Myanmar's rebel offensive: How worried should India be?

A Myanmar rebel offensive that analysts say poses a threat to the miliary junta's grip on power has led to growing concerns about a spillover of tensions into border areas in India's northeast

Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) rebels are among three groups currently allied in an offensive against the Tatmadaw (photo: DW)
Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) rebels are among three groups currently allied in an offensive against the Tatmadaw (photo: DW)


India has been cautiously eying an expanding rebel offensive by the "Three Brotherhood Alliance" (3BHA) in neighboring Myanmar.

New Delhi's concerns about security are growing, particularly in the states of Manipur and Mizoram that border northern Myanmar.

The 3BHA — comprised of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Arakan Army (AA) — launched the offensive in Myanmar's northern Shan state on October 27.

The widening attack, named "Operation 1027" after its start date, has reportedly overrun more than 135 military positions, according to media reports.

Refugees flee after latest fighting

Myanmar's military, the Tatmadaw, is believed to have lost control of its main border crossings with China, as well as Rihkhawdar, a town bordering the Indian state of Mizoram.

Armed groups have also taken the fight to Kayah state bordering Thailand, and the Sagaing region and Chin state that border India.

The fighting led to thousands of Myanmar nationals, including dozens of soldiers, seeking shelter in Mizoram last week. The troops were subsequently flown to another border crossing and sent back to Myanmar.

India has called for an end to the violence. "We reiterate our call for the return of peace, stability and democracy in Myanmar," India's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told reporters.

"As a result of the fighting in Rihkhawdar area in Chin State, opposite Zokhawthar in Mizoram on the India-Myanmar border, there has been movement of Myanmar nationals to the Indian side. We are deeply concerned with such incidents close to our border," Bagchi said.

Experts and academics who have been closely monitoring the situation believe any further escalation in hostilities could be problematic given that Mizoram shares a 510-kilometer-long (317-mile-long) porous border with Myanmar.

Avinash Paliwal, who teaches at SOAS University in London, said that Indian authorities have adopted a dual defensive approach of continuing to support the junta to avoid dislocation of their broader interests in Myanmar, while beefing up cross border checks.

"The situation in Manipur has direct links to Myanmar and it is unlikely that New Delhi will undertake strategic revisions in its approach towards its eastern neighbor in the near term," Paliwal, who specializes in South Asian strategic affairs, told DW

"If the pushback against the Naypyidaw succeeds in toppling the junta, which is not a given at this point in time, it will require India to build equities within the resistance ranks on terms set by the latter," added Paliwal.

India's deputy national security adviser, Vikram Misri, attended an October 15 event in Myanmar marking the eighth anniversary of a rebel cease-fire. He urged that the treaty be reinforced to resolve ethnic conflicts.

Can India maintain ties with Myanmar?

Critics of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) say it is in tatters since the 2021 coup, which unleashed a bloody crackdown on dissentand sparked renewed fighting with some of its signatories.

But New Delhi has maintained a cooperative relationship with the Myanmar military, which calls itself the State Administration Council (SAC), since the conflict began in 2021.

Indian government-owned companies and private firms supplied $51 million (€46.5 million) worth of arms, dual-use items, and raw materials to the military junta since February 2021, according to a United Nations report released in May.

"We have engagement and cooperation with them, a neighboring country, on various issues. Whatever actions we take are in the light of our interests," said Bagchi, in response to a query on India's arms exports to Myanmar's junta.

Shanthie Mariet D'Souza, founder and president of Mantraya, an independent research forum, said there are no indications that India's Foreign Ministry is revisiting its policy of standing behind the Myanmar junta.

"Its actions including engaging the junta, supporting it in the past with weapons and training for its officials, and periodically sending high officials to functions organized by the junta, point to the opposite," D'Souza told DW.

"This has happened despite several requests by the parallel National Unity Government to New Delhi to change its pro-junta stance."

She pointed out that under a rather ambivalent wait-and-watch policy, New Delhi continues to hope that the ongoing rebel onslaught is a temporary phenomenon and that the junta will eventually prevail.

"New Delhi is certainly concerned about the spillover of the conflict into the northeastern states but seems to be pinning its hope on the junta and not the rebels, to minimize this," added D'Souza.

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Published: 22 Nov 2023, 12:38 PM