groups, the law did not cover rare earth minerals. Rare earth elements were also found to be omitted from the European Union’s 2021 regulation on conflict minerals.
Today, Myanmar is one of the top four countries in the world that produces rare earth elements. The unregulated mining combined with political instability has created an atmosphere of underhand deals and profits being shared by militias and insurgent groups. Chin and Rakhine states as well as the Saigang region, apart from Kachin State, are also rich in resources such as aluminium, nickel, iron, chromite, oil and gas, but most importantly, rich in heavy rare earth elements, such as dysprosium and terbium, classified as the single-most critical element among rare earth.
With growing world economies, geostrategic competition based on critical minerals that will fuel these economies, it will be across India’s Northeastern frontier that the New Great Game will be played. Manipur is only an indication of what India may have in store for the future. Conflicts, such as seen in Manipur, will demand a wider perspective, geostrategic and geopolitical understanding. Stepping away from short-sighted analysis, especially by vested Western interests who have misunderstood complex sensibilities historically, might be the first step towards unravelling the changing dynamics of a complex conflict with wider ramifications.