Kolkata, Jan 11 (PTI): Security experts believe a resurgence in militant attacks, which have rocked India’s northeast in recent months, have come about as militants work to regroup in China’s borderlands with Myanmar, and expect more to follow even as elections to Manipur and peace talks in Nagaland are held.
Naga splinter groups impatient with stalled talks as well as rebel Manipuri groups who have a stake in disrupting upcoming elections to the state assembly, are believed to be regrouping in the borderlands of China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar, taking advantage of the turmoil in the latter by using it as a transit corridor.
“There is a China angle to the resurgence of militancy. Several groups have people in China,” Maj Gen Bhabani S Das, former inspector general of Assam Rifles, told PTI.
Groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (I), People’s Liberation Army of Manipur and splinter factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (K) who are against peace talks, are believed to be regrouping in the borderland.
Said Sanjiv Krishan Sood, retired additional director general of BSF, an expert on northeast militancy: “While the China factor cannot be ignored, we have to look at the fact that many Nagas have become restless because of unsettled issues in the peace talks, and Manipuri insurgents would like to interfere in the upcoming assembly polls.”
Recent terror attack incidents in Manipur are seen as part of the fireworks, which may accompany the democratic process.
Groups, who often have disparate goals, have collaborated in launching spectacular attacks, including an ambush on an Assam Rifles convoy killing a Colonel, his wife, son and four riflemen in a hail of gunfire and bomb detonations on November 13 last year in Churachandpur district of Manipur.
Two groups – the PLA, a Meitei outfit that wants an independent Manipur and Manipur Naga People’s Front, which claims to represent the interests of Nagas in Manipur – collaborated to launch the attack, marked for its precise intelligence and planning in a hitherto peaceful area.
“Usually, Meitei groups and Nagas have differing and at times inimical objectives and do not come together (though PLA did receive its initial training from the NSCN in north Myanmar in the 1980s)… the only link is that they shelter and buy arms in China’s Kunming,” pointed out Shantanu Mukherjee, IPS (Retd), a security analyst who has been national security advisor to Mauritius.
A bomb attack on another Assam Rifles patrol nearer Imphal, the Manipur capital, is being seen as a sign of daring and growing strength.
Paresh Barua, a self-styled leader of the ULFA(I) who was earlier reported hiding in Ruili, a Chinese town bordering Myanmar, is believed to have relocated deeper inside the Kunming province of China. Most rebel groups in the northeast have long had links with Kunming.
The Naga rebellion, which broke out in the 1950s, received Chinese aid in the form of training and modern arms including mortars and machine guns from 1967-1976. That collaboration ended with the death of China’s supremo Mao Zedong. Most of those who were China-trained are in senior positions or have retired from militancy by now.
Other rebel groups followed the same path or went over to East Pakistan and later Bangladesh to be supported by Pakistan’s ISI. With the Bangladesh route plugged by the Sheikh Hasina government, which is following a policy of zero tolerance towards northeastern rebel groups, the best bet for most active rebel groups in the northeast remains China via Myanmar.
“Rebel groups have been trekking to China to buy arms from the grey market in Kunming as well to trade in narcotics in those borderlands of China, Myanmar and Thailand to fund their activities for many years,” retired Maj Gen Biswajit Chakravarty, with long years of experience in counter-insurgency and intelligence in the eastern command, told PTI.
While China “does not directly get involved in training and supplies anymore”, travel, stay and purchase in the grey market in Kunming in a strictly controlled regime like China cannot happen without a ‘nod and a wink’ from Chinese intelligence, feels Chakravarty.
An assessment shared by most security analysts point to Barua being sheltered in Yunnan and visits by Chinese intelligence officers to rebel camps in Myanmar.
Myanmar-based camps of most rebel groups were rooted out in a joint operation in 2019, when after years of denial, the Myanmar Army wiped out camps of the ULFA(I), Naga and Manipuri groups including a major rebel stronghold at Taga in Sagaing Region, in north-west Myanmar.
However, rebel camps or rather hutments have again started cropping up taking advantage of the turmoil in the region, where the Myanmarese Army after a coup has taken over and is busy fighting not only its old adversaries – Myanmarese tribal insurgencies – but also pro-democracy forces.
“Myanmar Army is either not in control or has ineffective control over its borderlands,” said Chakravarty. For Myanmar, the presence of India’s Naga rebels is an added headache as the Greater Nagalim, which some of them want, include large tracts in north Myanmar, too.
The densely forested border itself remains porous and existing rules, which allow citizens of both countries to travel to the other up to 10 kms with headloads, make it easy to cross the border unchallenged.
“Naga peace talks have more or less failed and we can expect trouble with smaller groups who feel that not much has been gained,” said Mukherjee. Talks with Indian interlocutors have faltered over the issue of Greater Nagalim or areas in other states where Nagas live being transferred to Nagaland, the question of a Naga flag and a chapter in the Indian constitution on Nagaland.
Added to that is the issue of withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives extra-judicial powers to the Army, which have come to the fore after 14 civilians were killed and 11 injured in three separate incidents of firing by security forces spread over two days last month, the first of which was possibly a case of mistaken identity.
“The Naga (final) accord requires careful deliberation… we need to get the groups on board and win their confidence for a solution within the constitutional parameters.
“Operational errors in counter insurgency, if any, should be addressed with transparency,” said Maj Gen Das.
The problem, experts point out, is that while the main rebel group NSCN(IM) is living in camps within India under the watchful eyes of security agencies, splinter groups of hotheads are still running loose in the borderlands, and could be easily welded by inimical intelligence agencies into another formidable threat for India.
Last October, in a signed article in China’s Global Times, Long Xingchun, president of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs, run by the Chinese government, wrote ominously: “If India takes the move to support ‘Taiwan independence’, China has every reason to support separatist forces in northeast Indian states.”