The end of insurgency in India’s north east seems nigh, but Myanmarese Terrorist groups threaten its Act East Policy
Insurgencies in India’s north eastern states have always relied quite heavily on external support, and they have thrived in the periods that safe sanctuaries in countries neighbouring their respective states became available to them, only to whither significantly when these sheltering countries decided that the insurgents were no longer welcome on their soil. It could be argued that even in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), India’s primary hot spot, the external factor in the form of Pakistan’s ownership of the terrorist machinery has had the most critical role in sustaining terrorism there. The difference, however, is that while Pakistan’s policy of harbouring and nurturing terrorism directed against India has been unrelenting since the late-1980s, the north eastern states have witnessed ebbs and flows in the intensity of insurgency depending upon how conducive or welcoming the environment in their neighbouring host nations were.
The Assamese groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), for example, flourished during the period in the 1990s when they exploited contiguous Bhutan’s remote, unpatrolled and vulnerable southern regions and set up large bases there. This enabled them to launch swift guerilla attacks in Assam and then retreat promptly and unhindered to the safety of their bases in Bhutan. This situation continued till the end of 2003, when an incensed and persuasive India convinced the Bhutanese King that he had little option but to flush out the insurgents from south Bhutan. Insurgency in Assam was delivered a telling blow once that was done.
The theatre then shifted to Bangladesh, where the electoral debacle that the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) suffered in the 2008 general elections not only severely impacted the aforementioned Assamese outfits, but also almost all the other north east Indian insurgent groups, especially those from the states of Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura. The BNP government’s policy of conniving with Pakistani agencies to extend support to armed north east Indian insurgent groups of all hues meant that the top leadership of outfits such as the ULFA and the NDFB were encouraged to live in peace and comfort in Bangladeshi cities and direct horrific attacks in Assam from there. The Awami League (AL) government that succeeded its bitter rival the BNP after the 2008 elections turned the latter’s policy on its head. The AL government adopted a very effective anti-terror approach that included zero tolerance for Indian insurgent groups. The leaders of such groups were rounded up and handed over to Indian security agencies and other members were driven out of Bangladesh.
That left Myanmar and China, the other two countries contiguous to north east India. After turning a blind eye to the presence of north east Indian insurgent groups on its territory for decades, Myanmar was finally turned around by a combination of muscle flexing and some deft moves by the Indian government last year. The attack that the Myanmar armed forces launched against Indian armed groups in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar had been described in the EFSAS Commentary of 28-06-2019 titled, Myanmar’s offensive against NSCN-K camps spells doom for northeastern Indian insurgent outfits. While analyzing the actions of the Myanmar forces, the Commentary had underlined that after the offensive the Indian insurgent groups were confronted with a bleak and uncertain future, with their existence being on the line. It had also been pointed out that China’s position vis-à-vis the north east Indian insurgent groups over the years has been suspect, and that its actions going ahead would merit close monitoring.
In yet another major blow to the Indian insurgents who had been sheltering in Myanmar, reports in the Myanmar and Indian media in mid-May revealed that in a first action of its kind the Myanmar government had on 12 May handed over 22 militants belonging to north east Indian armed insurgent groups to India. The 22 militants were transported in a special aircraft first to Imphal, the capital of India’s Manipur state, where 12 of them who hailed from that state were handed over to the local police force. The next port of call was Guwahati in Assam, where the remaining 10 insurgents were deplaned and handed over to security officials.
Most of the insurgents handed over by Myanmar had actually been rounded up after the assault by the Myanmar Army that has been alluded to above in the EFSAS Commentary of 28-06-2019. They had been tried at the Hkamti district court in Sagaing Division and sentenced to two years of imprisonment under Myanmar’s Unlawful Association Act. While 5 each belonged to the Assamese armed groups NDFB and Kamtapur Liberation Organization (KLO), the remaining 12 comprised of militants belonging to four Manipuri militant organizations, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the so-called progressive faction of the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK-Pro), the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
India believes that Myanmar’s action will act as a deterrent for Indian insurgent groups from assuming that the rugged mountainous terrain and the dense forests of the India-Myanmar border region coupled with the earlier inaction of the Myanmar authorities would continue to insulate them. Indian officials were quoted by the media as saying, “Myanmar has been used as a hideout by north east Indian rebels. However, the growing relationship with Myanmar points to the fact that these rebels will soon lose their hideouts. These 22 insurgents who have been handed back were nabbed in an operation by Myanmar Army in Sagaing region last year in February/March. It is the first such operation and it sends a strong message that proscribed insurgents cannot operate in Myanmar. Among those deported by Myanmar are some senior and long-wanted Indian insurgent leaders such as NDFB (S) self-styled home secretary Rajen Daimary, Captain Sanatomba Ningthoujam of United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and Lieutenant Pashuram Laishram of PREPAK (Pro)”.
