Myanmar’s offensive against NSCN-K camps spells doom for northeastern Indian insurgent outfits
Without much fuss, the Myanmar armed forces have over the last four months undertaken a successful operation against the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), a separatist Naga outfit based in the Sagaing Division of the country that seeks sovereignty for the Naga-inhabited areas of Myanmar and India. As brought out in EFSAS Commentary of 22-03-2019, a combination of effective diplomacy and strategic pragmatism by India was buttressed with the threat of further cross border pursuit of northeast Indian insurgents sheltering within Myanmar. This had forced the hand of the Myanmar government and elicited the long overdue military action against the NSCN-K.
On 3 June, at a press briefing at the Defense Services Museum in the capital of Naypyitaw, Myanmar Army Major General Tun Tun Nyi said operations against the NSCN-K and the other India-based insurgent groups it was sheltering would continue. The NSCN-K had earlier claimed in a press release on 27 May that a “war like situation” had been created in the Naga inhabited region as a result of the “joint political and military operation” by Myanmar and India, which it claimed has also violated the ceasefire ground rules. It said that while the NSCN-K had exercised “extreme restraint”, it had refused to sign Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) since it was “alien” to the Nagas. The spokesperson of the Myanmar military Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun had responded by telling the media that the army would not relent against the NSCN-K unless the outfit abided by three conditions – accept the NCA, uphold the principles stated in the bilateral agreement, and stop supporting rebels from India’s Assam and Manipur states. “First of all, they must not allow rebels who are fighting with the neighbour (India) to stay with them. They need to honestly take the NCA path and follow its principles”, he said.
As an insurgent outfit, the NSCN-K had been able to punch much above its weight by virtue of the compounded military strength, and equally importantly the finances, that its policy of harbouring a potpourri of northeast Indian insurgent groups had been generating for it. These groups, in return for the shelter they were provided, were required by the NSCN-K to shell out money, weapons and ammunition to it at regular intervals as well as agree to assist each other in times of crisis. Only about 400,000 of the approximate total of 3.5 million Nagas live in Myanmar, the other 3 million are in India. The catchment population for recruitment by the NSCN-K, which is a group predominantly composed of Myanmar Nagas, was therefore rather thin. The NSCN-K controlled the northern areas of Sagaing Division, which is among the most impoverished and inaccessible regions in Myanmar and has a subsistence-oriented economy. The taxes collected by the outfit from the villages did not add up much, causing the outfit to increasingly rely on the finances provided by the Indian groups. Despite the benefits that the NSCN-K derived from hosting the Indian insurgents, it was, ironically, this very policy that eventually brought about its downfall. As for its client Indian insurgent groups, they are confronting a bleak and uncertain future, and their existence is on the line.
The disarray in the United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA-I), the largest of the Indian insurgent groups that were sheltering with the NSCN-K, accurately exemplifies the deleterious, even disastrous, impact that the operations of the Myanmar armed forces have had on the Indian insurgents, and the predicament that they consequently find themselves in. The ULFA-I, after being driven out by a joint India-Bhutan operation in 2003 from the bases that it had established in southern Bhutan, had moved eastward across the India-Myanmar border to set up camps on NSCN-K’s territory. In 2009, Bangladesh also clamped down on the presence and the infrastructure of the outfit on its territory. This had turned Myanmar into the ULFA’s last refuge. It not only served as a base for ULFA’s leaders and training grounds for its cadres, but also provided the outfit a geographical location from where it could launch marauding attacks into India and sneak back into the safety that the international border afforded. The border between India and Myanmar is porous and spans over 1,600 km of hilly terrain.
The Myanmar military operations have changed the ground situation completely. After the initial phase of the operation in January-end in Taga, where the NSCN-K as well as several of the Indian insurgent outfits were headquartered, militants belonging to groups from the Indian state of Manipur fled to camps located in southern Sagaing Division, which is not controlled by the NSCN-K. On the other hand, the ULFA-I and other militants from Assam escaped north to the region inhabited by the Pangmi Nagas. The Myanmar armed forces, therefore, found little trace of the Indian insurgents when it launched the second phase of the operation last month in the region inhabited by the Konyak Nagas. The ULFA-I militants are effectively trapped in their new location. To the west is the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, where troops on high alert have been positioned to apprehend militants attempting to slip in from Myanmar. Moving further north is also not an option on account of the challenging terrain and the absence of Naga villages to shelter in. The Indian government has, meanwhile, shared details, including precise locations, of these new camps with Myanmar government. As and when the Myanmar military launches the next phase of the operation into the Pangmi Naga region, the ULFA-I militants will have nowhere to run.
