The Myanmar military has quietly staged a huge success along the remote western borders of the country against separatist Naga rebels and their allies originally from India’s Northeast after major operations in the last four months.
Inmates at two big establishments of the Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), called the General Headquarters (GHQ), and Second Battalion in Sagaing Division were forced to evacuate after being pounded by mortar shells.
While the GHQ was the nearest to the India-Myanmar border across Mon in Nagaland, the Second Battalion camp was located around 20 kilometers further east in the Konyak Naga region. Sources in NSCN(K) alleged that a few villages inhabited by Konyak Nagas like Chenhoyat and Niensing were also raided by the army.
The offensive by the Tatmadaw—the Myanmar military—comes more than three months after the council headquarters of NSCN(K) at Taga was occupied in January. All the camps and training facilities belonging to rebel groups from India’s Northeast (mainly the states of Assam and Manipur) located in Taga were dismantled. Thirty-six cadres including senior functionaries of the Naga outfit were detained at the army establishment in Khamti. Weeks later, five Nagas among them were jailed for violating the bilateral ceasefire agreement signed in 2012 after they were found assisting Indian insurgent groups.
On May 27, the NSCN(K) claimed 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. In a press release that also spelled out the salient points of ceasefire agreement, it said that the Naga army has exercised “extreme restraint” and refused to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement since it was “alien” to the Nagas. NSCN(K) has stuck to its demand of sovereignty for the Naga-inhabited areas of Myanmar and India.
But why did the Naga army withdraw and why was it unable to defend its base like some ethnic insurgent outfits elsewhere in Myanmar?
A Resource Crunch for the NSCN(K)
The northern areas of Sagaing Division—the region in Myanmar west of Chindwin river over which the NSCN(K) exercised control—is among the most impoverished and inaccessible zones in the country where features of modern civilization like roads, schools, and hospitals are not yet discernible. The economy is subsistence-oriented, which means that the taxes collected by the outfit from the villages do not add up to a colossal amount.
The NSCN(K) began to suffer from a severe funds crunch after it abrogated the ceasefire with the Indian government in 2015. The bulk of the revenue that came from some districts in the contiguous Indian states of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur shrunk drastically as the group was no longer allowed to operate and collect taxes.
The shaky state of the organization’s finances curtailed all chances of it erecting a large military machine like other rebel organizations in Myanmar. The NSCN(K) resorted to a system of military conscription making it mandatory for all able-bodied male and women to serve the army for at least three years. Officials called ‘Ranapiu’ and ‘Rajapiu’ are entrusted with the task of recruitment from every village.
Therefore, allowing rebel outfits from India’s Northeast to pitch their tents in the Naga domain was a shrewd tactic by the NSCN(K) to make up for its meager resources. All the outfits from Manipur were also allowed to form a coalition called Coordination Committee which was followed by another alliance named United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA), where the NSCN(K) is also a member. As a norm, all these groups had to shell out weapons and ammunition to the Nagas at regular intervals and they had also agreed to assist each other in times of crisis.
After the operation in Taga, most of the cadres from Manipur fled to the camps located in southern Sagaing Division, most of which are beyond the control of the NSCN(K). These camps continue to exist following a tacit understanding with a section of the Myanmar army who have reportedly imposed an “annual tax” on these groups. The militants from Assam headed north to the region inhabited by the Pangmi Nagas contiguous to the eastern districts of Arunachal Pradesh, where several big camps still exist.
So when the Tatmadaw launched the second phase of the operation in the Konyak Naga region, there were only a few cadres left to defend the General Headquarters and Second Battalion camp and withdrew against the advancing army. According to informed sources, large portions of these camps were already destroyed by shelling before the army occupied them.
Indian Rebel Groups Also Cornered
As many as nine separatist groups from India’s Northeast were present in Taga when this correspondent visited the region in late 2011 with varying strength at the camps. These included the anti-talks factions of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) from Assam; the rest were from Manipur.
Myanmar is the last sanctuary for all these separatist groups from India. Some among them have hideouts and investments in Bangladesh too, but no camps or training facilities. So, in all likelihood, they will avoid any confrontation with the Myanmar army as it would only provoke an offensive in the areas they are currently holed up.
The groups from Assam – the ULFA and NDFB – are also reeling under a severe financial crisis. More cadres might cross the border into India and surrender before the government if the Tatmadaw decides to extend the operation to the Pangmi Naga region. Shifting to areas further north in Sagaing Division is not an option due to the terrain and the absence of Naga villages.
The outfits from Manipur have spread out to more areas in Myanmar, which includes the contiguous Chin State with India. The Indian government has already submitted a long list of all their camps with the precise locations to the Tatmadaw. It could be a matter of time before these establishments also face the heat of operations from the army.
However, despite the grim situation in Myanmar, these groups could still carry out sporadic ambushes on Indian security forces in the country’s Northeast. The border between India and Myanmar is porous and spans a long distance of more than 1,600 kilometers of hilly terrain. A former functionary of NSCN(K) was of the view that the attack on Assam Rifles in the Indian state of Nagaland on May 25, which left two personnel dead and four injured, was a reaction against the involvement of the Indian army with the operation in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam, India.