By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
The recent realignment of the North Eastern militant groups and their increasing terror activities in the India-Myanmar border areas are posing a threat to the region’s peace, security and stability. Unlike India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh borders, there is neither proper border road nor fencing along the India-Myanmar frontier. The porous international border has become a serious internal security concern for the state and union governments.
In an untoward incident on January 31, 2017, at least one army jawan was injured when suspected National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) or NSCN (K) militants ambushed an army convoy in Longding district of Arunachal Pradesh. The site of the attack is only 7 km from the inter-state border in Assam’s Charaideo district. Reports say one NSCN (K) militant was killed in the retaliatory firing.
In another major incident on January 22, about 15-20 militants ambushed an Assam Rifles (AR) vehicle, killing two AR troopers and injuring three others, while two of the rebels were also killed in the ensuing encounter at Jagun 12th Mile Barabasti on NH-153 in Tinsukia district of Assam. The militants launched the attack when hundreds of tourists were passing through the area to attend the three-day (January 20-22) Pangsau Pass Festival, which is held every year at Nampong in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh. The prime attraction of the festival is the famous Stillwell Road that was built during World War II.
The attack assumes significance as the site is less than 40 km from the India-Myanmar border. Currently, several militant outfits of North East maintain their bases in the Sagaing region of Myanmar bordering India. This area is inhabited and controlled by the SS Khaplang-led faction of NSCN. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chief and chairman of joint military commission of Coordination Committee (CorCom) M.M. Ngouba and CorCom vice-chairman Paresh Baruah, commander of anti-talks United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) or ULFA (I), had jointly claimed responsibility for the January 22 attack.
The CorCom is an umbrella organisation of four Meitei outfits of Manipur, namely the Revolutionary People’s Front (PLA’s political organisation), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), PREPAK (Progressive) and United National Liberation Front (UNLF). The CorCom along with the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA), another joint platform of the North Eastern militant outfits such as ULFA (I), NSCN (K), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbojit) or NDFB(S) and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), took credit for most of the recent terror strikes in the region.
The realignment of the armed rebel groups has led to the resurgence of militancy in the North East during the last six months. On December 3, 2016, suspected ULFA (I) and NSCN (K) militants jointly attacked an AR convoy in Longding district of Arunachal Pradesh, killing an AR trooper and seriously injuring nine others. It may be added that the attack site is only 20 km from the India-Myanmar border.
Earlier on November 26, militants from UNLFWSEA and CorCom jointly ambushed a convoy of Army’s Special Forces in Chandel district of Manipur, injuring five soldiers. Again on November 19 last year, ULFA (I) and CorCom launched “Operation Barak” at Pengeri Reserve Forest in Tinsukia district of Assam, killing three army soldiers and injuring four others. The attack site is not far from the Jagun area where the same militant groups struck on January 22 this year.
The repeated militant attacks near the Indo-Myanmar border have raised questions regarding the security forces’ preparedness — especially in the arena of intelligence gathering. The latest incident took place on the eve of Republic Day when the security agencies across North East remain on high alert. It appears that the January 22 attack was a ploy to draw maximum attention and demonstrate the fire power of ULFA (I) whose strength is believed to be on the wane.
The security forces’ combing operations had been less effective due to the existence of several gaps on the Assam-Arunachal border that are increasingly used by the militant groups as entry and exit points to travel from their bases in Myanmar. The jungle route from the inter-state border is just two km away from the India-Myanmar border. It is commonly used by the militants after carrying out attacks on the security personnel. Reports suggest that a 10-member heavily-armed group of ULFA (I) recently sneaked into Tinsukia district, which has always been a strong-hold of the rebel outfit, from Myanmar via Arunachal. The security forces had been conducting intensive search operations along the Assam-Arunachal border since January 15 this year. But most of the roads in the border areas are covered by dense forests on both sides and soldiers, who are not familiar with the inhospitable terrain, bear the brunt of terror strikes.
The realignment of the militant groups has also facilitated the expansion of the militant groups’ area of operation. The intrusion of the NSCN (K) in some coal mining areas of Tinsukia district has become a key concern for the security establishment. According to recent reports, the NSCN (K) militants have stepped up subversive and extortion-related activities in the coal field areas threatening the lives of many who are engaged in coal business. The Khaplang faction of the NSCN, which suffered a number of splits in recent years, is under pressure from the Naga civil society groups to rejoin the peace process with the Centre. The Naga rebel group unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire agreement with the Centre in April 2015 citing the sovereignty issue.
Meanwhile, the Naga insurgent groups have strongly reacted to the Centre’s plan of erecting a fence along the India-Myanmar border fearing imposition of restrictions on regular travel of people on both sides. On January 10 this year, the Myanmar government also announced that it would undertake similar exercise to demarcate its frontiers with India. The Issak-Muivah (IM) faction of the NSCN has raised objections to fencing saying it would divide Naga families in the two countries.
The Naga organisations from Myanmar are also opposed to the government’s decision to build a fence along the India-Myanmar border. In Myanmar, the international border passes through the self-administrative Naga regiona of Chin, Kachin and Sagaing. In July 2016, the India-Myanmar Joint Consultative Commission reportedly agreed on the “importance of sound border arrangement as an intrinsic part of maintaining border security” and underscored the need for negotiations to reach an “early conclusion of the bilateral MoU on movement of people across the land border”. The sensitive issue of border fencing has the potential to jeopardise the ongoing Naga peace talks between the NSCN (IM) and the Centre, unless it is resolved to the satisfaction of the indigenous people living on both sides of international border.
The 1,643 km-long India-Myanmar border lies along Arunachal (520 km), Nagaland (215 km), Manipur (398 km) and Mizoram (510 km). The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has termed the international frontier — through which cross-border movement of militants, illegal drugs and arms continues to persist — as “extremely porous”. The unfenced India-Myanmar border that allows free movement of people up to 16 km across the border is fully exploited by the northeastern militant groups.
The 2013 MHA report noted that out of the sanctioned strength of 46 battalions of AR, which is manning the India-Myanmar border, 31 have been engaged in counter-insurgency operations, while the remaining 15 are meant for border guarding role. The management of the long and porous international border is becoming a challenging task in the face of frequent terror strikes.
In July 2015, the Manipur government formally requested New Delhi to expedite the process of building a fence and border roads to enhance security and stop cross-border movement of militants and smuggling in arms and narcotics. The Modi government needs to plug the loopholes along the India-Myanmar border without further delay to ensure peace and security of the border states.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent analyst on India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]