By Sandipani Dash
Myanamar – one of India’s strategic neighbours on her Northeastern frontier – shares a 1,643 kilometer long border abutting the Indian States of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. This South East Asian neighbour now remains the lone safe-haven for militant groups operating in India’s Northeast, since their alternative refuge in Bangladesh was shut down by the Shiekh Hasina regime (camps in Bhutan were shut down earlier, in a military campaign in 2003). Aggravating the problem is rising evidence of Chinese mischief in supplying arms to insurgent groups operating across the Myanmar corridor.
India and Myanmar have a clearly demarcated – though indiscernible – border across mountainous and densely forested terrain. There has always been considerable cross-border movement down the entire length of the border between consanguineous tribes that straddle the frontier region. Naga armed groups, especially the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), retain strong affinities with Kachin tribals in Myanmar. The border regions offer safe haven to a number of insurgent groups in India’s Northeast, and provide bases for illicit trade, including arms- and drug-running. There is large-scale ingress or egress of men and material, substantially controlled by insurgent groups, across the India-Myanmar border, which takes advantage of the 10 kilometers zone within which free movement is permitted on both sides of this border.
Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, addressing the Conference of Chief Ministers on Internal Security in New Delhi on February 7, 2010, said that the almost unchecked trans-border movement of Indian insurgent groups and the continued existence of their camps in Myanmar constituted a real threat to internal security of Manipur and the Northeast region:
It is no secret that most arms and ammunition used against our Security Forces (SFs) and the State Police Forces are smuggled in from Myanmar. It is also known that whenever our Army, Assam Rifles and the State Police launch operations, the militant groups seek and find shelter in neighbouring areas of Myanmar… Another serious angle is the active involvement of these insurgent groups in smuggling of huge quantities of narcotics like heroin. The proceeds are being used to finance the procurement of sophisticated weapons and maintaining their leaders in foreign countries and their cadres in India.
Meanwhile, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 3 Corps, Lieutenant General N.K. Singh, responsible for counter-insurgency (CI) operations in the Northeast, declared that there were approximately 40 to 50 camps of Northeast-based militant groups in Myanmar. Of these, he indicated further, 25 to 30 were identified as bigger camps or of established nature, while the remaining were ‘temporary’. Confessional revelations by arrested cadres of various armed groups operating in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland consistently indicate that militant training remains an ongoing process in the camps located in Myanmar territory.
While there were a number of militancy related incidents reported along India-Myanmar border in 2009, the major (incidents involving three or more fatalities) among these included:
March 16: Three suspected militants were shot dead by the Assam Rifles personnel near Kwatha village while trying to infiltrate into Chandel District in Manipur from the Myanmar side of the border, along with weapons.
June 20: At least 10 cadres of an unspecified militant outfit were killed in a clash in Manipur along the India-Myanmar border.
December 24: Six suspected People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) cadres were shot dead by the Assam Rifles personnel at Sajik Tampak area of Chandel District in Manipur along the India-Myanmar border.
There has been a perceptible move by the Northeast militants to shift their bases from Bangladesh to Myanmar in the wake of the crackdown by Dhaka. The Inspector General of the Border Security Force (BSF) for the Assam-Meghalaya, frontier Prithvi Raj, expressing concern over an exodus of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) militants to Myanmar to escape the ongoing operations by the Bangladeshi Security Forces, in December 2009, stated, “It is quite natural that the militants look for new pastures to continue their future activities.” An ULFA cadre, Gobin Ojha alias Kiran Jyoti Gogoi (29), while surrendering at BSF headquarters in Shillong in Meghalya, disclosed, “Myanmar continues to be a safe haven for the ULFA cadres after the ongoing crackdown on militants by the Bangladeshi security forces.” Ojha said three camps of the ‘28th battalion’ of the ULFA were in Myanmar, located adjacent to the camps of the NSCN-K. There were 110 ULFA cadres in the three camps and, among the prominent leaders housed there, were Konkon Gohain, Bijoy Chinese, Myanmar camp ‘commander’ Bijoy Das and Montu Saikia, he said. He also disclosed that new cadres had to trek several days to reach the camps set up in a forest area in Myanmar.
Subsequently, another ULFA militant, Jatin Shaw alias Alput Thapa (25), while surrendering before the BSF in Shillong, confessed that the NSCN and ULFA were operating collectively in the forests of Myanmar, adding further that some 20 to 25 cadres from Arunachal Pradesh were also undergoing training at different camps there. Army intelligence sources had indicated earlier that ULFA had set up camps at Kachin in eastern Myanmar, jointly with the Manipur-based People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and United National Liberation Front (UNLF). One SF source commented, “It is back to square one for ULFA. During its initial days, the outfit had its training camps in Kachin but later shifted to Bangladesh. Now, the outfit is back to Kachin, which is indeed disturbing news for us.”
