The Modi government has been quietly but firmly working to root out militancy from the troubled North East with armies of India and Myanmar joining forces to flush out insurgents who had set up camps in Myanmar.
The grand design is to eliminate insurgency, which has been impeding the Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy, and create a favourable ground to take it forward.
Far removed from the glare of the media, the Narendra Modi government has been quietly but firmly working to root out militancy from the troubled North-East India. Since early this year, the armies of India and Myanmar have been conducting coordinated operations to flush out members of outfits that had set up camps in Myanmar from that country.
Myanmar had, over the past one and half decades, become the last refuge of the militants. It was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that got the Royal Bhutan Army to conduct Operation All Clear to eliminate and drive away militants of the North East camping in that country from December 2003 to January 2004.
It was also the Vajpayee government that got the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh to move against militants belonging to various outfits of the North East who had been provided shelter in that country. As a result, the backbone of many outfits, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), was broken and many of their top cadres were arrested and handed over to India. Myanmar was thus the last refuge of the surviving militants of the North East.
Soon after coming to power in 2014, the Modi government started working very closely with Myanmar to deny the safe havens that militants of North East India were enjoying in the neighbouring country. As a result, the Myanmar army, called the ‘Tatmadaw’, has started carrying out operations against the North East rebels based in that country since early this year.
The Indian Army and the paramilitary Assam Rifles have strengthened the security grid in Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh to apprehend militants, who are sneaking in to India. The Indian Army and special forces have also been rendering assistance to the Tatmadaw — sharing intelligence and satellite imagery, providing training and even military hardware like drones — to track down and flush out the North East militants.
Targeting The NSCN(K)
The Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (or NSCN-K) had been operating out of Myanmar for many years now. That’s mainly because most of the cadres of this faction are Burmese Nagas inhabiting the northern part of Myanmar’s northwestern Sagaing division on the eastern part of Chindwin river (see map) and the NSCN-K is perceived to be representing the interests of the Burmese Nagas. The Taga area of this region is where the NSCN(K) cadres were concentrated. This area adjoins the border town of Moreh in Manipur and is about 60 kilometres away from Moreh.
The NSCN-K unilaterally abrogated its ceasefire with India in mid-2015 and followed it up with an attack on an Indian Army convoy that left 18 soldiers dead and many seriously injured. Indian Army’s Special Forces launched a surgical strike on two NSCN(K) camps inside Myanmar, inflicting heavy casualties on the rebels. Since then, the pressure on the rebels has been unrelenting, say senior army officers.
The NSCN(K), which had entered into a separate ceasefire agreement with the Sagaing regional government in April 2012, had been harbouring cadres, including the topmost ones, of at least nine militant outfits of the North East. These are the United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I), the Songbijit-led faction of the National Democratic Front Of Bodoland (NDFB-S), the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), the People's Democratic Council of Karbi Longri (PDCK), and the Manipuri militant outfits like the People's Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA), the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF). The NSCN(K) encouraged the Manipuri outfits to come under a common umbrella called Coordination Committee (CorCom) in mid-2011. The coming together of the Manipuri outfits on a common platform led to a spurt in militancy in that state.
The NSCN(K) also birthed the United National Liberation Front of Western South-East Asia comprising various rebel outfits of the North East. This umbrella outfit carried out many attacks on Indian security forces and was involved in many crimes, including largescale extortions. After 2015, when the Indian security forces cracked down on NSCN(K) and other rebel outfits, they shifted almost wholescale to areas in Sagaing division of Myanmar that were under the control of the NSCN(K).
“That region is extremely poor and backward, and people depend on subsistence agriculture. There is barely any development activity and, till last year, the writ of the Myanmar state and its Tatmadaw (armed forces) did not extend to the remote and forested region. Thus, the NSCN(K) could not raise much taxes to sustain itself there.
Therefore, it started providing shelter to other outfits of the region in the areas in Myanmar under its control. In exchange for this shelter, the other outfits had to pay substantial sums of money and ammunition to the NSCN(K). The NSCN(K) also forged an understanding among all these outfits to help each other in times of trouble,” said a senior army officer stationed at a mountain division headquarters in Leimakhong in Imphal Valley of Manipur.
