Are Indian Separatist Rebels in the Myanmar Army’s Crosshairs?

Recent Features

Features | Security | South Asia | Southeast Asia

Are Indian Separatist Rebels in the Myanmar Army’s Crosshairs?

Is the Myanmar military taking greater interest in Indian separatist groups on its territory?

Are Indian Separatist Rebels in the Myanmar Army’s Crosshairs?
Credit: Rajeev Bhattacharyya

A few camps and training facilities belonging to separatist groups from India’s northeast have been evacuated in Myanmar’s Taga region following the deployment of army columns late last month in a development that has taken the rebel groups by surprise.

The Tatmadaw — the Myanmar military — in press releases has said that the operation was carried out between January 29 and February 1 after it was found that “some Assam and Kathe (Manipur) armed insurgent groups deploy their strengths in NSCN(K) Camp near Takar (Taga) Village in Naga Self-Administered Zone of Sagaing Region and its surrounding areas in the disguise of NSCN(K) group and may conduct military training.”

NSCN – National Socialist Council of Nagaland (K) – is a Naga outfit based in northern Sagaing Division that has an alliance with separatist groups from India’s Assam and Manipur states. The Tatmadaw also mentioned that the NSCN(K) had “violated” the agreement signed with the Sagaing region government (on April 9, 2012) and it would not allow any organization inimical to India to take shelter in the country. The releases added that eight cadres belonging to NSCN(K) and the groups from India’s Manipur were arrested besides the seizure of 15 weapons.

NSCN(K) was quick to deny the Tatmadaw’s allegation that it had violated the agreement. A central executive committee member of the organization was quoted by the media in Myanmar as saying that there was neither any armed clash nor any plan to shift the cadres to a designated area. Sources in the rebel groups have denied occupation of outposts by the military mentioned in the press release. They claimed that among those apprehended were also a few cadres belonging to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) from Assam, all of whom have been released.

Rebel Camps in Taga

The association of insurgent groups from India’s northeast with Myanmar can be traced to the late 1960s when batches from the Naga National Council (NNC) marched through the region for training and weapons in Yunnan, China. The ties were put on a firmer footing after the NSCN emerged in 1980 bringing large numbers of Naga leaders for the first time on a common platform. More outfits from India began to pitch tents across the Naga hills in Myanmar from the early 1980s, which was sustained even after the split of NSCN into the Khaplang and Isak-Muivah factions in 1988.

In 2011-12, as many as nine separatist groups from India’s Assam and Manipur were found to have a presence in Taga when this correspondent undertook a covert assignment to the region. Taga lies in the ecologically sensitive Hukwang Valley west of the Chindwin river along the border of Kachin.  It is a wide expanse of semi-forested terrain interspersed with villages settled by Pangmi Nagas from the hills.

According to an estimate, about 3,000 cadres from all the groups were stationed at the place, which has training facilities as well. They were located in a radius of 12-15 km from the NSCN(K)’s central headquarters, which consisted of only four huts. The bigger ones belonged to the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA, not to be confused with the Chinese military), both of whom are from Manipur.

All the groups have cordial ties with each other and the seven outfits from Manipur had firmed up an alliance among themselves called the Coordination Committee (Cor Com). Efforts were also on at that time to stitch a new coalition, which took shape as the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia in 2015 with four groups as its members and Cor Com offering support.

There was hardly any presence of the Myanmar army in the region, barring a couple of barracks perched atop the hills between the valley and the India-Myanmar border. It seemed that there was no danger to the camps in Taga since the ties with Tatmadaw were cordial. After the agreement of 2012, government officials had distributed solar panels and funds for construction of water reservoirs in some villages. Burmese teachers had also begun to teach the language to Naga children in the hills in makeshift classrooms across several villages.

Both the NSCN(K) and the outfits from India’s northeast are dependent on each other in Myanmar. The Naga group is poor in resources, which became more acute after it abrogated the ceasefire with the Indian government in 2015. Taxes collected from the villages in northern Sagaing Division do not yield an exorbitant amount. It is one of the most undeveloped tracts in Myanmar akin to some areas in Chin and Kachin states. Less money means a dearth of weapons and cadres who could be stationed in the camps.

Therefore, an alliance with the other groups yields certain benefits to NSCN(K). It receives weapons and also a large contingent of cadres from them whenever it is deemed necessary. On the other hand, the groups from India’s northeast have been assured of a congenial ambience at a location beyond the reach of the Indian security forces. So, it was not difficult for these squads to choose targets in India’s northeast, ambush them and then escape to the hideouts in Myanmar. On June 4, 2015, as many as 18 soldiers of the Indian army were killed in an ambush near the border in Manipur’s Chandel district by the rebel groups.

What Fueled the Current Row? 

