The presence of the United Liberation Front of Asom and the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur along the frontier is evidence of the shrinking space for the groups to hide and set up camps.
Guwahati: Separatist rebels from India’s Northeast have a new address in a remote zone along the Sino-Myanmar frontier, considered to be beyond the effective control of any government.
At least two outfits – the anti-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA) – have established camps in the mountainous region of Shan State in Myanmar bordering China’s Yunnan province.
The presence of the rebels in the region was confirmed last month when Paresh Baruah, ULFA’s chief of staff and one of the most wanted men in India, was interviewed by Chaya Moni Bhuyan, a journalist working with a local TV news channel in Assam at an undisclosed location near the hideout.
Video footage of the interview showed Baruah speaking to the reporter in a cozy room. Most of his statements were a repetition of his earlier stance on various issues but the conversation was interesting enough to keep viewers in Assam glued to their TV screens. Baruah reiterated that talks with the Indian government would be possible only if Assam’s “sovereignty” was accepted as the “core issue” of discussion.
Chaya Moni has since been quizzed by the Special Branch of Assam Police on her travel details and the location of the interview.
“The reporter went to the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan. She traveled in the southern direction towards the Sino-Myanmar border to meet the rebel leader where she was also provided with lodging facilities,” an official said, adding, “The reporter was not taken to the chief’s residence, which is believed to be some distance away from the location where the interview took place.”
A history of activity along the Sino-Myanmar border
Over the past several years, all of India’s intelligence agencies – the Research & Analysis Wing, Intelligence Bureau and Military Intelligence – have compiled a spate of reports on the activities of the militants at certain regions along the Sino-Myanmar border, their relationship with the Chinese intelligence agencies and the movements of Baruah. In 2011, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, formerly director of the Intelligence Bureau, briefly mentioned the links forged by the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim with Chinese intelligence agencies, on the website of the Vivekananda International Foundation. He added that an 80-member squad of the ULFA was trained at Ruili in Yunnan and equipped with “substantial quantities of weapons”.
While it is true that Chinese intelligence has renewed links with a few rebel leaders and weapons have been sourced from Yunnan in the grey market, it is doubtful if ULFA cadres have been trained in Chinese territory as they were in the 1960s and ’70s, with several of the batches belonging to the Naga National Council, Mizo National Front and the PLA. After the ULFA’s bases were eliminated in Bhutan and Bangladesh, almost all its subsequent batches were trained in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region, contiguous to the eastern districts of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
Four years ago, in 2012, this correspondent interviewed Baruah at a camp in Myanmar’s Hukwang Valley bordering the conflict-ridden Kachin State. The chief’s current hideout, however, where he stays most of the time, appears to be hundreds of kilometres away, across the Chindwin river, in the country’s troubled Shan State bordering China. He usually stays at the camp in the valley for a few weeks every year in order to hold meetings.
According to former ULFA functionaries, the outfit’s tryst with Shan State can be traced back to 1988, months after the first batch of cadres landed in Kachin for training. “Baruah and a few others also visited the contiguous Yunnan province in China in their quest for weapons and explosives, but without success. Ultimately, we had to bring back to Assam a few rifles and pistols provided by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), under whom we were trained in the art of guerrilla warfare,” said an overground middle-rung cadre who had been trained in Myanmar.
Shan State had been simmering with turmoil from the late 1960s, after the China-backed Communist Party of Burma (CPB) began its push to establish a regime in Myanmar. In 1989, the CPB collapsed due to an internal rebellion, paving the way for the emergence of four new rebel outfits, including the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
But within a few months, UWSA concluded a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmarese Junta and the government recognised the territory held by this group and its political arm – United Wa State Party – in the northern Shan State with its headquarters at Pangshang. However, the UWSA is claiming a larger area to be carved out as an autonomous Wa State and refused to sign, in 2015, the nationwide ceasefire with the government.
The region under control of the UWSA is also beyond the control of the Myanmarese government and the army. The situation is similar to the northern Sagain Region where Naga rebel chief S.S. Khaplang holds sway as the chief of the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) and where camps of the separatist militant outfits, including the ULFA and PLA, are located.
The UWSA is known globally more for its involvement in the drug trade and production of heroin and methamphetamine. The US blacklisted the organisation in 2013, but the production of the drugs has only increased over the years. It is believed that a high percentage of the drugs and weapons that find their way into the Northeast have their origin in the Wa region of Myanmar.
According to Myanmar observers, China has sold sophisticated military hardware like armoured personnel vehicles and anti-aircraft guns to the UWSA, which has a strength of about 25,000 regular troops and thousands of reserve forces. According to Anthony Davis, Beijing’s objective was to send a message to Naypyidaw that it would not tolerate its commercial and strategic interests being jeopardised in the country (Jane’s Intelligence Review, December 2012). China was alarmed after Myanmar began to draw closer to the West, Japan and India in the past few years.
The crosscurrents of subterfuge and Naypyidaw’s lack of presence proved ideal for rebel groups from the Northeast to pitch tents in the Wa-controlled region. The PLA had been the first to set foot in the mountainous region. A handful of Manipuri cadres are also believed to have settled near the border with petty business concerns, as described by Myanmar expert Bertil Lintner in Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier. The PLA was also the first among the rebel groups in the Northeast to undergo training under the KIA.
“But ULFA’s introduction to UWSA took place only in 2008, when chief of staff Baruah expressed his desire to set up a camp before the Wa leaders. A small camp of the ULFA came up a year later at a place well-connected to Ruili and Yingjiang, across the border in China,” said a senior ULFA functionary from the pro-talks camp.
He added that ULFA Chairman Avijit Asom, who is believed to be a doctor in the UK, had also visited this camp in 2015, ahead of his meeting with NSCN-K chairman Khaplang at Taga in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division that was broadcast on a local news channel in Assam last September. “A few more members of the group’s executive council including publicity secretary Arunodoy Duhotia, Salim and Jyotish Bharali are also regular visitors. There are unconfirmed reports that other cadres who are stationed here are not allowed to leave or shift to other camps.”
The establishment of the camp along the Sino-Myanmar border and the increasing presence of militant cadres from India’s Northeast coincides with rapid changes at the rebel base in the Sagaing Division, under the control of the NSCN(K). The Naga group had concluded a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar army on April 9, 2012, resulting in the normalisation of relations between the two hostile parties.
NSCN(K) had also sent its representatives to take part in meetings last year with the government at Yangong, to explore the possibility of signing a nationwide ceasefire agreement. There are rumours that Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) might erect a military cantonment at Taga, the place I visited in 2012, where the headquarters of most insurgent outfits from the Northeast are located.
The presence of ULFA and PLA along the Sino-Myanmar border is evidence of the shrinking space for hideouts and camps for rebel groups. The establishment of training facilities along the Sino frontier region in the future cannot be ruled out, but it is a far-off location from the theatre of action in the Northeast. A journey from this camp to the entry points along the Indo-Myanmar border takes at least four weeks, and means crossing the Chindwin river and traversing inhospitable mountainous regions through the Sagaing Region.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Guwahati and author of Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men.