As dusk falls on a lonely police station in the eastern tip of India, a young policeman nervously keeps an eye on the Arakan hills above him, dotted with poppy fields.
Just 35 bumpy kilometers from the capital of India’s restive Manipur State, he and his colleagues are outnumbered by gunmen from a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, one of half a dozen insurgent groups operating near India’s border with Myanmar.
Last year, six policemen were killed a few kilometers away in an ambush authorities blamed on them.
Small groups of men with machetes on their belts can be seen in the winter twilight, openly climbing steep paths through the poppy fields, where valuable seed heads will later be harvested and taken to Myanmar for processing into heroin.
“There are many poppy fields in the hills here,” the policeman said in a hushed voice, refusing to give his name for fear of reprisals from the men he said were armed rebels patrolling the fields above his office.
Growers would either sell the seed heads to agents or openly in the local market, he said.
Opium and insurgency can make for a profitable if exotic business model, but it is not what India had in mind when it launched its “Look East” policy 20 years ago to link its markets to those of booming Southeast Asia.
Now as resource-rich Myanmar emerges from decades of isolation under military rule, India should be a natural partner, with ties stretching back to third-century BC Buddhist emperor Ashoka and, more recently, a shared experience of British colonialism and World War II.
BRIDGE TO SOUTHEAST ASIA
“Myanmar is India’s only bridge to Southeast Asia,” Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister Myo Myint said last week at a meeting of Southeast Asian diplomats in New Delhi to look at ways to speed up road, rail and telecoms connections with India. “India needs to come forward with assistance.”
Myanmar sits at Asia’s crossroads, sharing a western border with India and a northern one with China. Thailand is its neighbor to the east and the Malacca Strait is on its southern flank.
The country of nearly 60 million people has emerged from a half-century of military rule and is courting the West, while trying to wean itself from dependency on China for trade and investment. However, despite a recent flurry of high-level visits between the two countries, India appears ill placed on the ground to exploit Myanmar’s opening.
Journalists on a recent trip to the Myanmar-India border in Manipur found a region where rebel groups deeply influence politics and business. Opium poppies are grown openly. Cross-border gun-running remains big business.
Manipur and the three other Indian states sharing the 1,640km border with Myanmar were supposed to be India’s “Gateway to the East.” Instead, the area has become India’s Wild East.
Legal trade on the border has dwindled in the past five years to just 0.15 percent of total commerce between Myanmar and India. Checkpoints by security forces and rebel group supporters make the 120km journey along rutted Highway 102 through the hills from Manipur’s capital, Imphal, to Moreh on the border painstakingly slow — and expensive, too, from the “taxes” they impose on traffic.
NO CRIME HERE
The sleepy border town of Moreh had dreams of being a major international trading center, a key station on the ambitious Trans-Asia Railway that will enable containers from East and Southeast Asia to travel overland across India to Europe.