By Veronica Khangchian
According to a May 30, 2012, report, the Myanmar Government has ordered insurgent groups operating in India’s Northeast like the Manipur-based insurgent groups such as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), to shut down their camps and training facilities and leave Myanmar by June 10, 2012. Sources in the Indian Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) added, in New Delhi, that the Myanmar Army’s order was issued on May 24, 2012. There are an estimated 12 to 15 insurgent camps of these groups across the Indo-Myanmar border, where over 2,000 armed cadres take shelter. The militants make frequent forays into Manipur to carry out subversive activities and attacks, and cross back into Myanmar to escape action by Indian security agencies. Government officials in India are hopeful of the Myanmar Army sending a similar message to other North-eastern militant groups in the near future.
Meanwhile, on May 31, 2012, India sought the custody of militants from its Northeast, in case they were captured in Myanmar. Union Home Minister (UHM) P. Chidambaram stated, “Our concerns are two-fold. First, we don’t want any part of Myanmar territory to be used as camps by the insurgent groups. Secondly, if the Government of Myanmar manages to apprehend any of the leaders, we would like them to hand (them) over to India”.
Significantly, Indian Prime Minister (PM) Manmohan Singh made a three-day visit (May 27-29, 2012) to Myanmar, to become the first PM, since Rajiv Gandhi to visit the country since December 1987. On May 29, 2012, Manmohan Singh indicated that India and Myanmar were likely to carry out joint operations in order to flush out Indian militants operating from Myanmar, and added that Myanmar had sought information from India on the insurgents groups hiding out there. According to PM Singh, “Myanmar President Thein Sein has assured (us) that no Indian militant outfit will be allowed to hide and operate from Myanmar soil. Myanmar has given us a green signal to carry out operations against insurgent outfits hiding along the Indo-Myanmar border, while Myanmar will also carry out similar operations from their side.” During the meeting both the countries asserted that they would work out a joint strategy to tackle terrorism and insurgency. They also emphasized the need for enhanced cooperation between Security Forces (SFs) and border guarding agencies, in order to secure peace, security and stability in the border areas.
Earlier, India and Myanmar had commenced joint initiatives to check the drug money inflow to various anti-Indian insurgent outfits that were “spending their funds for buying weapons to intensify their terror campaign against India” following Union Home Secretary R.K. Singh’s visit to Myanmar in January 2012. During the visit, India presented documentary evidence in support of the fact that at least two Manipur based outfits, PLA and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), were engaged in poppy cultivation in Myanmar under the full protection of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K).
On October 16, 2011, Myanmar had asked New Delhi to provide satellite imagery of camps of militants operating in India’s Northeast, from across the border in Myanmar. On May 29, 2012, PM Singh noted that Myanmar had sought information from India on the insurgent groups hiding in Myanmar, and it was expected that, based on information provided by India, Myanmar could soon launch operations against these groups.
President Thein Sein had visited India between October 12-15, 2011, and the issue of terrorism and insurgents operating across border had even then been discussed Both sides agreed to enhance effective cooperation and coordination between their SFs to effectively tackle insurgency and terrorism, and underscored the need to strengthen institutional mechanisms for sharing of intelligence to combat insurgency, arms smuggling and drug trafficking. In this context, they discussed measures to further strengthen border management mechanisms. President Sein and PM Singh reiterated assurances that the territory of either country would not be allowed for activities inimical to the other.
Significantly, Myanmar had twice launched offensives within its border in 2011 – September 8 and 11 – in Sagaing Province, against various Indian militant groups who have their bases there. On September 8, 2011, heavily armed Myanmar Army units, numbering around 300 to 400 personnel, reportedly moved into an NSCN-K base area at Khamti town, where the outfit’s ‘council headquarters’ are located. However, no casualty was reported. According to NSCN-K spokesperson P. Tikhak, adequate measures to prevent the advance of the Army had been taken and the ‘chairman’, S.S. Khaplang, was safe and was with a “well and highly protective group.” Confirming that its ‘joint protection group’ patrolling the area had come under attack from the Myanmar Army at noon on September 8, 2011, the NSCN-K spokesperson stated that there was no loss of life. He further noted that the Army operation was ‘not a surprise’, and that NSCN-K had been apprehensive of “this kind of attack” ever since the Government of India (GoI) started supplying arms to Myanmar in return for a crackdown on NSCN-K and other insurgent outfits in ‘eastern Nagaland’ (Myanmar).
Again, on September 11, the Myanmar Army launched operations targeting around 250 cadres of some 10 Northeastern militant groups, including the Anti-Talks Faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA-ATF), NSCN-K, PLA, PREPAK and UNLF, who were present in camps at Sagaing. Reports indicate that ULFA’s ‘mobile headquarters’ at Sagaing had been destroyed in the attack. While ULFA-ATF’s ‘commander-in-chief’ Paresh Baruah and NSCN-K chief, S.S. Khaplang, managed to escape unhurt, NSCN-K conceded, on September 14, 2011, that, at least one cadre each from NSCN-K and UNLF were killed during the operations.