“Immediately after that attack on our convoy in Manipur, we decided to strike hard against the NSCN(K). Striking against the NSCN(K) was akin to pulling a dog by its tail — you pull the tail and whole torso will come out. And that is exactly what has been happening,” said another senior officer at the Indian Army’s Eastern Command headquarters in Kolkata.
Without the patronage and protection of the NSCN(K), the other rebel outfits are now extremely vulnerable. Many, especially of the ULFA(I) and the NDFB(S), have entered India and surrendered while a number of those that have remained in Myanmar have been killed or taken into custody by the Tatmadaw. Intelligence reports say that a number of them are missing, presumed dead due to disease and attacks by wild animals, including from snakebites, in the dense forests they have been forced to escape to.
Acting Tough Against Rebels
Soon after coming to power in 2014, the Modi government opened channels of communication with the Myanmarese authorities, including the Tatmadaw, with the objective of getting that country to eliminate rebels from North East India who had established camps in the neighbouring country. A number of senior officials, including National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, and top Indian Army generals, visited Myanmar and also hosted senior Tatmadaw officers.
“The objective was to forge an understanding with the Myanmarese authorities and convince the Tatmadaw that cracking down on North East rebels in their territory was in their long-term interests. We also made attractive offers of help, including monetary help to buy weapons, to them,” said a senior Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) bureaucrat. who was part of the outreach to Myanmar.
“The Tatmadaw had little control over the areas in Sagaing division, which were inhabited by the Nagas of Myanmar. It was the NSCN(K) whose undisputed writ ran in those areas. The Tatmadaw lacked resources, intelligence and the motivation to establish control over those areas. It was more concerned with its own insurgent groups like the Kachin Independence Army. So we started working with the Tatmadaw and signed a protocol with it.
Under this protocol, we provided specialised training to some groups of its soldiers in counter-insurgency operations, provided sophisticated arms and other equipment like night-vision glasses and hand-held thermal imagers to them. We also started providing them with real-time intelligence on the location of rebel camps and movement of rebel cadres. We started sharing satellite imagery with them. And we motivated them to launch operations to bring areas held by the NSCN(K) under its own control,” said the Kolkata-based army officer.
After the NSCN(K) abrogated the ceasefire with India in 2015, interactions between the armies and intelligence establishments of the two countries was stepped up. “It was a lot of work and the Tatmadaw required some hard convincing to act against the NSCN(K),” said the army officer at Leimakhong. The attack on an army convoy in Chandel in Manipur that left 18 soldiers dead triggered a surgical strike by Indian Army’s special forces at two NSCN(K) camps inside Myanmar that left many rebels dead. But the publicity given to that successful strike angered Myanmar, and India had to work hard to smoothen ruffled feathers in that country.
“We learnt our lessons from that and have, since then, acting in close coordination with the Tatmadaw. And since early this year, the Tatmadaw has carried out a series of operations against the NSCN(K) and other rebel outfits of North East India sheltered in Sagaing largely on its own, but on the basis of vital inputs like satellite images provided by us,” said an Indian Army Brigadier, currently on deputation to the Assam Rifles. He has been closely involved in coordinated operations with the Tatmadaw. It is largely the Assam Rifles that guards the 1,600 km long Indo-Myanmar border.
This border is unfenced and, hence, very porous. But the thick and inhospitable forests inhabited by wild animals on both sides of the border deter easy cross-border movement by humans. “The rebels cross the border through some well-worn tracks. We now know all these tracks and since last year end, have mounted constant vigil over these tracks. As a result, we have been able to apprehend some rebels and prevented easy infiltration into India for the rest,” said the Brigadier.
Most of the movement of the rebels used to take place through Moreh, on old trading town along the international border. It takes about a day to reach Taga (in Sagaing), where the NSCN(K) had a large base, from Moreh on foot through the forest tracks.
In January this year, the Tatmadaw took control of the NSCN(K) council headquarters at Taga. About 400 Myanmarese soldiers led by Hkamti District tactical commander under the Tatmadaw’s North Western Command took control of the outfit’s council headquarters (HQ) that is located near Nanyun township in northern Sagaing east of Arunachal Pradesh (see map).
In June this year, the two armies carried out coordinated operations against rebels of both countries who had taken shelter in each others’ territories. The NSCN(K) general HQs and the HQ of the outfit’s 2nd Battalion was attacked and destroyed by the Tatmadaw in May this year.
