Squandering away the Myanmar advantage - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 15 June 2015

Squandering away the Myanmar advantage

By Ajai Shukla
Full version of article in Business Standard
16th June 2015

In 1986, as the intelligence officer of an army brigade in Nagaland, I oversaw the first Indian army patrol that went into Myanmar. With clearance from Yangon, we linked up with a forward post of the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, and proposed joint action against insurgents fighting for Nagaland’s secession from India.

Myanmar’s military government controlled just 20 per cent of the country’s territory, the remainder being in the hands of Kachin, Keran, Wa and Shan separatists, and powerful Naga groups along the Indian border. Even knowing that, our officers were surprised at how embattled the Tatmadaw unit was, and how relieved at the prospect of Indian collaboration against Naga undergrounds holed up in Myanmar’s Sagaing division, bordering Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.

Cooperation between India and the Tatmadaw thus goes back decades. Over the years, the Indian Army has conducted several operations inside Myanmar with the Tatmadaw’s tacit agreement, but has wisely refrained from embarrassing Yangon, or Naypyidaw (the capital since 2005) with public statements. In the wildly successful 1995 Operation Golden Bird, the two armies jointly killed and captured some 150 militants.

Such cooperation, and improving political relations, led the two countries to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding on Border Cooperation” in Naypyidaw on May 8, 2014. The ministry of external affairs announced that it “provides a framework for security cooperation and exchange of information between Indian and Myanmar security agencies. A key provision is that of conduct of coordinated patrols on their respective sides of the international border…”

Stretching the agreement for “coordinated patrols”, Indian troops struck two underground camps several kilometres inside Myanmar on June 9, retaliating against an ambush on June 4, in which a mixed group of undergrounds from at least three militant organisations killed 18 infantry soldiers of the 6 DOGRA battalion, and wounded 15 more, in Chandel, Manipur.

The militant ambush was led by the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang faction), or NSCN(K), which last year ended a 14-year ceasefire with the Indian government. The group’s veteran leader, Khaplang, had long been propped up by Indian intelligence to weaken what they considered the more capable and dangerous rival grouping---the NSCN faction led by Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, or NSCN(I/M). When, in 1988, the army apprehended Khaplang’s operations chief, Jesop Konyak, New Delhi quickly interceded to free Konyak and hush up the incident.

New Delhi’s steadfast support of Khaplang turned in 1997, when the NSCN(I/M) signed a ceasefire with New Delhi, making Swu and Muivah the favoured interlocutors for a final Naga settlement. A beleaguered Khaplang too signed a ceasefire in 2001, but realised to his chagrin that the NSCN(I/M)---drawing support from the larger and more influential Thangkhul, Chakhesang, Lotha and Mao tribes---would corner the lion’s share of the spoils. Khaplang’s NSCN(K), supported mainly by Konyaks and Myanmar-based Naga tribes, would be left holding the wooden spoon.

Matters came to a head last year, when Khaplang refused to renew the annual ceasefire agreement. Although the NSNC(I/M) ceasefire continued, it was clear Khaplang needed a big operational success to underline his relevance. Two small ambushes in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland during the last three months suggested a big ambush was coming. RS Pande, New Delhi’s interlocutor in the Nagaland peace talks from 2010-13, wrote for NDTV that Khaplang’s withdrawal from the ceasefire “was a major event and should have been taken note of… [which] means preparing for the kind of attack [that came on June 4]”.

Even so, the intelligence and military failure of the June 4 ambush might have been partly mitigated by the flawless retaliatory operation carried out on June 9 by 21st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (Special Forces) on the underground camps in Myanmar. The number of militants actually killed is debatable, but there is no doubt that the operation signalled to underground groups that any further attacks will invite retaliation, even in erstwhile safe havens in Myanmar.

For that signal to be credible, however, the Tatmadaw would have to remain on our side. The army’s statement, issued once everyone in the raiding party was safely back in India, was carefully calibrated to keep faith with the Tatmadaw. It deliberately avoided mentioning that it had crossed into Myanmar.

“The Indian Army engaged two separate groups of insurgents along the Indo-Myanmar border at two locations, along the Nagaland and Manipur borders. Significant casualties have been inflicted on them. As a consequence, threats to our civilian population and security forces were averted", said the army.

