BIMSTEC and North East’s Security
For several decades, India’s North Eastern region has remained a breeding ground of insurgency and ethnic unrest. On the sidelines of the 3rd BIMSTEC Summit, India conveyed its security concerns over cross-border terrorism to the Myanmar government. The issue of extraditing North Eastern militants was part of Indo-Myanmar bilateral discussions. The North Eastern militant outfits like ULFA and the Meitei extremist groups from the Imphal valley of Manipur carry out hit and run operations from their bases in Myanmar. Most of the leaders and cadres of these outfits are currently holed up in the dense forests of Myanmar after the Sheikh Hasina government’s crackdown on North Eastern separatists’ camps in Bangladesh. It was expected that the quasi-civilian government of Myanmar would flush out the lethally-armed anti-Indian elements as done earlier by neighbouring Bhutan and then Bangladesh. However, New Delhi believes that since Myanmar’s militants are also hiding in India, this is a mutual issue which both the neighbours should address within the parameters of their “capabilities” and “limits”.
The persistence of several common security threats—both perceived and real, has prompted the seven member nations to expand their security and strategic cooperation. India has been playing a leading role in negotiations related to counterterrorism and the sub-regional grouping is all set to finalise the BIMSTEC Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters. The Convention on Combating International Terrorism, Transnational Organised Crime and Illicit Drug Trafficking was signed in 2009. During the fourteenth BIMSTEC Ministerial Meeting on March 3 in the new Myanmar capital Nay Pyi Taw the then External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid observed that the grouping has made significant progress in “building the legal architecture” to combat terrorism and transnational crimes and developed functional cooperation among the agencies of member nations.
However, he pointed out that the Convention on Combating Terrorism had not been ratified by most of the member countries. India sought an early ratification of this convention. New Delhi also urged the member nations to initiate the process of negotiation of a BIMSTEC Convention on Extradition. All these efforts assume significance for the North Eastern region in the light of prevailing cross-border terrorism, smuggling, drug trafficking, terror financing and various other criminal activities involving bordering countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh. It remains to be seen how effective is the sub-regional grouping in tackling the immediate problems confronting the North East region.
It is believed that the improvement of infrastructure and connectivity, establishment of Special Economic Zones in the border towns of Moreh in Manipur and Champai in Mizoram and expansion of border trade under the framework of BIMSTEC would address the present security threats -- cross-border smuggling, trafficking of narcotics and movement of militants in the border areas of Nagaland and Manipur. Moreh in particular has emerged as a major transit route for smuggling in arms and drugs from the Golden Triangle and other regions of Southeast Asia. Several militant outfits from the two North Eastern states have been engaged in narco-terrorism. Rivalries among the ethnic groups over the control of drug trafficking through Moreh resulted in a series of conflicts in Manipur. The government-initiated projects are designed to usher in peace, stability and prosperity in North East.
But the sub-regional grouping seems to be missing a strategic vision. The member countries are lacking political will to devise long-term geo-strategic objectives in the realm of emerging security scenarios of Asia Pacific and Asia at large. Besides, the “China factor” impinges upon any strategic thinking of the Bay of Bengal region. BIMSTEC has to cope with the challenges posed by Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the Asia Pacific region, its maritime disputes with the neighbouring countries especially Japan, unresolved border disputes with India and close defence and strategic ties with Myanmar, Under such circumstances, it is imperative that the BIMSTEC leaders chart an independent course.