Preet Malik, who retired as Special Secretary for the Ministry for External Affairs, has been India’s Ambassador/High Commissioner to Cuba, Bahrain, Tanzania and Myanmar. We asked Ambassador Malik a few questions regarding India’s “surgical strike” in Myanmar. The interview follows.
As a former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, what are your thoughts on the strike that India carried out recently?
The “surgical strike” carried out by the special Indian armed force, within Myanmar territory, adjoining the Indian border, to strike a blow against the insurgents identified as among those who had undertaken the June 4 action, in Manipur, against the Indian Army contingent, was justified and in keeping with the understandings with the Government of Myanmar.
Such actions have been undertaken at times as joint operations by Myanmar and India in the past or even singly by the Myanmar armed forces. In itself this was not a unique action. It should be understood that exchanges between the two countries on border security issues have been in hand from the time that the two countries attained independence.
It has also been a contention, expressed and committed to by the top leadership of Myanmar that they would not permit their territory to be used by insurgent groups to carry out operations against any of their neighbouring countries. However the writ of the Union Government has not been effective along its borders which are the preserve of the ethnic minorities. It is this factor that has been exploited by Indian insurgents to base themselves in Myanmar and operate against India out of there.
Could we have worked on the issue having taken Myanmar on board? What is the internal situation in Myanmar like regarding dealing with insurgent groups?
The action undertaken by India, to my mind, was in consultation with the Government of Myanmar (GOM) and was in effect in keeping with the understanding on security issues with Nay Pyi Taw. The internal situation within Myanmar where relations with the ethnic groups is complex and one where serious political differences have continued to exist from the time of Myanmar’s independence.
These differences have posed a threat the unity and integrity of Myanmar and continue to pose such a threat even today, as the actions by the Kokang indicate. The GOM headed by Thein Sein has been negotiating a peace process with the ethnic minority groups working for a universal ceasefire that would be effective by bringing all ethnic groups on board. Thereafter a political settlement would be negotiated.
Thein Sein has made a public commitment that the Panglong Agreement that provided the framework under which the frontier areas, that had been separately administered by the British during the colonial period, agreed to be part of the Union of Burma. However the past Governments of Burma did not honour ithese commitments and there has been mutual distrust that has governed the relations between the majority and the minority groups. This situation has been exploited by insurgent groups from India who have established bases within Myanmar territory within the confines largely of the Sagaing Division and the Kachin State.
Since the early nineties the GOM has signed individual cease fires that have brought greater stability to the country. However the ethnic groups remain armed and many of them have taken to armed actions from time to time. The problems with the Kachins for instance and with the Shan State Army are a pointer to the problems that prevail between the ethnic groups and the GOM. Stability within Myanmar requires a combination of political understanding and socio-economic development of the ethnic states that are also endowed with natural resource riches.
India can play an important role by participating effectively by providing substantive content to its commitment to assist Myanmar’s Border Area Development programme. For instance the area that is home to the Khaplang Naga Group that is also the base of a number of Indian insurgents is devoid of development and basic infrastructure. It is a hilly area that is thickly forested. The local administrations writ does not run here. Similar is the case of the Kachin State. Development along with action as necessary against insurgency is the way by which stability can be brought to the area and create conditions of lasting peace.
How important is it to work together with Myanmar and Bangladesh around the borders that we share with those countries?
Working together with governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar is an imperative that would help bring the Northeastern States the regional and economic linkages that would help integrate their economies with larger Indian economy and the economies of SEAsia. The Understandings with Bangladesh help establish the connectivity through it to the rest of India and could become a major aspect of briniging greater prosperity to the region. Myanmar is the bridge between ASEAN and the North East.
The economic reforms undertaken by Myanmar have set that country on the path of globalising its economy and this could help the Northeast of India as a greater market is becoming available for goods and services as well as tourism that would be of mutual benefit to the region as a whole. India has to ensure that it speeds up the process of infrastructure development that improves connectivity between itself and SE Asia through Myanmar. With prosperity and socio-economic development of the area, stability could be the outcome.
