Myanmar “deeply resented” the Narendra Modi government boasting in June last year that Indian troops had entered its territory in hot pursuit of secessionists in Manipur and Nagaland, a government official said on condition of anonymity.
A senior western diplomat corroborated he received the same reaction from the Myanmar government. He was also informed that the Myanmar Army (known as Tatmadaw) was of the view a group photo of Indian soldiers said to have been taken inside Myanmar had flora and fauna in the background that did not match with those in areas bordering Manipur.
An editor of a newspaper said the Myanmar government conveyed the same opinion to his publication. The then President Thein Sein’s office cryptically commented “we have learnt that the military operation was performed on the Indian side of the border”.
In the episode concerned, the Indian Army suffered a heavy ambush by armed separatists in Manipur. At least 18 soldiers were killed, following which the rebels fled to neighbouring Myanmar. A few days later, Indian parachute commandos in helicopters reportedly carried out a cross border raid, in course of which, the Defence Ministry maintained, around 40 rebels were taken out.
Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Rathore had trumpeted that Indian troops had penetrated deep into Myanmar territory.
“It was a historic and very brave decision by the Prime Minister to go in hot pursuit and annihilate the rebel camp.”
A source at the Indian Embassy in Yangon disagreed Myanmar had expressed resentment. Asked to explain this, the western diplomat said even the quasi-military regime, which was in office at the time, wanted good relations with India and consequently did not make too much of a fuss over the incident.
Cross-border operations were not unknown under previous government in Delhi, but not advertised in order to avoid embarrassing Naypyidaw.
Military-ruled Myanmar allegedly aided and abetted secessionists in India’s north-east. It was even suspected such cooperation was at the behest of China. It is now believed that Myanmar does not knowingly assist or shelter elements inimical to India. But the militants still obtain sanctuary on its soil.
There is a consensus that Indian jawans did enter Myanmar. What local inhabitants doubt, though, is the amount of damage inflicted by them. Nearby villagers told rights activists that there was heavy bombardment and the rebel camps were destroyed, but there was “no evidence of significant casualties”.
Since Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao initiated a policy in the 1990s of extending support to pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi (now in office) while simultaneously engaging with the Tatmadaw, India has managed to smooth ties with the military.
Last month, the Indian Ambassador in Myanmar, Vikram Misri, called on the chief of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The meeting was propagated with much fanfare on the latter’s Facebook page.
This weekend, the general will be travelling to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra to mark the 100th death anniversary in this coastal town of the last Myanmar monarch, King Thibaw Min, who after being ousted by the British in 1885 was exiled to India. Earlier, the Raj had banished the last Indian ruler, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Yangon, where he died and lies buried within the city precincts.
Myanmar would welcome greater Indian interest in its economic affairs. Ambassador Misri said: “It is a fact that the [Indian] private sector has lagged behind. However, we would like to think that the infrastructure and capacity building that has been built up through official grants and aid will support the expected foray of private FDI from India into Myanmar.”
He concluded: “Given the economic reforms being carried out by the Government of Myanmar in many areas, including FDI and the lifting of foreign economic sanctions, I am confident that Indian companies will find Myanmar a more inviting place to do business.”
(Ashis Ray is a London-based journalist currently in Myanmar )