In addition to the Chinese-manufactured small arms that land up regularly in the hands of the insurgents operating in India’s northeast, Myanmar is emerging of late as a significant source of such weapons. At the heart of the journey of these tools of terror from a gun factory in Kachin state to Taga, the biggest insurgent camp in the Sagaing division, is a deep rooted political and criminal nexus in Myanmar, which needs to be targeted for the insurgency in the northeast to be weakened.
By Bibhu Prasad Routray*
The June 4, 2015 ambush on the Indian Army’s 6 Dogra regiment in Manipur’s Chandel district, resulting in the deaths of 18 personnel, among other factors, brought back attention on the source of small arms for the north-eastern insurgents. For long China has been identified as a source for significant number of weapons in possession of these insurgents belonging to different outfits. Although China officially ended its support for these insurgents in the 1980s, arms manufacturers, private as well as some with links with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), have continued to flush small arms through Myanmar into India. Myanmar’s involvement in the small arms trade, as a result, has been seen as mostly a route and little else. However, in a number of recent cases, recovered weapons from the insurgents do not bear any marking that can be traced back to China. On the contrary, indications are available to point at Myanmar’s role as a source for these tools of terror.
Arms manufactured in China typically enter Myanmar at Ruili, the border town along the Sino-Myanmar border in the Yunnan province. Loaded in trucks and smaller vehicles, these are moved 120 kilometres south to reach Lashio in northern Shan State, which has a significant number of Chinese population. From there, the vehicles travel in the southwest direction for about 200 kilometres to reach Mandalay, the second largest city of Myanmar. The journey continues to reach Sagaing, which lies 20 kilometres southwest of Mandalay across the Irrawaddy river and then further 120 kilometres to reach Monywa, also in the Sagaing division. Sagaing division houses a large number of insurgent camps including one at Taga, the biggest facility of the newly launched United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW), led by S S Khaplang, chief of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K).
On the contrary, on the basis of available information, journey of weapons manufactured in Myanmar start from a gun factory in Panwa (also known as Pangwa) in north-eastern Kachin state’s Special Region no. 1. This Special Region is in control of the New Democratic Army- Kachin (NDA-K), after being officially ceded from the control of the Myanmar military junta to the NDA-K following a ceasefire agreement in 1989. That year Zahkung Ting Ying, a long time leader of the Communist Part of Burma (CPB) broke away from the parent organisation and signed a truce with the junta.
Since that year, Ting Ying has ruled supreme over the region, having survived a 2005 coup attempt by a group of NDA-K dissidents who accused their leader of involvement in rampant drug-running. Ting Ying, according to Kachin sources, is protected by a bodyguard corps made up exclusively of Chinese mercenaries. The corps, estimated to be in the hundreds, is led by Zhao Ra, a Chinese-born adopted son of Ting Ying.
In 2009, the NDA-K was converted into a Border Guard Force (BGF) by the military under an arrangement that sought to co-opt many of the ethnic armies into the official fold. This further reinforced NDA-K’s domination over Special Region no.1 as a government-sponsored militia. A 2014 report released by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) alleged that the BGF units (1001 to 1004) comprised of ex-NDAK cadres under Zakhung Ting Ying have been actively involved in the opium trade across Special Region no.1 in Chipwe, Sadung and Tsawlaw townships. The report, titled “Silent Offensive” alleges that the NDA-K was being allowed to grow opium “in exchange for fighting against” the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The KIA has been engaged in a prolonged armed conflict with the Myanmarese military since June 2011.
In addition, Ting Ying controls a large molybdenum mine located in the NDA-K territory and oversees extensive logging in the area. Wikileaks has published a 2005 United States embassy cable in which American diplomats described the NDA-K as a group that “resembles nothing more than a tightly-controlled business cartel.” In 2010, Zahkung Ting Ying was elected to the Myanmar Parliament. His son Zahkung Ying Sau currently represents the same area in Kachin state parliament. Ting Ying’s political rise is a reward as well as an acknowledgement of his supremacy and loyalty to the military in the region.
Unlike the ‘Ruili to Sagaing’-route for weapons made in China, the Myanmar- manufactured weapons originating from the gun factory in Special Region no. 1 travel south-west in small vehicles from Panwa to Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin state, a distance little over 100 kilometres. A lustrous multi-storey office building located on the outskirts of Myitkyina serves as the headquarters of the NDA-K’s business arm. From there weapons travel 70 kilometres south-west to Mogaung in Kachin state’s Mohnyin district and continue for another 70 kilometres north-west to Farkent (also known as Hpakan or Hpakant).
Farkent is famous for its jade mines which produce the world’s best quality jadeite. The last destination of the vehicles carrying the weapons is further north-west in Hkamti (also known as Kamtee or Singkaling Hkamti) in the Sagaing division, about 80 kilometres from Farkent. Chindwin river, the largest tributary of the Irrawaddy, separates Hkamti from Taga, the UNLFW’s camp. subsequent to the 4 June ambush, UNLFW chief S S Khaplang was reported to be undergoing treatment in a hospital in Yangon. It is from Hkamti, which has an operational airport, that Khaplang had possibly been airlifted to Yangon.
At the heart of this small arms journey, from Panwa to Taga, thus, is a deep rooted political and criminal nexus, which needs to be targeted for the insurgency in the northeast to be weakened.
*Bibhu Prasad Routay is Director of Mantraya.org. This special report has been published under Mantraya.org’s “Borderlands” project.