The Tatmadaw also destroyed camps belonging to the ULFA(I), NDFB(S), KLO and the Manipuri outfits. Nearly three dozen cadres of the NSCN(K), and an unspecified number (Indian Army sources say more than 50) of militants of other outfits, have been detained and jailed in Myanmar.
The Tatmadaw has accused the NSCN(K) of violating the terms of the 2012 ceasefire the outfit signed with the Sagaing authorities by providing shelter to other militant outfits from North East India. The 2012 ceasefire agreement specifically prohibits the NSCN(K) from sheltering or aiding militants of any other insurgent outfit.
At The Border
The border town of Moreh, which serves as the headquarters of an Assam Rifles battalion, is a hub of activity. Apart from traders from both countries buying and selling their wares, there is a significant presence of men in uniform armed with sophisticated assault rifles and small arms keeping a hawk-eyed vigil on all civilians. Within the headquarters, the oppressive July humidity is laden with the crackle of walkie-talkies and high-frequency wireless transmitters.
“We are in constant touch with our counterparts across the border. We provide real-time satellite imagery to them,” says the Brigadier, whose designation in the Assam Rifles is that of a sector commander or DIG.
Drones are used frequently to track down militants and to locate their hideouts. And cameras equipped with night-vision capability are positioned at strategic places along the International Border.
“We have stepped up interaction with locals and have won them over. So we are getting a lot of valuable intelligence from them. Now, they come to us freely to provide us with information. They no longer help the rebels since they have lost the fear of the rebels due to the round-the-clock protection we provide to them. This has been possible with the induction of more troops,” said the Brigadier.
Unofficially, officers and men of the two armies cross over to each other's territories (with prior intimation, of course) to hold coordination meetings and exchange information. The bonhomie between the Indian Army and Assam Rifles with the Tatmadaw is apparent.
“We have even got very well acquainted with Myanmarese police officers posted in many areas along the border. We have been engaged in capacity-building for the Myanmarese security forces and they are extremely happy and grateful for that,” said the army officer at Leimakhong.
The operations room at the Assam Rifles battalion HQs looks like a war room with detailed contour maps not only of the Indian side, but also of areas deep inside Myanmar. All are marked with pinheads of various colours demarcating existing and destroyed camps of the NSCN(K) and other North East rebel outfits.
Officers frequently pore over those maps to plan coordinated operations or mark positions based on latest satellite images and footage from drones. High-tech communications systems help the officers maintain easy and instant links with the headquarters at Leimakhong and with their counterparts in Myanmar.
Indian Army officers say that the ULFA(I), NDFB(S), KLO and the Manipuri outfits have been rendered quite impotent.
“Myanmar was their last refuge and with their safe havens in that country destroyed, they are no longer potent. We have strengthened the security grids in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, and so even if they manage to return to their states undetected, they will not be able to operate there. These outfits are now fighting for their last breath and it is only a matter of time before they are completely defanged and neutralised,” said the officer stationed at the Eastern Command HQs in Kolkata.
Many ULFA(I) militants have surrendered and some have been shot dead by their fellow cadres while trying to escape their camps in Myanmar. The surviving ones have fled north to the areas contiguous to eastern Arunachal Pradesh inhabited by the Pangmi Nagas.
The surviving rebels of the Manipuri outfits fled from Taga to southern Sagaing bordering Manipur. But their infiltration into India will be very difficult, say army officers. The strategy is to prevent them from entering India and make them face the consequences in Myanmar. This time, the India Army is averse to taking prisoners or allowing the rebels to surrender. “These surrendered cadres pose problems later on,” said one army officer.
As for the NSCN(K), it is under tremendous pressure exerted by the Tatmadaw to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and fall in line. The Tatmadaw has made it clear to the NSCN(K) that it will have to sign the NCA, surrender its arms, move its cadres to designated camps guarded by the Myanmarese security forces, and sever all contacts with other rebel groups of North East India. The consequences of sheltering and helping rebels of other North East outfits will be grave, the NSCN(K) leadership has been told in no uncertain terms.
The grand design in all this is to eliminate insurgency and create a favourable ground to take the Modi government’s ‘Act East’ policy forward. The implementation of this policy was being impeded by insurgency in the region.