Lit up by the brilliant morning sun, the flotilla carefully made its way around the coral reefs of the Cleugh Passage, finally bumping up against the silver shore of Landfall island. The men on the boats began unloading cases of weapons, purchased from arms traffickers in Thailand, to equip their new training base in the northern Andaman. Lieutenant-Colonel VJS Garewal, the Indian military intelligence officer who received them, had also come armed: Five bottles of rum, witnesses later recalled, were shared around a blazing campfire.
Then, on the morning of 10 February 1998, five insurgent commanders—the Arakan Army chief Khaing Raza, his lieutenants Pado Mulway, and Thein Aung Khyaw and the the Karen National Army captain Myint Shwe, together with radio operator Pho Cho—headed into the woods towards the island helipad. There, they were scheduled to meet a top Indian military officer, to discuss India’s coming secret war in Myanmar.
Later that day, shots rang out: The six were never seen again. The men on the beach were surrounded by Indian soldiers, and marched into prison, where many would remain for over a decade.
The Arakan Army—sacrificed three decades ago to reward the Myanmar junta’s cooperation against India’s Northeast insurgents—has staged a spectacular resurgence, though. The fighting threatens regional crises, fuelling tensions with Bangladesh. Even more dangerous for India, the success of the Arakan Army could empower other ethnic insurgent armies located along India’s borders, in Chin state, Sagaing and Kachin state.
Ever since the slaughter on Landfall, help from Myanmar’s military, the Sit-Tat, has been critical to degrading the insurgencies across the North-East. The disintegration of Sit-Tat power, though, could mean it’s no longer in a position to deny North-East insurgents access to weapons and safe havens.
Rebirth of Arakan Army
Fierce fighting has been raging in the Myanmar border town of Maungdaw for weeks now—mortar and small-arms fire regularly arcing across the border into Bangladesh. Last month, Sit-Tat helicopters fired rockets at Arakan insurgent strongholds which—accidentally—struck the Bangladesh village of Tamru. Following the bombing of their camps, Arakan Army insurgents responded by seizing Myanmar border outposts, and ambushed Sit-Tat columns headed into the area.
The Arakan insurgency has grown steadily over the last decade—the result of chronic underdevelopment, as well as ethnic ambitions for autonomy being stonewalled by both democratic and military regimes.
Economic and political reforms were initiated by Myanmar’s military from 2011, but did little for the Rakhine region. Foreign trawlers intruded on their fishing-waters. Even though massive investments were made by China—notably at a free-trade zone in Kyauk Phyu—impoverished local Arakanese were still forced to seek work as labourers in Yangon or Kachin state’s jade mines. Tens of thousands found jobs at factories in China and Thailand.
“But remittances did not lift their families out of poverty,” expert Jacques Leider has noted. The diaspora instead ended up becoming an important fundraising and recruitment pool for the insurgency.
Ahead of elections in 2015, the Sit-Tat signed a peace deal with major ethnic insurgent groups. Euphoria swept the backers of the peace process in the West—but, as scholar Bertil Lintner has observed, groups representing some 80 percent of insurgents fighting the State refused to sign. Fighting expanded into new areas, like heroin-heartland Kokang. In other cases, groups were left out of the dialogue—among them, the Arakan Army.
The rise of the National League for Democracy government in 2015 led some Rakhine residents to hope wider regional autonomy could be achieved. The NLD, however, proved just as resistant to ethnic claims as its military predecessor. Foreign minister and de-facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi praised Sit-Tat soldiers fighting the Arakan Army, arguing the insurgents were hindering the country’s democratisation.
Following the Rohingya crisis in 2016-2017, the Sit-Tat sought rapprochement with the Arakan Army, hoping its mainly-Buddhist cadre would help crush jihadist groups. The ethnic-nationalist Arakan Army, though, saw through the trap, and ensured the protection of Rohingya in areas under its control.
As the Sit-Tat busied itself the ethnic cleaning against the Rohingya, the Arakan Army expanded its reach, dismantling the central government’s regional power through a campaign of intimidation and assassination. Local administrators resigned en-masse, and were replaced by Arakan Army recruits.
The Sit-Tat finally engaged the Arakan Army in a ceasefire in late 2020—winning the military some months of peace after the coup. From late last year, though, the military moved to rein-in the Arakan Army, fearing its growing power would fuel other ethnic insurgencies. Earlier this summer, the military bombed an Arakan Army base in the south-eastern Kayin state, controlled by the Karen National Union. Fighting has raged ever since, across Rakhine and adjoining Paletwa, in Chin state.
Betting on the loser
Like it did on Landfall island, New Delhi needs to back the winner—but the choice isn’t an easy one. Following the eruption of pro-democracy protests in 1988, and the massacres which followed, India cut its ties with the military regime. India’s intelligence also began secretly training and arming the pro-democracy protesters who had fled across the border—many of them from Rakhine. For a time, New Delhi hoped the wave of anger would dethrone the Generals.
Events, though, showed New Delhi had bet on the loser. The Generals turned to China, securing weapons and economic funding. Through the first years of his rule, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao reversed course, and sought to rebuild ties to the Myanmar military.
The gains for counter-insurgency and intelligence gathering were substantial. Tacitly supported India staged cross-border operations against North-East insurgents in 1995, targeting a column that was taking arms from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh through the Mizoram forests. Then, the Army’s 57 Division, working together with the Myanmar Army, killed 38 insurgents and arrested 118 in the course of Operation Golden Bird.
Even though there were irritants—among them, the Indian government’s decision to award Suu Kyi a peace prize in 1995—the military relationship continued to grow. New Delhi controversially resold Swedish-made rocket launchers to the Myanmar military—following that up with surveillance aircraft, artillery and even an old submarine.
Finally, three naval ships shadowed the insurgent flotilla headed to Landfall—carrying commandos with orders to arrest them. The insurgents—long standing assets of the Research and Analysis Wing—claimed to have received assurances they would be given a safe-haven to operate from. Instead, young rebels India had backed in 1988 were subjected to a ritual, public sacrifice.
Garewal went on to operate a successful gemstones business in Myanmar, and retired to Chandigarh. The survivors among the insurgents he targeted emerged from prison in 2010, after a rare plea-deal.
An anarchy ahead?
The dilemma posed by the rise of the Arakan Army—as well as resurgent insurgencies elsewhere in the country—are clear. New Delhi fears losing the relationship cultivated with the Sit-Tat. The relationship has enabled many operations like the famous cross-border raids of 2015 on Naga insurgent camps in Ponyo and Onzio. Sit-Tat troops have also dismantled camps run by Naga and Manipuri insurgents, and diminished their ability to traffic weapons from suppliers in Thailand and southern China.
Escalating insurgent violence, though, suggests the long-term victory of the Myanmar military isn’t inevitable—in which case India could once again discover its backed the wrong horse. North-East insurgent groups might, for example, find shelter in the emerging semi-independent regions carved out by Myanmar’s ethnic armies.
Failed ceasefires with ethnic groups are part of the fabric of Myanmar’s dysfunctional political life. Efforts made in 1958, 1963, 1980, and through the 1990s, all fell apart because the military-dominated establishment was unwilling to share power with regional ethnicities. Each failure accelerated the country’s descent into anarchy, with insurgent groups enriching themselves through drug-running and extortion.
India needs to push the pace long-stalled negotiations with insurgent groups in the North-East—or risk the hard-won peace being undermined as anarchy marches ahead.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)