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Is Myanmar raid Indian counter-insurgency shift?

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image captionRebels from Nagaland and Manipur have formed a coalition

The Indian army has attacked rebels based inside Myanmar, days after at least 20 of its soldiers were killed in an ambush on a troop convoy in north-east India. Analyst Subir Bhaumik explains the significance of the operation.

In an unusual display of aggressive intent, the Indian army's helicopter-borne parachute commandos crossed the border into Myanmar early on Tuesday morning to strike at at least one camp set up by Indian rebels.

The rebels were reported to have crossed the porous border into Myanmar (also known as Burma) after last Thursday's ambush in Chandel district in Manipur state. At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed and 15 injured in the attack on a troop convoy.

There has been a fresh surge in attacks on Indian troops along the border with Myanmar after a number of rebel groups joined hands and formed a new coalition in India's restive north-east.

'A message'

Indian junior Information Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore told TV channels that the "hot pursuit strikes" had been authorised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

"Attacks on Indians are not acceptable. This is also a message to our neighbours who shelter terrorists," Mr Rathore said, alluding mainly to nuclear-armed rival Pakistan.

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India has tried for years to persuade Myanmar to evict rebels from bases in the thick jungles of Sagaing administrative region - bordering India's Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh - but without much success so far.

While Bhutan and Bangladesh have forced out many of the rebels and killed or captured others, Myanmar has said it could not follow suit because its army is stretched fighting bigger anti-state insurgencies in Kachin, Kokang and Karen regions.

After last Thursday's ambush left at least 20 soldiers dead in Manipur state, Delhi decided to strike back.

"Our surgical strikes on the rebel bases on India-Myanmar border were planned with specific intelligence that these rebels were planning more attacks. We have inflicted significant casualties on the rebels," Major-General Ranbir Singh of the Indian army said.

image copyrightAFP
image captionManipur has struggled with an insurgency involving several militant groups

Military officials said army commandos were involved in at least two attacks - one on a Naga rebel base at Noklak in India's Nagaland state, and the other at Chassad in India's Manipur state.

Intelligence officials say a third rebel base jointly run by the Naga and Manipuri rebels at Onzia inside Myanmar was also targeted.

"Our soldiers crossed back without any casualties," claimed Maj-Gen Singh. Military officials say between 30 to 50 rebels were killed in the raids. There is no independent confirmation.

'History of co-operation'

Maj-Gen Singh also said India was "in communication with the Myanmar authorities on this matter", adding that there was a "history of close co-operation between our two militaries".

He is right.

Myanmar's forces have also occasionally crossed into Mizoram and Manipur states in India chasing their own ethnic Chin and Arakanese rebels. India has looked the other way when that happened.

"Now it seems that Myanmar will do the same," said retired military official Gaganjit Singh, who commanded an army division in north-east India at the peak of the ethnic insurgency in the region.

'We have good military-to-military co-operation with Myanmar and we both understand each other's compulsions. They have bigger insurgencies to fight, we have our own north-eastern rebels to tackle."

Myanmar's army did co-operate with India on Operation Golden Bird in 1995 to track down and attack a number of north-eastern separatists bringing in weapons from the Arakan coast.

"But since then, they have not done much against the north-east Indian separatists," says Myanmar watcher Binoda Mishra.

image copyrightAFP
image captionAt least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the latest rebel attack

India's army has rarely crossed borders to attack rebel bases in neighbouring countries.

In 2003, that happened occasionally during a co-ordinated operation with the Bhutanese army to neutralise north-east Indian rebel bases in the Himalayan kingdom.

So Tuesday's attack inside Myanmar may be the beginning of a new phase in India's counter-insurgency strategy.

"India has the capability for surgical strikes across our borders. The political will was missing so far," said Gaganjit Singh.

"That may not be the case any more."

Subir Bhaumik is an independent journalist and writer based in Kolkata

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  • India
  • Myanmar

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