Did publicising the strike as much as we did have an adverse effect on Indian international relations, especially those with Myanmar?
The publicity and the statement made by Junior Minister Rathod were uncalled for. Actions undertaken on foreign territory in consultation with the government concerned should remain a part of quiet diplomacy and under no circumstances should this be advertised to an extent that it would send out a wrong message and embarrass the relationship. To make bold the contention that this is a message of cross-border actions that India would undertake to counter terrorism that is harboured in neighbouring countries is a call to arms that certainly places a strain on relations where cooperation is part of bilateral understandings on security, as is the case with Myanmar.
As the message was intended for Pakistan, which harbours terrorists, it remains to be seen if a policy of preemptive action can be enforced. As one is aware this has been not been a route that India, despite intense provocation, has so far followed. As of now it appears to be an empty threat and could queer the pitch with Myanmar, which has cooperated with India.
Isn’t the efficiently carried out strike a warning to other insurgent groups acting against India, but operating from other nations, especially in Pakistan?
As mentioned above the action in Myanmar was not unique and was part of the cooperation on security between our two countries. In the case of Pakistan there is no real cooperation that it is willing to offer to us. In the case of Myanmar it does not harbour the insurgents it is the internal situation that prevents or constricts its capacity to prevent its territory being used by insurgents. In the case of Pakistan it is official policy to harbour, nurture and utilise terrorists against India.
It is an instrument of its foreign policy and it has shown that it intends to use this to serve its interests. If we feel that we have the means and the capacity to undertake such actions, for instance, against training camps in the POK why has this not been done so under cover of hot pursuit or pre-emptive action? Obviously the calculation has been that price that we may have to pay would be pretty high and we have been averse to undertake such action even though Pakistan deserves to be paid back in its own coin.
Assuming that under the present dispensation in India we may undertake such action against Pakistan it would be wrong to link it up with what has been done with Myanmar as that was part of cooperative action while in the case of Pakistan it would be an act against the wishes of that state and could lead to retaliatory action and escalate the situation. Certainly the publicity given is not going to prevent Pakistan from continuing to follow the route of terrorism against India and it would continue to emphasise that India’s was an empty threat. The fact is that it’s statements are also in intent on embarrassing Myanmar! Embarrassment to Myanmar is hardly in our interest.
What role does China have to play in that region in general, and in the India- Myanmar relationship in particular?
China is a dominant factor where the issue of Myanmar’s ethnic groups are concerned. In the past it has supported both directly and overtly the insurgencies carried out by the ethnic groups in Myanmar. It has armed the Kokang a tribe that is of Chinese origin and even established an arms industry in the area that is home to this tribe in Myanmar. The Wa tribe is yet another that maintains close links to Yunan and receives material support. In turn these tribes are utilised by China to arm and support the Indian insurgents that have based themselves in Myanmar.
In the period 1988 and 2010 China established a relationship of dominance with the isolated Myanmar military regime. It enabled the GOM to arrive at individual ceasefire arrangements with the ethnic tribes particularly in the Shan State area. It also provided the Myanmar armed forces with more sophisticated military equipment that strengthened its capability to act against the more entrenched ethnic groups in particular the Karens and the Kachins. At the same time China retains the option to exploit the differences between the GOM and the ethnic groups.
As already mentioned the relations between the GOM and the ethnic groups remain in a state of flux awaiting very complex and difficult political negotiations. Any agreements arrived at would have to take into account the letter and the intent of the Panglong Agreement, this would involve a major amendment of the 2008 Constitution and a possible dilution of the powers of the armed forces. This is likely to be a long drawn out process. In the meanwhile conditions on the ground would continue to prevail that China could exploit to its advantage whenever it suits its interests.
The presence of China in Myanmar is also part and parcel of its strategic interest pertaining to its ambitions in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean Region as also part of its containment policy towards India. It’s direct and indirect dealings with Indian insurgents will also continue as part of its overall policy towards India. Publicity in such cases is not necessarily in India’s self interest.