India’s Military Operation in Myanmar

The Background

On the morning of Thursday, 4 June 2015, over 18 brave soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment of the Indian Army were killed and about a dozen others injured in a precisely planned and brutal militant attack in Chandel district of Manipur state. The attack took place along the Tengnoupal-New Samtal Road during a road opening patrol (ROP) exercise and Indian troops were attacked with improvised explosive devices (IED) and gunfire. The newly-formed United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia claimed responsibility for the attack that shocked the nation. Even as the Indian Army was recoiling from its deadliest ambush since 1982, another attack was launched at an Assam Rifles camp in Arunachal Pradesh (Tirap district). Earlier in April and May this year, about 11 soldiers from the Indian Army and Assam Rifles were killed in the north-eastern states of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

The Militant Outfit

In an ominous prelude to these attacks, in March 2015, the leader of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), S S Khaplang had abrogated a 14-year long ceasefire agreement with the Indian government. The NSCN (K) has been toiling to create a sovereign Naga state in what is now Indian Nagaland and in parts of Myanmar. In April 2015, the NSCN (K) and eight other organisations (including the Ulfa (I), NDFB (Songbijit), and Kamatapur Liberation Organisation) joined hands to form the United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia. The front is believed to have been formed by the efforts of Khaplang. Both Khaplang and Ulfa (I) leader Paresh Baruah have been key figures in the outfit. Following the Manipur attacks, Baruah claimed that the NSCN (K) chief had planned and ordered the hit.

The Military Operation

Soon after the 4 June attack, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was joined by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, and the Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag in a review of the ambush and in planning retaliatory measures. The Indian Army was asked to conduct a covert “search and destroy” operation against the camps of the militant outfits along the borders of Indian and Myanmar. On 9 June, a contingent of the Special Forces (Indian Army) and para-military forces was assembled. In a strike that lasted about 45 minutes, the contingent crossed into Myanmar and destroyed two terrorist camps (about 5 km into Myanmar). According to official statistics about 20 militants were killed and 11 seriously hit. Two militant camps – one at Onjha (Chashad), a few Kilometres from the India- Myanmar border, and another at Ponyu in Myanmar – were destroyed by 70 Indian commandos.

According to the Indian government, the military operation in Myanmar was backed by strong diplomacy and cordial ties have been maintained between the two countries. It is India’s deep diplomatic ties with the neighboring nation that allowed such an operation to be possible. Indian Army maintains that all communication and coordination lines with Myanmar army troops remained open through the operation.

Reactions from the Myanmar Government

The Myanmar government has issued contradictory statements about the operation. According to a Wall Street Journal report, a Myanmar government official said that the operation was conducted with ‘coordination and cooperation’ of Myanmar’s armed forces, though they were not directly involved. A Facebook post by the same official however suggests that the country was not aware of the strike before it took place.

International Reaction

India’s western neighbour, Pakistan was quick to slam India’s military strike. Shortly after India’s military action in Myanmar, the Indian Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore said that this is a message to other countries. Reacting to the statement, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan said, “Pakistan is not like Myanmar…Those having ill designs against Pakistan should listen carefully that our security forces are capable of matching response to any adventurism”. He also went on to warn India that cross-border threats would not be taken lightly. Indian Minister of Defence, Manohar Parikkar suggested that India’s new stance had perhaps unsettled and evoked fear in Pakistan and hence elicited the strong reaction. Many groups in India have also raised the question that such a strong reaction was missing from Pakistan when US forces conducted a military strike in the country, neutralising well-known terrorist Osama bin Laden.

India’s surgical strike into Myanmar did not elicit a response from the US, though. US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke did not comment on the specific operation but generally sought India and Pakistan to reduce tensions and maintain peace and harmony in the subcontinent.

Criticism from the Congress

Internally, the Indian National Congress came down hard on the government and was strongly critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to allow the operation. Congress also said that Union Ministers were prone to make “boastful and jingoistic” but irresponsible statements. The criticism was primarily targeted at Minister of Defence, Manohar Parikkar. Congress leader Anand Sharma even went so far as to say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will need to “restrain his ministers” and mentor and counsel them. The BJP, however, rebutted any criticism from the Congress saying that the party should support the government in matters of national security and only provide constructive criticism instead of negative thoughts.

Criticism of Publicity

One of the key lessons that the Indian government must learn from the operation is the necessity and importance of diplomacy in such military operations, especially those that require cross country cooperation. The special forces of the Indian Army have conducted several operations of this nature in the past. But each operation has been tempered with much restraint in terms of information sharing and involved intricate negotiations with the neighbours. Rarely are these publicised in the media and on social networking platforms for obvious security reasons.

The obvious triumphalism displayed by the Modi government attracted much criticism across the country. Not only shall such show dissuade neighboring governments from successfully collaborating on security matters in the future, the aggression shall also create unnecessary tensions on various other fronts. A fake photograph of Indian troops in the attack also went viral causing much disturbance in media circles. The extent of leakage of the operation’s details was also unprecedented and has been the cause for embarrassment to the Myanmar administration, say news reports. Question is will the NDA government learn and abstain from such blatant publicity in future?

Understanding India’s Foreign/Security Policy

Since taking over as the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi has laid major emphasis on strengthening India’s stature in the international community. The Modi doctrine, as his foreign policy is called, is one of path-breaking policies in the global community combined with cementing bilateral ties with a host of nations. NaMo has a number of very important trips including tours to countries such as the US, Germany, France, China, and Singapore.

In the subcontinent, Modi has visited almost all SAARC nations and military cooperation has invariably been on top of his agenda. His stance has been a peaceful one as far as traditional conflicts with Pakistan and China go, but NaMo has made it amply clear that any threat to national security shall be treated with aggression. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is believed to have adopted a similarly strong outlook. In fact, the Myanmar operation has been called by many media reports – the Modi-Doval doctrine.

Aggressive pursuit of militant groups that undertake violent action against India seems to be the mantra now. The Myanmar operation has displayed India’s lack of reticence when it comes to preemptive strikes. This policy, bolstered by a healthy indigenous defence manufacturing programme and NaMo’s own brand of diplomacy has now put India on the path to taking the center stage in the international community.