Meanwhile, Paresh Baruah, in an emailed statement on September 8, 2011, noted that GoI had been pressuring all its neighbours to flush out ULFA militants from their respective territories: “In 2003 it was Bhutan, which got Rs. 1,000 crore aid from India in reciprocation. Then came Bangladesh where India has pledged a loan of 1 billion US dollars. We have information that New Delhi has given aid of Rs. 2,000 crore to Myanmar.”
Indian rebels, including the Paresh Baruah-led ULFA-ATF, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland-Ranjan Daimary group (NDFB-RD), UNLF, PREPAK, PLA, the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and NSCN-K are reported to have set up a unified camp in the Taga area of Myanmar’s Kachin region, bordering India. The PLA and a number of other outfits had forged an Indian Northeast-specific ‘United Front’, backed by the NSCN-K, in 2011.
Despite joint statements and operations, however, Indian security agencies remain skeptical of Myanmar’s ability to immediately launch a Bhutan-type operation to flush out northeastern militants from the country. A June 2, 2012, news report quoted a security source stating, “Let’s see how Myanmar deals with the militants this time. Earlier, it used force against them only to extort money. We have marked the rebel hideouts. We think the militants can be driven out easily if Myanmar acts like Bhutan. We can have such an operation only if Myanmar shows the same kind of commitment…. It’s NSCN-K chief SS Khaplang who calls the shots there. ULFA and the NDFB have smaller contingents. ULFA has about 200 fighters while the strength of the NDFB is just about 100. Manipuri outfits have about 3,000 militants. The size of the NSCN-K is also quite big.”
In 2003, Bhutan had launched Operation All Clear, using its Army, to drive out ULFA, NDFB and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) militants from its territory. It handed over a number of top-ranking militants to Indian authorities.
Nevertheless, the Indian Army has made full preparations to check infiltration in case of operations in Myanmar after the expiry of the June 10, 2012 deadline. On June 6, 2012, Major General Vinay Punen, the General Officer commanding the Red Shield Division at Leimakhong in Senapati District (Manipur), claimed that the Manipur-Myanmar border had been sealed off.
Meanwhile, the notion that NSCN-K ‘Chief’ S.S. Khaplang was calling the shots in Myanmar appeared to be confirmed, as the outfit signed a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the Myanmar Government on April 9, 2012, for the first time. On May 14, 2012, as a result of the CFA, Myanmar granted autonomy to the NSCN-K in three Districts of Sagaing, an administrative region in the northwest of the country, bordering Nagaland and Manipur. Y. Wangtin Naga, an NSCN-K leader from India who was one of the six signatories of the April 9, 2012, bilateral ceasefire with the Myanmar Government, observed, “Nagas have autonomy in Lahe, Layse and Nanyang in Sagaing region and we are looking for self-administration in more Naga populated districts in Kachin.” Khaplang cadres, who are now free to move unarmed anywhere in Myanmar, also want self-administration in the Naga areas of Mawlaik, Phongpyn and Homlin in Sagaing and Tanai (Teniang) and Shingbwiyang areas in Kachin State. There are also reports that Government of Myanmar has come up with 3-stage proposal for the Nagas of Myanmar: Ceasefire, Political negotiations and Economic development. Significantly, on May 10, 2012, India sought the details of the ground rules of the CFA inked between the Myanmar Government and NSCN-K. Meanwhile, on May 3, 2012, the NSCN-K extended its bilateral CFA with GoI for another year, five days after it last expired on April 28, 2012, reportedly on certain additional conditions. A May 5, 2012, report suggests that the GoI will “keep a close watch” on the activities and movement of NSCN-K faction leaders and cadres during the ceasefire extension period and, according to a senior UMHA official, “If they are found extending any help to any of the anti-Indian insurgent groups or indulging in factional killing, the ceasefire agreement may come to a naught.” Indian Government sources indicated that the NSCN-K was categorically asked to ensure that no anti-Indian insurgent outfit or their members be allowed in the ‘eastern Nagaland’ areas of Myanmar, which NSCN-K dominates. The Government has received confirmed intelligence that the Paresh Baruah-led ULFA-ATF, as well as the Manipur-based PREPAK and PLA, move regularly across the NSCN-K dominated areas in Myanmar. Earlier on April 27, 2012, GoI had also told Myanmar to pressure the NSCN-K to stop helping other Indian militant groups.
Further, on April 27, 2012, an NSCN-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) joint council claimed that the Naga people were “concerned” about the proposed talks between NSCN-K and the Myanmar military junta, adding that all Nagas were inseparable parts of the whole and ‘Nagalim’ embraces all their Naga ancestral domains. According to NSCN-IM leaders, it was under the legitimate leadership of Isak and Muivah that the Nagas had declared a “unilateral ceasefire” with the Myanmar Government years ago.
Interestingly, on May 3, 2012, Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio advocated two separate solutions to the Naga political problem – one with New Delhi and the other with Myanmar – since the Nagas were divided between the two countries by their erstwhile colonial rulers.
Myanmar clearly has an important role to play in helping India secure a lasting peace in the region. It is expected, consequently, that, despite the odds and prevalent pessimism, the joint initiatives of the two countries will incline towards a progressive consolidation over time.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management