Over the last one-and-a-half decades, the India government had repeatedly requested that the Tatmadaw dismantle the camps and training facilities of the rebel groups from its territory. India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had submitted details about the rebel camps on several occasions earlier but no action had been initiated.

The answer to Tatmadaw’s reluctance lies in the disturbed conditions in Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine states, where its army has a large deployment. Hostilities with the Nagas would have entailed diverting scarce resources to a region that lacks basic infrastructure like roads and electricity.

Some Indian government officials viewed the incident at Taga as a calculated move by Tatmadaw aimed at achieving several goals. “This is a significant and positive development as far as India is concerned,” said former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhyay. “[The] Myanmar government and army have always maintained that they do not support anti-India activities of IIGs [Indian Insurgent Groups] but action against them have been calibrated not to offend either side. It is unlikely that this will progress to a complete crackdown, but it indicates some success in military-to-military confidence building.”

Tension had erupted last year as well at Taga when the Myanmar army sought the removal of NSCN(K)’s checkpost near a Buddhist monastery. The rebel group abandoned the outpost but it interpreted the development as a tactic by Tatmadaw to usurp a slice of Naga territory.

A senior over ground functionary in Nagaland who had earlier been associated with NSCN(K) was of the view that the impending general elections in India a few months later could also have motivated New Delhi to pile pressure upon the Tatmadaw for action against the groups. “The security establishment seems to be concerned that the groups from Assam could carry out killings ahead of the elections. And this would only harm the prospects of the ruling BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party],” he said.

The Tatmadaw has also been upset with the NSCN(K) for its refusal to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). NSCN(K) delegates were observers at the third session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference between July 11 and 16 last year at Naypyitaw. Government spokesperson Zaw Htay was later quoted by the media as saying that the NSCN(K) would not be allowed to sign the NCA because of its demand for an independent homeland of the Naga-inhabited regions in Myanmar and India. Myanmar’s Constitution provides a Naga Self-Administered Zone comprising Lahe, Leshi, and Nanyun townships in Sagaing Division, but this provides for minimal autonomy.

So the incident at Taga is also a stern message to NSCN(K) that it ought to give up its demand of sovereignty, sign the NCA, and begin the process of dissociating with the rebel groups from India’s northeast. There is too much evidence about the presence of the Indian groups in Myanmar that New Delhi has submitted — it has become an embarrassment for Naypyitaw.

Fallout of the Taga Incident

The camps and hideouts of Indian separatist insurgents in Myanmar can be classified into three broad categories: northern and southern Sagaing Division and those scattered in different parts of the country. In the northern zone, a large concentration of cadres and camps are in the Konyak and Pangmi Naga regions contiguous to the Indian states of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, which are identified as the First and Second Battalions, Council, and the general headquarters. Closest to the India-Myanmar border is the general headquarters across Nagaland’s Mon district with a large concentration of cadres from most of the groups.

The camps in south Sagaing Division that are beyond the control of NSCN(K) belong mostly to the outfits from Manipur across the border in India, which also include a few groups that had signed ceasefire agreements with the Indian government. In the third category are towns, camps, and business investments in other locations of Myanmar such as in Chin and Rakhine states. A press release issued on February 3 by the Tatmadaw also reveals a raid last year in Chin state on a camp of the Manipur People’s Army (the armed wing of the UNLF), which resulted in the seizure of a small quantity of weapons, badges, and tools.

Among all the rebel outfits, the PLA and the UNLF have succeeded more in branching out to other states of Myanmar in the last three decades. As such, these groups have a better chance to survive for a longer duration in the country than the others although it is difficult to say if they would be able to intensify the separatist campaign in India’s northeast.

Smaller organizations like the anti-talks faction of the ULFA, the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), or the Progressive faction of People’s Republican Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK-Progressive) could be the worst affected if Tatmadaw decides to further tighten the screws on their camps in the near future.

Sources in NSCN(K) revealed that instructions have been issued to all the groups to avoid a confrontation with the Myanmar army since it was necessary to ensure that the camps in the hills are left untouched for the time being. They indicated that rebel cadres withdrawing from Taga would be accommodated across the camps in the hills while more Naga functionaries would be stationed in the valley.

In retrospect, given the existing circumstances in the country it is unlikely that the Tatmadaw would launch a full-scale offensive against the camps in the hills immediately or even make efforts to eliminate the presence of the groups from other regions. More attacks in the Indian northeast would undoubtedly spur New Delhi to push the Tatmadaw for more action, which could render NSCN(K)’s position vulnerable.

Insurgency-related incidents have registered a decline in India’s northeast in the past decade or so and it remains to be seen if the groups would be able to sustain the campaign. The presence of the Indian separatist groups in Myanmar also does not appear to serve the long-term interests of Tatmadaw. The chances are bright that it would focus more on the Naga-inhabited areas after the conflicts subside in the other states.

Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam, India.