For the past several years, the Indian media has published news reports intermittently about China’s covert support to the chief of the armed wing of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA – Anti Talks), which is a banned separatist rebel outfit in the frontier regions of the India’s Northeast.
Some have speculated that ULFA chief Parash Baruah lives in and operates from Ruili in China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. He is one of the most wanted men in both India and neighboring Bangladesh, where he has been awarded a death sentence along with other politicians and government officials for their role in the infamous Chittagong Arms Haul.
Corroboration about his presence in Yunnan has emerged from different sources in the last couple of years, which include statements by surrendered ULFA functionaries and inputs received by Indian intelligence agencies.
“China is keeping and creating various options for dealing with India, particularly when the latter is now more forthcoming about its geopolitical interests in the Indo-Pacific region. It suits China to keep India strategically imbalanced without taking an overtly hostile stance against it. Deniable covert support to Paresh Baruah fits into that pattern,” says Brigadier (Retd) Rumel Dahiya, who was also deputy director of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, a Delhi-based government think tank. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and proposed China-Myanmar Economic Corridor “complement that larger design,” he adds.
In 2016, a journalist from Assam, Chaya Moni Bhuyan, reached Ruili to interview the chief. She claims to have walked for a few hours before meeting him at a guesthouse where other ULFA functionaries were present. The interview was broadcast at Newslive, where she is employed.
Then, last year, Baruah told The Week in an interview that he enjoyed “cordial” ties with China. The weekly magazine even uploaded the recorded conversation on its portal after the chief issued a press release denying that he had said anything about China.
The ULFA’s Links With China
The origin of the ULFA’s connection with China goes back to the late 1980s, when the group’s second batch was sojourning in Kachin for training and procurement of weapons. For a brief while, Baruah interacted with some government officials and arms dealers at Ruili, which could not be sustained. The existence of an agency named Blackhouse in Yunnan has been referred to by surrendered ULFA cadres who were present in Kachin with Baruah. But the Chinese were certainly not willing to provide overt support to rebel groups from India’s Northeast in the 1960s and 1970s.
At the same time, China had arranged for the training of Manipur’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Myanmar with the assistance of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which was unraveled by Bertil Lintner during his research. The same facilities were availed by the ULFA between 1987 and 1990 in Kachin, although China may not have had any role in this episode.
The next phase came early in 1995, when Baruah managed to get in touch with retired officials of China’s ordnance unit, North Industries Corporation (NORINCO), possibly with the assistance of Pakistan’s external intelligence wing, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), to firm up an arms deal. The consignment was delivered at Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, and the arms were ferried to India’s Northeast and the outfit’s camps in Bhutan through multiple routes.
Weapons from China continued to be delivered frequently to the ULFA and other insurgent groups in the region. This was not a policy aimed at arming only the insurgent groups from India’s Northeast; Chinese weapons have also been purchased by the Taliban and the Maoists when they were waging war against the government in Nepal. Interviews with insurgents in India’s Northeast suggest that access to the grey market of weapons in Yunnan was feasible through agencies set up either by retired personnel of the People’s Liberation Army or NORINCO.
For the ULFA, the next important episode came in 2008 when Baruah met leaders of the Myanmar-based United Wa State Army (UWSA) with a request for assistance. UWSA is among the biggest rebel groups in Myanmar, active in a large swathe of the country’s border with China in Shan State.
Baruah was examining various options for a safer place to operate from for two reasons. He was in Bangladesh but the army-backed regime in the country had firmed up plans to hold elections. He correctly surmised that the pro-India Awami League would sweep the polls and it would crack the whip on all the separatist groups from India’s Northeast residing in the country.
The crackdown did begin in Bangladesh, but Baruah was warned by his contacts in the government, which enabled him to board a flight and escape sometime in the second week of April in 2009. The rest of the ULFA’s leaders were apprehended from different regions in Bangladesh and handed over to India.
When this correspondent interviewed the chief in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division in 2011, the buzz in the ULFA camp was that he would travel a long distance from Yunnan through Myanmar’s Shan State in a journey spanning at least a week.
Why Is Baruah’s Shelter in China?
Contrary to the popular perception among some sections of people in India, it is unlikely that China could be planning to repeat the 1962 war or grab India’s disturbed Northeast. Many observers agree that its interests rather lie in gaining greater access to the huge Indian market and perhaps the Kolkata port.
China has an old policy of giving shelter to and remaining in touch with rebel leaders from neighboring countries. The best example comes from the erstwhile Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and its leaders, including Thakin Ba Thein Tin, who were allowed to settle in Yunnan even after the outfit was disbanded in 1989. So far as the ULFA’s chief is concerned, there are other reasons that have motivated China to draw close to him.
A retired official of the India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), claimed that Baruah and some other rebel functionaries from India’s Northeast are the “eyes and ears” of the Chinese government in the region. “They could also be utilized for a variety of purposes including spying and subversive activities if the need arises. These militant leaders are also active in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division which is another reason why China would continue to have links with them.”
Myanmar could fulfill a wide range of geopolitical goals for China and it certainly does not want a greater presence of India or the United States in Myanmar. But India has already invested funds in Sagaing Division for development and other projects in the country and it also has the Act East Policy focusing on Myanmar.
That China is closely monitoring developments in Sagaing Division was evidenced when two officials believed to be from the military intelligence department landed at the ULFA camp in Taga in 2011. One of the ULFA functionaries present at the camp revealed details of the episode to this correspondent after coming over ground. The incident was also reported in The Irrawaddy on June 30, 2015.
There is also reason to believe that China might have explored the possibility of motivating the Indian separatist groups in Myanmar to form a government-in-exile with the Naga separatists similar to the Tibetans’ in India. Baruah sounded confident after a few rounds of discussions with the other outfits. The effort fizzled out following opposition by some groups from Manipur (a state in India’s Northeast), who were reluctant to accept Baruah’s lead role in the endeavor.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a senior journalist in Assam, India.