Imphal/September 19, 2023 (SPN) | The ambitious Indian Trilateral Highway project has encountered substantial challenges, prompting a thorough re-evaluation of India’s strategy and policies toward Myanmar.
To complete this project successfully, India needs to establish robust ties with the National Unity Government (NUG), its affiliated People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs).
This is especially critical as the project traverses regions under their influence. The urgency is clear: New Delhi must broaden its horizons beyond dealings with the military junta, actively involving EAOs and the NUG. In parallel, Myanmar’s resistance forces, including the NUG, have a unique opportunity to nurture trust and cooperation with New Delhi.
Realizing this ambitious connectivity endeavor necessitates New Delhi’s closer collaboration with Myanmar’s resistance forces, notably the PDFs.
However, it’s imperative to acknowledge that the PDFs have purportedly been embroiled in the Kuki Meitei conflicts ongoing in Manipur since May 3, adding layers of complexity to the situation.
In its ongoing commitment to advancing the cause of genuine federal democracy, the Ministry of Defence under the National Unity Government (NUG) has once again extended its support to the dedicated People’s Defense Forces (PDF) operating within Kalay Township, particularly the Chin State (Zomi PDF).
As of the 12th of February 2022, an allocation of more than 22.1 million Kyat was provided, marking the third installment of this crucial assistance,” as reported in a statement by the Zomi PDF.
The NUG consistently stands by the valiant efforts of the People’s Defense Forces, who display unwavering dedication to the pursuit of true federal democracy nationwide. This latest contribution signifies our continued commitment, as we have received such invaluable support for the third time,” emphasized an information officer representing the Zomi PDF.
This marks the third instance where the NUG has extended financial support to the Zomi PDF. Notably, they provided 20 million Kyat in October 2021, followed by an additional 10 million Kyat in December 2021.
The tumultuous political landscape and security conditions in Myanmar, particularly in Chin State, Sagaing Region, Magway Region, and Karen State, have raised serious concerns. Much of the project’s path navigates areas controlled by PDFs and EAOs, introducing potential hazards for contractors, laborers, and travelers.
PDFs, the armed branch of the NUG, have asserted the consolidation of numerous battalions. Incidents of PDF troops targeting vehicles and disrupting transportation routes have surged, heightening apprehensions regarding the safety of those engaged in the project, as well as the passengers traversing completed sections.
The present unrest in Manipur has compounded the project’s challenges. Manipur shares a 398-kilometer-long border with Myanmar, characterized by dense forests and porosity, hosting several insurgent groups from the Northeast. This border intricacy has posed a perennial conundrum for both India and Myanmar.
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In July 2023, India’s Minister of External Affairs, S Jaishankar, participated in the 12th Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.
During his visit, he engaged in discussions with Myanmar’s counterpart, Than Swe, addressing various joint projects, with the trilateral highway project taking center stage.
Jaishankar candidly acknowledged the project’s tribulations, primarily stemming from Myanmar’s internal situation. Resuming and completing this venture has surged to the top of the priority list, considering that a significant portion has already seen construction.
After facing disruptions due to political instability and the COVID-19 pandemic, India is resolutely committed to rekindling the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project. This ambitious regional connectivity initiative spans 1,400 kilometers, commencing in India’s Manipur state, traversing Myanmar, and culminating in Thailand.
Construction commenced in 2012, and approximately 70 percent of the project stands completed. The India-Myanmar Friendship Road constitutes the initial segment, spanning from the Moreh-Tamu border to Kale and Kalewa in Sagaing Region.
The India-Myanmar boundary intersects the homelands of diverse ethnic groups in both nations, perpetuating longstanding boundary disputes and communal ethnic conflicts. Ethnic tensions in Myanmar and India’s Northeast have cast shadows on the trilateral highway project.
Moreover, the communal strife between the Kuki and Meitei communities in Manipur and the 2021 military coup in Myanmar have further exacerbated the challenges. The project’s destiny is intricately entwined with the ongoing territorial-based ethnic conflicts in India’s Northeast and the evolving dynamics of Myanmar’s Spring Revolution.
The historical tapestry of India and Myanmar relations is intricate. India notably extended support to Myanmar’s student-led democracy movement in 1988, vociferously condemning the military government’s crackdown. However, this principled stance underwent a transformation during Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure (1991-96), embracing a more pragmatic approach toward Myanmar.
This pragmatism continues to underpin India’s dealings with Myanmar since the 2021 military coup. India has bolstered the junta by supplying military equipment and participating in economic ventures.
India’s involvement in the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, forging a link between Kolkata and Sittwe seaport in Myanmar, is noteworthy.
India has also hosted meetings predominantly featuring junta representatives and refrained from endorsing a UN Security Council resolution addressing arms flows to the Myanmar military. India’s actions have faced scrutiny, particularly in light of the Rohingya crisis and broader human rights concerns.
Both the Kaladan project and the trilateral highway project fall under New Delhi’s Act East Policy, strategically leveraging the cultural ties of Northeast India with Southeast Asian nations.
However, without resolving issues in India’s Northeast and northern Myanmar, effective regional engagement remains elusive. Direct engagement with revolutionary groups in Myanmar is imperative for substantial progress.
Security challenges and ethnic tensions plaguing both India and Myanmar pose formidable obstacles to the trilateral highway project.
To bring the ambitious connectivity project to fruition, New Delhi finds itself with no alternative but to forge stronger partnerships with Myanmar’s resistance forces, the People’s Defense Forces (PDFs), and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs).