China’s hand seen in Myanmar’s insurgent group targeting India-backed Kaladan project
The Arakan Army, an insurgent group whose activities have severely affected the India-backed Kaladan multi-modal transport project in Myanmar, has benefited from the clandestine transfer and smuggling of Chinese-made weaponry, people familiar with developments said on Monday.
The group, designated a terrorist organisation by Naypyitaw, clashed with Myanmarese troops on nearly 600 occasions last year, and a majority of the skirmishes occurred in close proximity to the $480-million Kaladan project.
There have also been at least four instances of Arakan Army cadres targeting the shipment of materials for the infrastructure project or attacking Myanmar troops providing security to the project, the people said on condition of anonymity. In 2019, just as a key phase of the Kaladan project was nearing completion in Rakhine and Chin states, the Arakan Army shifted its area of operations to these regions, they added.
“The Arakan Army has always kept its anti-Kaladan activities below a certain threshold to not raise the ante. But its activities have had the overall impact of severely impeding the execution of the project,” one of the people cited above said.
India and Myanmar are currently working to operationalise Sittwe port by early next year as part of the massive transport and transit project that will connect with Kolkata port and help in moving goods to the landlocked northeastern states via Kaladan river.
On June 23, the Thai military seized a consignment of Chinese-made weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, anti-tank mines, grenades and ammunition, in Mae Sot district bordering Myanmar’s Karen state. The weapons, worth 30 million baht (almost $1 million), were meant to be supplied to the Arakan Army and Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), both active in Rakhine, the people said.
There are also reports that another large consignment of Chinese-made weapons, including hundreds of assault rifles and machine guns, was smuggled into Rakhine state via Monakhali beach near the junction of Myanmar and Bangladesh in the third week of February this year. These weapons too were destined for the Arakan Army, the people added.
“This illicit flow of Chinese-made weaponry into Myanmar poses a threat to regional security and stability and has implications for the Kaladan project. There are strong suspicions that China is orchestrating the actions of the myriad ethnic armed groups in Myanmar to further its objectives,” said a second person from the security establishment who declined to be named.
One of the reasons for the push against the Kaladan project is that it is seen as a rival to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) centred around a port at Kyaukpyu in Rakhine state, the second person said.
“This approach isn’t new. China used the same tool against India when it trained and provided arms to insurgent groups in the northeastern states in the 1960s and 1970s. In Myanmar, China appears to be using the Arakan Army to limit India’s inroads through the Kaladan project,” the second person added.
Days after the seizure of weapons at Mae Sot in Thailand, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, told the media during a visit to Russia that a country might not be able to tackle terror groups “when there are strong forces behind” them. At the time, most experts took this to be a tacit reference to China.
The people said there were growing signs that Myanmar’s military is acting to curb China’s economic influence, and has had a hand in cancelling or curtailing projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The $3.6-billion Myitsone dam project remains suspended despite Chinese pressure, while Kyaukpyu port project was scaled down from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion and the Myanmar government issued an open tender inviting bids from across the globe for executing the venture.
Sameer Patil, fellow for international security studies at Gateway House, said it appeared China was trying to undermine the viability of the Kaladan project after being unable to convince Myanmar to give up on it.
“The Chinese, when they begin work on the CMEC, will show they have a faster pace of execution because they have access to greater resources, and they will also try to show up India as lagging behind. They will try to convince Myanmar it isn’t viable to invest in Kaladan by propping up such elements and making the security environ difficult,” he said.