Great Game East: India, China, and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier by Bertil Lintner - review by John Keay

John Keay


Great Game East: India, China, and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier


Yale University Press 343pp £20 order from our bookshop

The original Great Game, those bouts of strategic shadow-boxing that preoccupied the intelligence communities of British India and tsarist Russia in the 19th century, was played out under the big skies of Central Asia and across the high passes of the western Himalayas. Camels and yaks did a lot of the heavy work; beards and turbans made for easy disguise. Bagging forbidden cities and bartering for rare bloodstock rivalled the gunrunning and the surveying. Heavy books and solid reputations resulted.

The arena earmarked by Bertil Lintner for what he calls the ‘Great Game East’ could not be more different. Squeezed between the Tibetan plateau, the southeast Asian rainforest and the Bay of Bengal, the leech-infested triangle where northeast India meets southwest China (with some nudging from Burma, Bangladesh and Bhutan) is one of the most impenetrable zones on earth. Heavy rainfall, dense forest and interminable hills defy developmental initiatives and harbour a scattered and impossibly diverse population. Adjacent settlements speak mutually incomprehensible languages; even ‘tribe’ proves to be a colonial term of convenience corresponding to little more than highly localised kinship. Ethnolinguistic identities – Indo-Bengali, Tai-Shan, Tibeto-Burman, Mon-Khmer – are crisscrossed with confessional allegiances, ranging from messianic Christianity to militant Islam, with Buddhism, Hinduism and numerous indeterminate forms of animism as default settings. Anthropologists have long thrived here. Ideologists have found the going tougher.

In the last seventy years the political subdivisions based on geographical terminology – the Lushai Hills, the Duars, the Chittagong Hill Tracts – have been steadily eroded by aspirant ‘nations’ that have yet to be defined and by putative ‘states’ that are yet to be demarcated. India’s northeastern extremity may be ahead of the game, with seven mini-states already conceded by New Delhi, but the fragmentation is contagious. By one count, more than a hundred ethnic militias remain operative within the newly created states. ‘Manipur tops the list with 35,’ according to a study made by Sanjib Baruah in 2007, ‘Assam is second with 34 and Tripura has 30, Nagaland has four and Meghalaya checks in with three.’

Burma is even more fractured. According to Bertil Lintner, it hosts, besides Shan, Kachin and Karen would-be states, the modern world’s most powerful non-state. With a writ that runs up the right bank of the middle Mekong and then along the Sino-Burmese border, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) controls an area of 15,000 square kilometres and has the wealth and the weaponry to defend it. Once reputed ungovernable head-hunters, ‘the Wild Wa’, a people of Chinese extraction, have progressed from ethnic insurgency to narco-statehood via a long stint under the aegis of the outlawed Communist Party of Burma. Now equipped by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the UWSA proclaims its territory autonomous and fields some 30,000 troops. In Panghsang, the Wa capital, Lintner found ‘a booming town like none other’, with a branch of the Wa State Bank, a casino, a Golden Baby disco and karaoke lounge, and corporate interests that extended to everything from construction to aviation and heavy engineering.

Elements of the UWSA’s progression from head-hunting to proto-state are found elsewhere. In 1967, more than a hundred Naga freedom fighters crossed the Pangwa Pass into Chinese Yunnan after a three-month trek from India through northern Burma. This, says Lintner, ‘marked the beginning of China’s involvement with ethnic rebel movements in India’s volatile northeastern region’. In effect, his Great Game East had begun. The Chinese supplied the Nagas with training camps and arms and then sent them back to fight in India’s longest-running insurgency. Over the years, more Nagas followed, as did representatives of other insurgent groups from Mizoram, Manipur and Assam. Lintner believes that the pattern for Chinese encroachment into southeast Asia and northeast India has already been set.

I first met Lintner in Bangkok in the 1980s. A deadpan Swede with thick glasses and an encyclopaedic grasp of insurgent activity within the Golden Triangle, he was addressing a lunchtime meeting at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The correspondents were more interested in the lunch than in the twenty-odd cartels, each with a barely distinguishable acronym, that he reeled off. We met again soon after in his adopted home town of Chiang Mai. Mrs Lintner proved to be a camera-carrying local. Called Hseng Noung, she looked about fifteen and was fetchingly dressed in fatigues and a Mao cap. Had she been in a fancy dress parade? I asked. No, she had been taking a parade, I was told. She was, it transpired, a colonel in the Shan State Army.

Thanks to their excellent contacts, the indomitable Lintners have been extending their range of inquiry ever since. From the Golden Triangle their treks extended to Nagaland, where their daughter was born, and from there to northern Burma and Yunnan. Over four decades, they have made the region their own and, government press officers apart, few would challenge their authority. Bertil’s carefully researched reports, along with Hseng Noung’s photos, were one of the delights of the late, lamented Far East Economic Review. There have been books, too, some replete with understated adventures which are reprised in Great Game East. But as usual, the dramas are eclipsed by Lintner’s insatiable appetite for obscure insurgencies and unremarked collaborations.

After a somewhat tangential chapter on the CIA’s activities in Tibet in the 1950s, the reader of Great Game East is dropped in at the deep end with an account of the Naga conflict and the no less bloody squabbles of the Naga leadership. Like other groups, Nagas are distributed over a much larger area than that in which they have traditionally comprised a majority. Greater Nagalim would include a bit of Burma and considerable chunks of adjacent states that are now part of India. As a result, irredentist Nagas encounter as much hostility from their neighbours, many of whom are engaged in identical struggles for autonomy, as they do from the Indian security forces. None of these other liberation fronts, however, can be said to have taken their struggle to the constitutional extremes favoured by the Nagas. The Naga Federal Government, Lintner informs us, has usually operated from a place called Oking. But Oking ‘was never a permanent location, as the kilonsers had to be on the move most of the time’. (‘Kilonsers’ are government ministers, the prime minister being the Ato Kilonser, whose azha is not unlike a fatwa: ‘it could mean life or death’.)

For such insights one cannot but be grateful. Great Game East may be a challenging read for those unfamiliar with the region. Its central thesis – that China and India are embarked on a new ‘tournament of shadows’ – is not proven and would anyway require a much wider study than this. Maritime rivalry in the Indian Ocean extends way beyond the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal; Beijing’s mooted ‘economic corridor’ through Burma is matched by others through Pakistan and Central Asia. But make no mistake: however circumscribed, this book is as authoritative as it is intriguing.

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