The media, quoting intelligence reports, has brought out that the ULFA-I cadres are facing a harrowing time inside Myanmar after the crackdown, and are even confronting starvation due to the scarcity of food in the jungles. This has caused dozens of militants to return to India and surrender to the authorities. They have provided firsthand accounts of the dire situation that ULFA-I was facing in Myanmar. They confirmed that all the eight Taga-based training camps of Indian insurgent outfits had been totally demolished by the Myanmar Army. Most of the ULFA-I cadres escaped from the training camps and hid in the jungles for weeks to protect themselves from the repeated mortar shelling by the Myanmar Army. However, a few ULFA-I militants including ‘Major’ Jyotirmoy Asom, were killed during this phase. The fleeing ULFA-I cadres also lost contact with the top leadership of the outfit, including Paresh Baruah, the commander-in-chief of ULFA-I who was not present in Taga when the Myanmar Army launched its attack. Describing the atmosphere in Myanmar as having turned hostile towards the ULFA-I and other Indian insurgent outfits, they revealed that a number of other militants were seriously contemplating surrender.
The surge in the number of militants deserting the outfit has rattled the ULFA-I leadership. Its level of desperation to check the outflow of its already considerably depleted human resources became known after the arrest of ULFA-I militant Mridul Mahanta alias Nibir Asom in Arunachal Pradesh recently. He made the shocking revelation that three ULFA-I militants, Lalit Asom, Ashwini Asom and Rhino Asom alias Rubul Moran, who had decided to surrender to Indian authorities, had been killed by their own ULFA-I colleagues on the directions of the top leadership of the outfit. Paresh Baruah later confirmed to the media that this had occurred, and was remorseless while saying that he had ordered the ‘death penalty’ to the prospective deserters.
In addition to those surrendering, a sizeable number of ULFA-I cadres fleeing Myanmar with their weapons with the intention of relocating to Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have also been arrested by Indian security forces. As the senior most police officer in Assam, Director General Kuladhar Saikia, put it, “They (ULFA-I militants) are facing pressure on both sides. Now, they cannot just sneak out of Myanmar and stay here because the moment they will do so, they will be chased down. Assam Police had stepped up its vigilance after intelligence alerts. Though it’s too early to say anything right now but it’s sure that the state police have succeeded to put a dent on ULFA (I)’s strength by nabbing several ULFA (I) militants in recent months. Many have surrendered too”.
It is, therefore, becoming increasingly clear that the best days of insurgent outfits such as ULFA-I are behind them, and they are now in the midst of a steep downward descent. Their very existence appears to be at stake. While the cadres are facing a veritable hell within Myanmar with no safe exit route in sight, the surrendered ULFA-I cadres have disclosed that Paresh Baruah has based himself in two secure hideouts at Dehong and Ruili in the Yunnan province of China. It is highly unlikely that the Chinese authorities would be unaware of Baruah’s presence on their territory.
China’s position vis-à-vis the northeast Indian insurgent groups over the years has been suspect. Senior journalist and author Bertil Lintner wrote on 12 June that “Ethnic insurgents opposed to New Delhi’s rule have maintained cross-border sanctuaries in Myanmar since the late 1960s. Previously, these rebel groups were known to trek through northern Myanmar’s rugged and mountainous terrain into China, where they historically have received guns and military training. That support first came after China and India fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962, making the two Asian powers into bitter rivals. Although China’s direct support for the groups ceased in the mid-1970s, Manipuri and Assamese rebel leaders are still given sanctuary in China’s southern Yunnan province. Beijing also maintained contacts with Naga rebel factions, including the National Socialist Council of Nagaland [or Nagalim]-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), a group comprised mainly of Nagas from India which established a presence in Thailand and traveled frequently to China”.
Security experts believe that China’s role going ahead would be crucial in determining whether outfits such as the ULFA-I survive their present crisis. Pallab Bhattacharya, a former head of the Assam police’s intelligence wing, the Special Branch, feels that after the offensive of the Myanmar Army, “the rebel groups operating in the Northeast… have no option but to look towards China for shelter”. Lintner believes that “Only time will tell how China will react”. He, however, does not discount the possibility that China may respond to the “rising India-Myanmar cooperation against the rebels” by “directly or indirectly resuming assistance to one or several of the motley crew of rebels from India’s northeast”.
India, meanwhile, will be hoping that better sense will prevail.