A report in the Indian daily Hindustan Times revealed that the first step towards the repatriation of the Indian insurgents was taken during last July’s visit to India of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Defense Services. During that visit, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had impressed upon General Hlaing the mutual benefits that could accrue from acting against the north east Indian insurgents that were sheltering in Myanmar. The trust developed in recent years between the intelligence agencies of the two countries had also contributed to the process. It was, therefore, not surprising that the Indian security establishment was full of praise for the decisiveness demonstrated by the Myanmar government. A senior Indian national security planner described it as, “a huge step for the Myanmar government and a reflection of the deepening ties between the two countries. This is the first time that the Myanmar government has acted on India’s request to hand over leaders of the north east insurgent groups”.
The media in Myanmar has also hailed the government’s decision to act against Indian insurgent groups. Aung Zaw, the founding Editor-in-Chief of The Irrawaddy, averred that, “Myanmar’s recent deportation to India of 22 ethnic Assam and Meitei rebels marks a new level of cooperation between the two neighboring countries. The move sends a strong message to Indian rebels active along the border that Myanmar will be taking a tougher stance against them from now on. Until now, Indian rebels have enjoyed relative freedom to set up camps and fight for autonomy and separation from India on the Myanmar side of the two countries’ porous border, which stretches for more than 1,600 kilometers. The longstanding border insurgency issue has been a constant irritant to bilateral relations, serving to fuel suspicion of Myanmar in New Delhi. But Myanmar’s generals have begun to develop closer relations with New Delhi of late as a way to counter China’s growing assertiveness and influence. The strategy is part of a geopolitical rebalancing of old and new partners in which Myanmar seeks to diversify its alliances”.
In addition to countering China, Aung Zaw also believes that growing cooperation between India and Myanmar in the defense sphere, as also the fact that Myanmar stands to gain from the important position that it occupies in India’s Act East Policy, have contributed to the change in Myanmar’s policy. Even more importantly, he rightly points out that “Myanmar also seeks New Delhi’s assistance in fighting the Arakan Army in Rakhine and Chin states. Myanmar desperately wants ground intelligence, satellite images of AA bases and movements, information on arms smuggling routes, and intelligence on Muslim extremists who are active in northern Rakhine, including in the Mayu Mountain Range, and have strong links to the Middle East and Pakistan”.
The background, leaning, and geographical positioning of the Arakan Army (AA) had been touched upon in the EFSAS Commentary of 22-03-2019 titled, Coordinated India-Myanmar counter-insurgency operations hold valuable lessons for Pakistan. Formed in 2009 in the Kachin state of Myanmar, the Arakan Army was headquartered in Laiza. Members of the group had in recent years moved to Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states and had established several bases there, including some close to the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport project that India is undertaking to connect its Kolkata port with Sittwe seaport in Myanmar. The project will provide an alternative route to and from India’s north eastern states and reduce pressure on the sensitive Siliguri corridor. The project will also connect Sittwe via an inland river system using the Kaladan river and highways to Zorinpui and Aizawl in Mizoram.
The AA has for quite some time been carrying out ambushes that affected supplies for the Kaladan project. It was declared a terrorist organization by Myanmar after it killed 13 policemen in coordinated attacks in the Rakhine state early last year. The Myanmar Army had launched Operation Sunrise in February 2019 in which it had carried out offensive attacks against AA positions in its Rakhine and Chin state strongholds, while the Indian Army provided back-up support by sealing the Myanmar - Mizoram border to prevent the insurgents from escaping into India. The Myanmar Army had destroyed at least 12 AA camps and killed or driven away the militants holed up there.
A year after the Myanmar Army’s offensive against the AA, the group appears to have regrouped and strengthened itself in the Rakhine and Chin states. It has been carrying out large scale attacks against Myanmarese forces, which appear to be on the back foot. In an illustrative action, the Myanmar Army suffered its most severe reverse at the hands of the AA till date when on 10 March a battalion of the Myanmar Army’s crack 77th Light Infantry Division (LID) was inserted by parachute drop to relieve pressure on an embattled outpost near the east bank of the Kaladan River in Chin state’s Paletwa township. This Myanmar Army unit was cut off by superior AA forces and by the time the fighting had died down the next day the unit had lost at least 20 troops, with a further 36 captured, including the battalion commander whom the AA later identified as Lieutenant Colonel Thet Naing Oo.
Paletwa is a key township as far as India’s Act East Policy is concerned, as India aims at linking landlocked Mizoram in India’s north east with the Bay of Bengal along the Kaladan river, which flows out of India and passes through Paletwa on its way into the Bay of Bengal. India has already constructed an inland container terminal at Paletwa town, but a new road link from the Indian border town of Zorinpuri south to Paletwa town is still under construction. The AA’s dominance of Paletwa, therefore, has developed into a serious impediment for India’s Act East Policy. Myanmar’s efforts to rein in the AA have, as brought out above, run into choppy waters.
After decades of effort, India must be sensing with much satisfaction that it appears to finally be winning its battle against the myriad insurgencies that had plagued the country’s north eastern states. Myanmar, over the last year, has played its part in facilitating this victory.
It is now in India’s interest vis-à-vis its Act East Policy that Myanmar tames the AA, and it would do well to extend all possible support to Myanmar towards that end.