There has been an increase in gun-running across the India-Myanmar border, due to the steady procurement of arms by Northeast militants from the common neighbor, China, over the years. Sources indicate that a major modernization drive in the Chinese Army has released vast quantities of old weapons, some of which are being offloaded to arms dealers, to reach militant groups. Weapons, including AK series and M-15 rifles, LMGs and ammunition, discarded by the Chinese Army, are still good enough for militant groups. The managers of the Chinese State-owned weapons’ factories are reportedly involved in such clandestine arms supply. There is official confirmation of frequent visits by Northeast Indian militant leaders to China. The ULFA ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Barua had been traced to Ruili in the Yunan Province of China, bordering Myanmar. Military sources indicate, “Most of the arms deals are struck at Ruili and from there the Chinese arms are brought to Bamo in Myanmar, from where they are routed to different places, mostly through the Irrawaddy and its tributaries. ULFA and other militant outfits of the northeast also bring their arms and ammunition through this route… Since the Myanmar junta and… (Myanmarese) rebel groups are in ceasefire, the Indian insurgent outfits, like NSCN-K, ULFA, and Meitei groups of Manipur, have found safe haven in the areas under control of the Kachin and Wa rebels (in Myanmar).” Sources mentioned, further, that after the Bangladesh Government had stepped up action against the ULFA, Barua shifted base to the China-Myanmar border and also set up camp in rebel-administered areas in Myanmar’s Kachin territory.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), a Chinese speaking ethnic warring group in north Myanmar, has acted as a broker for Chinese-produced arms, as well as to sell weapons from their own arms factory near Panghsang bordering China. A Jane’s Intelligence Review report in 2008 detailed UWSA’s involvement in trafficking weapons to Myanmar and Indian insurgent groups. While the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), based in the same northern part of Myanmar, claims to have severed ties to insurgents in India, it is still believed to retain these linkages, and could be another possible conduit for weapons. Confirming KIA’s persisting alliance with the NSCN-K during the course of the Naga group’s recruitment drive in Arunachal Pradesh, an unnamed senior Police official, in December 2009, disclosed that newly recruited NSCN-K cadres had undergone training under the guidance of the KIA in the Sagaing region of Myanmar: “NSCN-K has turned to the Kachin Independent Army for logistical help to build up bases in the twin Districts of Arunachal Pradesh — Tirap and Changlang — and heavily armed KIA fighters have already entered these two Districts along the Indo-Myanmar border.” Armed KIA cadres also venture into the Northeast region. For instance, on May 9, 2009, a KIA cadre was shot dead by Assam Rifles personnel during an encounter at Sekmaijin in Thoubal District in Manipur. One AK 56 Rifle with magazine, one grenade launcher, one M-97 rifle, US made 40-mm Springfield armoury pistol, 15 live rounds of AK-56, three 40-mm live ammunition, and three fire cases were recovered from the possession of the slain Kachin insurgent.
Chinese weapons in significant numbers are finding their way into the Northeastern States through five major routes, most of which pass through Myanmar territory. A senior intelligence official in Moreh, on February 21, 2010, revealed, “Around 80 per cent of the weapons seized or recovered from the militants in recent years have ‘star’ mark on them, which means they were manufactured in China.” Over four dozen militant groups are active along the India-Myanmar border and they smuggle traditional weapons like AK series rifles, grenades, pistols, cartridges and bombs into India through four land routes and one sea route. Most of the weapons are brought from southwestern China’s Yunnan province, which borders Myanmar, the official said. The weapons are smuggled into India via Ukhrul, Moreh in Chandel, and Churachandpur, the Districts of Manipur bordering Myanmar, and some parts of Mizoram. The sea route involves Bangladesh’s Chittagong port, from where the weapons are sent to militants in the Northeast. Though some weapons are of other origin, the majority of them are Chinese, he added: “Militants have their camps just inside the Myanmar territory at a distance of few kilometres from the Indian border. Some camps are as close as three-four kilometres from the international border.”
The paramilitary Assam Rifles is deployed for CI and border guarding role on the India-Myanmar border. Out of a sanctioned strength of 46 battalions, 31 battalions are for CI and 15 are for the border guarding role. Nevertheless, the Assam Rifles is too pre-occupied with the CI operations to attend to the Myanmar border.
Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) sources indicate that the reconnaissance survey and trace cut (RSTC) of the border fencing between border pillar (BP) Nos. 79 and 81 at Moreh in Manipur is under way for preparation of the detailed project report (DPR). The work on the construction of the fencing would start after approval of the cost estimates/DPR by the Technical Committee and the High Level Empowered Committee. Meanwhile, the Manipur Government has asked the MHA to erect fencing on the Manipur side of the border for a distance of another 10 kilometers between BP Nos. 79 to 81. Manipur Director General of Police Y. Joykumar said that activities of militant groups and other insurgency related problems in the State would be reduced by 80 per cent, if the neighbouring border of Myanmar is effectively sealed. He also stated that the successful plugging of the porous border would enormously increase the possibilities of finding a solution to the problem of insurgency within the succeeding two to three years. With regard to the fencing of border areas in Nagaland, GOC, 3 Corps, Lt. Gen. N.K. Singh indicated that the Government had failed to demonstrate any keenness to fence off the Nagaland-Myanmar borders so far.
There have been several declarations for strategic cooperation and co-ordination across the India-Myanmar border, but progress at the follow up level to concretise the joint CI operation on a sustained and priority basis has been slow paced. A piecemeal approach to the border safeguards mission, consequently, persists. The existing insecurity that has, for years, permeated this strategic frontier region, consequently can be expected to persist in the foreseeable future.
Sandipani Dash is a Research Associate for the Institute for Conflict Management, which publishes the “South Asia Intelligence Review” of the South Asia Terrorism Portal. This article is reprinted with permission.