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Beijing’s Venom in Myanmar

China’s economic investments, military exports and sub-conventional hold over Myanmar ensures that whatever happens in Myanmar is orchestrated from Beijing

March 19, 2021 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


Unidentified attackers lobbed a hand grenade at the security personnel posted at the front gate of the Manipur Governor’s residence on January 19, 2021. The incident happened around 4.30 pm in the evening. The Chinese grenade, however, failed to explode. Footage from one of the CCTV cameras installed at the Governor’s house showed the grenade was hurled by two persons who came on a moped. According to a police official, “The two attackers came from the southern side and hurled the grenade before speeding off along Asian Highway-2 towards Kangla Western gate.”

Initial investigations indicate the attack was carried at the behest of Myanmar-based commanders of United National Liberation Front (UNLF). Manipur police arrested three persons in the case – Lisham Iboshana Meitei alias Jojo, Konsam Manithoi Singh and Huidrom Sangba, all having links with the banned outfit UNLF. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has handed over the probe to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) after which the agency registered a case under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), explosive substances act as well as attempt to murder.

The UNLF leadership in Myanmar and India has been holding peace dialogues with several insurgent groups based in Myanmar. In the same connection, UNLF chairperson Rajkumar Meghen was released from Guwahati Central Jail in November 2019 after serving a decade-long sentence. But the India-Myanmar border is porous with the ethnic spread astride both sides. This provides avenues for easy movement across and is exploited by insurgents, smugglers and by forces inimical to India.

There is a split in the UNLF and one faction is trying to up the ante on the other. These two factions are also terrorising media publications in order to showcase they have the upper hand. At around 6.30 pm on February 12, 2021, an unidentified person lobbed a hand grenade inside the office of the local newspaper ‘Poknapham’ in Imphal. Here too the grenade failed to explode. The CCTV footage showed the grenade was hurled by a woman who came on a moped. Condemning the attack, the All Manipur Working Journalist Union (AMWJU) and Editor’s Guild Manipur (EGM) resolved to immediately cease news broadcasting and publication.

There is speculation the grenade lobbed at the Governor’s residence on January 19 could also be due to the rift in UNLF and one faction want the other to be blamed. There are plenty of drug addicts in Manipur who can be hired for Rs 1,000/- or more to cater for their daily fix. Narcotics influx in India through the eastern borders is perhaps more than what comes from the west, but catches are rare because of deep routed networks. As mentioned above, cross-border insurgent movement is easy with borders not manned or defended like against Pakistan. The current civil disobedience movement against the military coup in Myanmar has resulted in number of Myanmar citizens, including policemen, crossing the border into India.

Whether the recent grenade attacks in Manipur are only because of the split in the UNLF is for intelligence agencies to establish. But we must not forget that reduced number of terror incidents in India’s northeast, are not to the liking of Beijing. Articles in Chinese media have periodically claimed that Beijing has the power to destabilise our Northeast. The UNLF is Myanmar-based and is part of the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) put together by Chinese intelligence, with other members like the United Liberation Front of Assam, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation, and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland.

In January 2021, even the disengagement from the Pangong Tso region in Eastern Ladakh had not commenced. It was obvious China wanted to pressure India in every possible manner, however innocuous; be it prolonged hours of successive marathon military-level talks or grenade attacks in Manipur. For that matter, China is intent on poisoning public opinion in Kashmir Valley in concert with Pakistan and Turkey. This fits into China’s hybrid warfare strategy. Witness the recurrent cyber attacks and approving a super dam on Brahmaputra River proximate to Arunachal Pradesh, even as the disengagement from areas other than Pangong Tso appears to have been frozen.

In Myanmar, not only did China coax the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government to re-energise the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) for serving Beijing’s strategic interests, it simultaneously kept arming insurgents in Myanmar, as was indicated by Myanmar army officials an year back. China’s economic investments, military exports and sub-conventional hold over Myanmar through proxies like the United Wa State Army (USWA), Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and UNLFW, ensures that whatever happens in Myanmar is orchestrated from Beijing.

Perhaps this is one reason that China-funded factories were recently targeted in Myanmar and burned down with number of people killed although only two Chinese national were hurt. But this type of public anger affects China little. China will force a government in Myanmar it wants and with the military’s role in politics institutionalised by the Constitution, Beijing’s preference is clear. Akin to Pakistan, when PLA gets stationed in Myanmar under pretext of guarding the CMEC and allied projects, there will be direct threat to India from all along the eastern flank as well. This will also serve China’s illegal claim over Arunachal Pradesh.

In recent years, strategic considerations have deepened Myanmar-North Korea relations. Myanmar has natural resources that North Korea needs and North Korea began supplying Myanmar with military technology. Military cooperation included nuclear issues. Myanmar is reportedly operating a nuclear weapons programme that seeks to emulate North Korea's nuclear weapons capability. Beijing’s blessings are obviously behind this. In their book ‘Nuclear Express’, Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman say that during Deng Xiaoping’s regime, Chinese were of the view that nuclear weapons against the West used by radical and rogue countries would be good for China provided the trail is not traced back to China; hence covert nuclearisation of Pakistan and North Korea. Time only will tell whether China will turn Myanmar nuclear.