Nothing more needed to be said. News of the cross-border raid would spread like wildfire through militant networks, while sparing the Tatmadaw awkward questions about Indian troops operating on Myanmar’s soil.

“There is a history of close cooperation between our two militaries. We look forward to working with them to combat such terrorism”, affirmed the army.

But while the army’s message was directed at anti-India militants, India’s political leadership was more interested in voters. A couple of hours before the army’s official briefing at 6 p.m. on June 9, senior government officials called up a handful of “trusted” journalists, meaning those who would report what they were told without cross-checking or contextualising. These scribes were told that --- notwithstanding the carefully worded briefing that army headquarters would give later --- the operation had been a cross-border strike into Myanmar. It was made clear that news reports should highlight the top leadership’s lion-heartedness in ordering them.

“Someone, somewhere, was feeding them”, pointed out Vikram Sood, former Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief, citing the pattern of reporting and a published photograph of the commandos who allegedly conducted the raid.

Later that evening, the government abandoned discretion entirely and deputed a junior minister, Colonel (Retired) Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, to tom-tom the raid on television. Rathore, an Olympic silver medallist in trap shooting with little experience of soldiering, duly shot his trap. “Our prime minister has taken a very bold step and given a go-ahead for hot pursuit into Myanmar…” he pronounced. “We are confirming that Indian armed forces crossed over into Myanmar and carried out strikes on two of the militant camps…”

Starkly displaying the political agenda, Rathore trumpeted: “(T)he entire nation wanted it and that’s perhaps a reason why they voted a strong government at the centre.”

Rathore’s jingoism, played up by a drum beating media, evoked a predictable backlash. Zaw Htay, director of Myanmar’s presidential office, flatly contradicted Rathore, declaring that while there was “coordination” between the two armies, Indian troops never crossed into Myanmar.

AFP reported that Zaw Htay posted on Facebook: “Myanmar will not accept any foreigner who attacks neighbouring countries in the back and creates problems by using our own territory.”

Meanwhile, Islamabad responded aggressively to Rathore’s threat that the Myanmar raid was “a warning to other countries”. Pakistan’s interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, warned India that “Pakistan is not a country like Myanmar”, a reminder that raiding across the heavily militarised Indo-Pakistan border would not be easy.

New Delhi’s politicisation of the Myanmar raid successfully subverted the military’s message to Naga and Manipuri militants. Instead of projecting a quiet menace in the north-east, India’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar --- who is rapidly gaining a reputation as a loose cannon --- engaged in a slanging match with Pakistani officials over India’s military capability.

Says a top serving general ruefully: “I can only say that we soldiers were dismayed at how the benefits of a flawless military operation were squandered by leaders scrabbling for credit.”

Notwithstanding the political bumbling, this raid into Myanmar raises important issues. The army now knows it can expect political clearance for cross-border strikes on militant camps in response to grave provocation --- so far only in Myanmar, but potentially also in Pakistan. The government’s willingness to use military force puts the onus on the military to develop a cross-border response capability against Pakistan.

This demands a more sophisticated, calibrated approach to escalation. Our Special Forces currently cannot conduct surgical strikes across the heavily defended Indo-Pakistan line of control (LoC), but India can credibly strike Pakistani targets with fighter aircraft, rocket salvos and cruise missiles. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government disregarded these options after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008. So too did the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government after the 2001 terror strike on Parliament --- the NDA unwisely leapt up the escalation ladder to full-scale military mobilization, stopped short of war only by Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. Now that the Indian military is aware that it can cross borders in retaliation, it will have to think and plan beyond Myanmar.

Finally, even the most successful cross-border raid cannot wish away the worrying question of how an Indian infantry battalion allowed itself to be ambushed with such heavy losses. There are real questions around the military’s force planning, procurement and promotion policies, and its treatment of ex-servicemen. But few doubt that our infantry battalions are formidable fighting units that deliver on the battlefield. Hopefully the Chandel attack, in which 18 infantrymen lost their lives for the reported loss of just two militants, was an aberration, and not a sign that the army’s combat edge is eroding. 


