2 January 2014

Guarding the India-Myanmar Border


Recent press reports indicate that guarding of the India- Myanmar border is being handed over to the Border Security Force (BSF), which in turn will raise 46 new battalions to carry out the assigned border-guarding role. The issue of guarding borders with friendly countries is once again on centre stage, but the solutions offered appear hackneyed and stereotyped. Border guarding is not just about placing an ever-increasing quantum of troops on the border. It also relates to capability development to deliver on set parameters so that the envisaged threat is minimised if not eliminated in its entirety.

The complicated nature of the terrain and human geography of the border region makes it vulnerable to a plethora of security challenges. The 1,643 km-long international boundary between India and Myanmar, formally delimited and demarcated on 10 March 1967, following the boundary agreement between the two countries, remains an artificial line, dividing tribes such as the Singphos, Nagas, Kukis, Mizos etc. These tribes however, continue to maintain strong linkages with their kith and kin across the international divide. To enable them to maintain their age-old ties, a unique arrangement called the Free Movement Regime (FMR) is in place, which permits the tribes residing along the border to travel 16 km across the boundary without visa restrictions.

Raging insurgencies on either side of the border have given rise to a host of insurgent groups. In India, multiple ethnic communities have participated in armed movements, with demands ranging from greater autonomy within India to outright secession. In Myanmar too, armed ethnic groups have been fighting against their government, with demands mirroring those of Indian armed groups. The transverse mountains, inhospitable terrain, surging rivers and dense forest canopy astride the border offer safe havens to the ethnic militias, which ipso facto control the region. Terrain difficulties enable anti-India rebel groups such as the NSCN-K, NSCN-IM, ULFA, PLA, (UNLF-M) and the like, to operate from the remote hills of western Burma. Their base camps are exceptionally mobile and their information networks remain very reliable, thus facilitating their continued resistance. The Burmese military (Tatmadaw) lacks the ability to disarm such groups in Myanmar, resulting in New Delhi’s expectations remaining unfulfilled. Money laundering, fake Indian currency notes (FICN), drug dealing, and illegal sales of light military equipment are commonplace along the Indo-Burmese border because of the region’s flourishing underground economy and the poor living conditions of Tatmadaw soldiers and low-ranking officers. Indian insurgents take advantage of the FMR to cross over to Myanmar to receive training in arms, establish safe havens and re-enter India to carry out subversive attacks. The FMR provisions allowing tribal people to carry head loads, also facilitates smuggling of arms and narcotics from across the border.

The borderland areas of India and Burma are thus deeply connected, not only through common ethnic linkages, but also through a nexus of criminal activity. There is high traffic in illegal drugs and small arms, due to its proximity to the ill-famed Golden Triangle overlapping the mountains of Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Indian and Burmese armed ethnic groups join hands to smuggle drugs and guns through Burma into India and beyond. Poverty, absence of law enforcement and rule of law, and lack of employment opportunities pave the way for the youth to join armed groups, resort to drug smuggling of drugs and small arms and illegal trafficking in women and children.

Inadequate understanding of the issues involved leads to interventions, which are unlikely to resolve the problems faced. Guarding the Myanmar border with an ever-increasing border force is a reactive policy and is unlikely to cause a material change in the ground situation. The inhospitable terrain and lack of lateral communications make physical detection and prevention of movement of small groups across the border virtually impossible, regardless of the number of troops deployed for the task. Fencing of the border is also retrograde as the terrain offers many opportunities to overcome such obstacles without detection. Maintenance and guarding of the fence would also eat away large number of troops and resources, rendering such exercises futile. We need also to look into the suitability of deploying the BSF in the Northeast. Unlike the Assam Rifles, BSF personnel do not come from the area and lack local language skills and cultural sensitivities. The Assam Rifles has built up a formidable reputation and rapport with the local people over the past century and remains the best option to guard these borders. It would be appropriate to reconsider the decision to replace the Assam Rifles with the BSF.

More importantly, the cost involved in raising 46 battalions of the BSF needs consideration. At a conservative estimate, this would be in the region of Rs 6,000 to 10,000 crore annually. It must be understood that India does not face a military threat from Myanmar, as in the case of our borders with Pakistan and China. The forces deployed on the border would essentially be required to control the cross flow of traffic, especially the movement of armed militant groups. The Maginot Line mentality is unlikely to achieve that aim and in all probability would worsen the present security situation, rendering waste the vast sums that would be required for the purpose.

Conflict resolution lies in integrating these armed groups into the political and economic system of the country. An infusion of funds into area development could lead to improved economic opportunities for the youth, which could wean them away from insurgent groups and from indulging in criminal activities. The Look East policy of the Indian Government actually visualises such possibilities, but its implementation has been tardy. This needs to change. On the security front, better state level policing and creation of a strong intelligence network within the states of Northeast India would give far better returns than the mindless manning of borders with friendly countries. Greater focus needs to be applied to promote the political, cultural and economic aspirations of the ethnically connected border populations astride the India Myanmar border. Not by guns alone can security be achieved.

The author is Director at CLAWS
Views expressed are personal

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