China-backed Arakan Army, military coup in Myanmar not a hurdle for strategic Kaladan project
The crucial Kaladan project linking Myanmar to India's northeast is gaining pace as the threat from the Arakan Army, a Myanmar-based insurgent group with links to China, has been defused.
The project is not just a boost for infrastructure in the remote border areas of Mizoram in India and Chin state of Myanmar but will also be a strategic asset as it would counter China's influence in the neighbourhood and provide an alternate route for troops induction in the Northeast.
After missing two deadlines and an enhancement of funds from Rs 536 crore in 2008 to Rs 3,200 crore now, the project is now looking at a 2023 deadline.
The new route will be the gateway to the landlocked Northeast, reducing the distance from Kolkata to Mizoram by nearly a thousand kilometres and bringing down the travel time by at least four days.
In November 2019, the Arakan Army abducted five Indians working at the project site. One of the workers died of a heart attack while in custody. Months later in June 2020, the Arakan Army had a fierce clash with the Myanmar Army close to the project site on the southernmost tip of Mizoram called Zorinpui which means "Mizoram's greatest hope." The area was named Zorinpui in 2008 when the Kaladan project started.
Arakan Army inroads into project site
A decade later, the Arakan Army made inroads, sending thousands of its cadres from its headquarters north in Laiza in the Kachin state bordering China (close to the sensitive India-China-Myanmar tri-junction) to areas bordering Zorinpui on the southern tip of Mizoram.
In February 2019, joint operations between the Indian and Myanmar Army named 'Operation Sunrise' were launched to push the insurgent back and secure the project. The strategic project is safe now, officials on the ground say.
"Of late, there is no incident where the Arakan Army has tried to disturb or hinder the progress of the Kaladan project. The project is progressing as per the timelines now," said Brig. Digvijay Singh, Assam Rifles Commander in Mizoram.
Preceding the military coup in Myanmar, the Arakan Army under pressure ordered its cadres to move back as it entered into a ceasefire with the Myanmar military. Soon after the military junta overthrew the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1, the Arakan Army was taken off the list of prohibited groups and is supporting the military rule.
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The recent developments and the coup in Myanmar are not causing any hurdle to the project as work continues on the Myanmar side.
Kaladan project, a strategic asset
The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project is being piloted and funded by India's ministry of external affairs. Aimed at countering China's influence in Myanmar, the Kaladan project will connect Kolkata to Mizoram via Sittwe port in Myanmar.
China has also been carrying out development projects at Kyaukpyu port near Sittwe. Since 2013, China has also exported arms worth 270 million dollars to Myanmar.
Read | The Myanmar Tangle: China set to expand ties in coup shadow, India can only wait and watch
The sea route from Kolkata to Sittwe is 539 km followed by a water inland way on the Kaldan river from Sittwe to Paletwa which is another 150 km. From Paletwa in Myanmar starts the road 110 km on the Myanmar side till Zorinpui in India. From Zorinpui, there is another 87 km to Lawngtalai in Mizoram.
While the ports are ready, it's the road construction mainly on the Myanmar side that has caused delays.
"We have made the first 5 km of road on the Myanmar side, but blacktopping is required. The 48 km that we are responsible for is not facing any hurdle and work is in progress," said TS Negi, project coordinator for one stretch of the road. The remaining 62 km in Myanmar is being done by another company.
On the Myanmar side, 110 km of road construction is required. The 87 km on the Indian side is almost complete but the bridges, however, remain a challenge. Till the eight bridges on the Indian side are not complete, road travel remains a tough task as the work continues. On the Myanmar side, 25 bridges are needed for connectivity.
All bridges are planned to be class 70 categories -- a benchmark meant to categorise bridges and roads that can take the load of a tank that is usually 70 tonnes.
Started in 2008, the project missed its 2015 and 2021 deadlines but now all eyes are set on 2023. One of the reasons for the delays was security concerns that halted construction on the Myanmar side, but things have hastened now.
Project on track despite turmoil in Myanmar
After the military coup in Myanmar, there is an urgency by India to push things as the future in the neighbouring country can be uncertain. Assam Rifles, the border guarding force, has enhanced vigil as the coup in Myanmar has led to the influx of people across the border.
According to estimates, 300 people, mostly policemen and their families, have entered India and are taking shelter in the border villages.
Read | Policemen, firemen among over 400 Myanmar nationals seeking shelter in India
Officials tracking developments on the ground say while there has been an influx after the coup, things are not out of control. "All those who have come in are accounted for and the movement is restricted to the border areas that come under the Free Movement Regime or FMR between the two countries," said an official.
The two countries have an arrangement called the Free Movement Regime (FMR) that allows people to travel up to 16 km on either side of the borders and stay up to 14 days.
India and Myanmar share 1,643 km border and people on either side have familial ties due to the ethnic affiliations. Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Nagaland are the Indian states that share borders with Myanmar but the influx after the coup has been limited to Mizoram that shares a 510 km border.
The Mizoram government and the Centre have differed over dealing with the situation but officials on the ground responsible for security measures say they are avoiding coming in direct contact with those who have crossed over from the other side.
After a series of official exchanges between the Centre and Mizoram government showed differing views over the influx of refugees from Myanmar following a military coup, Chief Minister Zoramthanga has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, stating India cannot turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis.
Earlier, the Mizoram government made arrangements to welcome those persecuted, giving shelter to those crossing the border after the coup. However, New Delhi stated no refugees should be allowed to stay.
The security measures over the last two years have been enhanced to provide security to the project as Indian and Myanmar forces continuously built up the pressure by carrying out coordinated operations to flush out insurgent groups.
Four phases of Operation Sunrise have taken place since February 2019 all along the India-Myanmar borders. While the first two phases focused on pushing back the Arakan Army to secure the Kaladan project, the next two were aimed to drive out Indian insurgent groups from Myanmar in areas bordering Nagaland and Manipur.
Reports suggested that China had been supplying high-quality sophisticated weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, to militant groups like Arakan Army fighting the Myanmar Army.
Drug syndicates have been active on the borders as seizures have gone up. Not just drugs, arms seizures, including AK 47s, Chinese weapons, and detonators, have also been intercepted recently.
While joint operations by India and Myanmar ensured insurgents were pushed back, China has been controlling the activities of a number of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in Myanmar, reports suggest.
China's backing to Myanmar groups
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), the largest EAO in Myanmar, is an alliance of 30,000 troops along the China border. Intelligence reports indicate that it also has a dedicated China-built weapons manufacturing facility in its area of control.
The group is the leader of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FNPCC) comprising the EAOs in Myanmar established to barter with the Myanmar Army.
The UWSA is alleged to be the largest drug-producing organisation in entire Southeast Asia and has considerable narco-eco-trade links with Chinese economic conglomerates, officials said.