  1. Rathore bashing has right royally begun!! True he did cross the line (pun intended!!). why was he the spokesman for this event in the first place?? He over stepped due to the constant prodding of the effervescent and uncontrolled Indian media. It just shows that we have not matured as a nation and we as a people are not used to much success over the last 60 years. We are literally going gaga over some good things that heve started happening.

  2. A very balanced insightful post. Hope the political class read this.I am expecting a big strike in J&K by the Jihadies and show how our political masters are paper tigers in western border. I hope the the chandel incident of June 4 is not repeated. Training is beefed up especially about road clearing SOPs. Now the Jihadies are killing ex militants and their families in response to parriker's loud mouth. What is his response?

  3. A brilliant and superbly balanced analysis. Whatever RS Rathore said was uncalled for and it shows the oft-mentioned lack of talent in the ruling BJP. The 75yr cutoff has definitely reduced their expert pool but they will learn in good time, no doubt.

    Rathore is not even connected to MoD so why and how he said what he said is unexplain-able. Later, instead of managing it he even started further digging the hole, by trying to explain the difference between overt and covert. As if, he is the retired Special Operations Commander - sort of second PC Katoch.

    As someone rightly wrote recently, - The covert should remain covert. Nevertheless, its quite a promising start for a perceived change in Indian foreign and security policy. We need to welcome it, though jingoism is completely unwarranted.

    Thanks for this beautiful analysis.


  5. I will agree completely with you this time. The one thing that scares India's western neighbour is the fact that India has neighbours who actually want to cooperate with it e.g. Myanmar and Bangladesh. It could also have been said that once this cooperation reached critical mass Nepal,Sri Lanka would have wanted to join in too on broader levels of cooperation, thereby completely isolating Pakistan. But with this kind of loudmouthed buffoonery within the government let's hope things have not been set back a couple of years.

    It is ironic that for a party ideology that wants to show india's western neighbour their place, they have failed to show this time how, they could achieve it. This immature handling and silly chest beating only embarrassed a quiet friend in the east.

  6. Although the statements by the MOS were a bit over the top, but there is no harm in it as well, War cries have been part and parcel of the game since long, as usual whole things was propelled into humongous proportions by our idiotic media. Another viewpoint is I guess, Indians needed to be made aware of the change in stance of the current government, that we no longer will be mute spectators to someone coming to our doorsteps and spitting on our face.

  7. I see nothing wrong with either the armys caliberated statement nor the govt deriving political mileage with its statement. The statement has generated great pride in the people on the ability of the forces and the will of the govt to strike at our enemies. As for the neighbouring countries, their intelligence woukd have told them whether we had crossed the border or not. As for our media and its big mouth nothing can be said. Nothing has been frittered away.

  8. I like the "quiet menace" of a country's power.
    A well-balanced article.

  9. An Interesting, reasonably accurate and balanced article.

    Col RS Rathore (Retd) must not have spoken about the attack, even during his interview he seemed ill informed. BUT, wittingly or unwittingly, he did raise awareness (media hype) of an issue which has captured the imagination and expectation of the Indian Public in terms of security and India's military capability.

    After no "highly visible" retaliatory actions taken by India each time after Parliament attacks, 26/11 and the more than necessary covered PAK BAT attack on our soldiers last year, the public's faith the country's capability to retaliate began to dissipate. Even though the military capabilities were in actuality increasing.

    It is important to note that in most governments world over, the decision makers in defence and security, matters are not the military, the strategic community, the intelligence or the informed public. But Elected persons of the general public who have no real clue.

    They are as ill informed and often times ignorant about nations threats and capabilities as the general public. THEY are as impressionable as well.

    I opine that in today's conflicts, Special Operations are not designed to change conditions on the battlefields but are done for strategic gains. One of which is psychological subversion. Operations like the one in Myanmar and the OBL raid are bound to raise questions and fears, within the minds of the political elite of hostile nations and entities. That fear needs to be nurtured and bolstered by way of more firm responses.

    Meanwhile our Political decision makers must be given briefings and educational tours so they remain immune to enemy threats and understand our capabilities when taking actual decisions.

  10. Very fine article (but your still a tosser).


  11. once in a while... good... national psyche... our army... take revenge...

  12. A very good analysis with due diligence toward some history and backgrounds. This is better than even some hollering English news channels (forget the Hindi channels; they're totally nuts).

    Your article is a text-book lesson on how reporting should be.

  13. Well done Indian Army. Sadly the stupid political leadership can never learn to keep its mouth shut. Rathore as an ex Army man should have known better.... seems to be too keen to curry favour with his boss Modi.

  14. "Rathore, an Olympic silver medallist in trap shooting with little experience of soldiering...."

    wow ! envy much dear Col. Shukla ?

    Col. Rathore was an infantry officer who served long tenures in J&K during its worst times. where have YOU seen action ? on sand models somewhere ?

  15. Col Rathore is an IMA sword of Honor, his words could have been carefully chosen and may be he should have ducked a few direct references to Pakistan by Arnab Goswami...however I take objection to the fact that he had "little experience of soldiering".....he has done CI OPS and the like and was an Infantryman like you, we should be proud what he has achieved both in sports and in Public life, and we require people from the services in the higher echelons of the government to cultivate a culture of strategic thinking.....Col Rathore is currently in the process of blending between a soldier and a politician, it was the soldier that replied on TV and not the politician.......give him some more time to blend and he as a politician shall be the toast of the masses. The article was well balanced through, as always!

  16. Rahul(Kolkata)17 June 2015 at 08:11

    Not the only article but one of the articles that criticizes the way the Govt made the news public...Seriously, there must be something wrong in our physce when we criticize the Govt....Maybe this has something to do with the 1000 years of our slavery at the hands of colonial powers plus the beating which we have got periodically in the last 60 years, either at the hands of China or Pak sponsored proxies....

    When American SEALS successfully carried out the raid to eliminate Bin Laden in Abottabad, I am not sure whether any spokesperson/leader of our current political opposition pathetic dispensation or any author including this colonel wrote a letter or criticized Mr Obama when he called up a press conference and released the news to the American public...Ideally, these guys should have criticized the #56inch chest of Mr Obama when he thundered '"I" ordered the American SEALS into Pakistan, "I" ordered the elimination of Bin Laden" etc etc....The American public broke out in joy and started dancing and celebrating....They, including the Republicans did not even think that this machoism of Mr. Obama is not expected from the President of a nation or head of a Govt....And we still don't know whether the raid was carried out in consultations with Pakistani Government and GHQ Rawalpindi or not.....

    And in our case, Myanmar Govt and Army was taken in the loop....And Myanmar people are not anti Indians unlike the Pakistanis...So even if it is the case that the Myanmar Govt has to acknowledge that Indian Army breached the sovereignity of Myanmar, the people will not take to the streets and force the resignation of the Myanmarese Govt....So not sure, what this hullaboo is all about....

    Hope that clarifies....

  17. Nice article indeed. Just out of curiosity, in the picture attached to this article, are you one of the operators?

  18. The Street without Joy... you talk of battalion... many more battalions can go down that way Ajay Shukla .. like Sinai Campaign where many Cavalry units were destroyed just for peanuts .. or wars of Stalingrad or for that matter Battle of Berlin...

    You never knew about the battles of Jaffna, Mulai Tivu, Pulyankulam, Kilinochi and Vavunia..

    The earlier you shed your anti infantry mindset the better for you... throw away that Mud Corps bias.. and that mud from your mind..

    I write this comment by reading only one line of your useless blog.. I am sure the rest may be even worse..

    before you say something, yes I do come to see your blog and see how long a mind remains mired in old prejudices.. so is it till you die... not so moron !

  19. Sir,
    Please write some article on recent spurt of increase in accident rates involving our military as well as coast guard planes ! Is it due to lack of maintenance , poor quality of material, workmanship or poor pilot training or something else ! It is really puzzling that our fighters are falling out from the sky at this rate ? Forget China even Pakistan's crash/flying hours ratio are much better than us ? What is/are the problem/s ? Is there any remedy ?

  20. Credibility of the defence forces have been restored after this avenged attacks. Its not wrong to say morale of the armed forces were taken a beating due to the political brinkmanship of UPA 1&2 regime. Pakistan will think twice before it can do an attack on Indian soldiers.


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