In pursuit of Arakan separatists, NSCN-K and other militant outfits from the region are feeling the heat, but for how long?
Guwahati: Many theories have been spun in the media regarding the developments of the past couple of months leading to the seizure of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) headquarters in Myanmar’s Taga region and also the arrest of a few of its cadres and also that of other insurgent groups from Northeast India. Could this be a special operation mounted against NSCN-K, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and Manipuri armed extremist outfits with a renewed pressure from India? Or is it merely a case of “getting caught in the middle” of a bigger battle between two opposing forces?
It can be said without an iota of doubt that New Delhi has been increasingly involved in convincing Myanmar and its military establishment to crack down on rebels from Northeast India operating from Myanmarese soil for over four decades. The push for improving diplomatic ties with Myanmar, increasing military-to-military exercises and heightened security related discussions between New Delhi and Naypyidaw are some of the indicators of the seriousness with which both countries view the challenges posed by armed rebellions and insurgencies in their soils.
But, even as the bilateral negotiations continue to happen between India and Myanmar and intelligence is shared about activities of insurgent groups inside Myanmarese soil, the recent crackdown on the NSCN-K and the other Northeast extremists is both coincidental and a planned foray by the Myanmarese military.
Though, much as this may sound like a semantic jugglery, this perhaps best sums up the situation. The Tatmadaw’s (as the Burmese army is called) primary target was the Rakhine rebel group — the Arakan Army (AA) against which it has launched a fresh offensive after clashes broke out between the two sides in late November. It could have avoided taking on the NSCN-K as it has done in the past, but the fact that Naga outfit’s base formed a strategic locale for the security operations, prompted the Myanmarese military action.
NSCN-K and northeast India rebels a serious threat to Tatmadaw?
Thus, in what started as an onslaught against the Rakhine rebel group has now opened another chapter in the Tatmadaw’s military agenda—to consider the NSCN-K as a threat to its counter-insurgency operations against the likes of the AA and even other groups such as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Han Chinese origin Kokang group-the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), which operate in these areas and use it a “safe zone” and also a thoroughfare for their movements across the northeastern and parts of northwestern areas of Myanmar across the Kachin State.
A Burmese retired military official (on condition of anonymity) had this to say: “The NSCN-K is seen as a key force that helps to replenish other armed groups of Myanmar.” It goes without saying, that the Naga outfit’s HQ in Taga near the Chindwin river under the Naga self-administered zone and other bases in Lahe and Leshi in northern Sagaing division have been used as a hideout, a training base, for logistics support and as a conduit by other rebel groups both from Myanmar and also northeast India.
The Myanmarese media too appears to be of the opinion that the Myanmarese military in its recent pursuit against the Rakhine rebel group, wants to cut off all access points, which includes the Sagaing division as it lies in between Kachin and the Chin state where most operational activities of the AA occur.
According to Ye Ni, a senior journalist and an editor of The Irrawaddy, “The Burmese military already had the intelligence inputs from its Indian counterparts of the cross-border activities of the north-east rebels and the NSCN-K and so the capture of the Naga and Kathe (Manipur rebels) and Assamese rebels is not surprising.” But the Burmese editor admitted that “it may have to do more with cornering the AA”.
The Arakan Army and its expansion
The AA which is essentially a Rakhine Buddhist rebel outfit was formed in 2009 by a group of 26 Arakanese youths in Laiza (Kachin state) on the Myanmar-China border with the help of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Today, it has a total of 7,000 trained combatants and is expanding towards the western parts of the country. The outfit revealed its ambition in 2014 to establish a stronghold in its homeland the Rakhine state and since then it has been engaged in regular skirmishes with the Myanmarese military, the latest of which saw the outfit attack the Burmese military in northern Rakhine state’s Buthidaung township killing an army major identified as, Maj. Aung Ko Nyien.
The Rakhine rebel group had killed 13 Myanmar border police officers when hundreds of its fighters attacked four border police outposts in the same township on January 4. While there have been sporadic clashes between the rebel group and the Tatmadaw soldiers since 2015, the conflict has intensified since November last. Attacks by the rebel group on the Wanatyone and Nahan villages of Buthidaung township was retaliated heavily by the Burmese military. In the clashes that followed in Buthidaung and Rathedaung townships in dearly December, both sides suffered casualties.
The clashes between the Tatmadaw and the AA was more a result of a well thought-out plan by the former to thwart attempts by the rebel group to establish its base in Pyinchuang (Buthidaung) and Yaysochaung (Rathedaung) and in Nahan and Wanatyone villages in deep northern Rakhine State. The fighting began after Tatmadaw men raided the AA controlled areas to conduct clearance operations. This was revealed to the news media by the rebel group’s spokesperson Khine Thuka soon after the clash.
The remoteness of the hilly region and the absence of proper communication in these areas has been used as an advantage by the rebel group in its fight against the Myanmarese military. The group has also set up camps in the Chin state’s Paletwa Township which is close to the Indian border across the Kaladan river. In fact, the Rakhine rebel outfit made its advance steadily and heightened its activities in Rakhine and Paletwa since the beginning of 2018.
The Irrawaddy in its 'Dateline' section (‘The causes and likely effects of Arakan Army Attacks’) claims that “around the end of 2018 the Arakan Army came down to the outskirts of four townships—Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Ponnagyun and Kyauktaw—in northern Rakhine state”.
The expansion of the Rakhine rebel group does not work well for the Tatmadaw especially in the backdrop of the clashes it has had with the Rohingya armed group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) in 2017, which saw the exodus of over 600,000 Rohingyas to neighbouring Bangladesh. The Myanmar military has in fact cited imminent threats from the ARSA as a reason for excluding the Rakhine State from a four-month long ceasefire it announced on December 21 in five military regions saying it would hold ceasefire with non-signatories of the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) during this period.
At present, eight rebel groups have signed the NCA which the Myanmarese government initiated after a quasi-civilian government was set up in 2010 under former military general Thein Sein and has continued under the current civilian government under the national League for Democracy (NLD).
However, those that have followed the Burmese conflict almost since its inception feel that the Tatmadaw simply does not want to allow the AA to settle down into a strong force. “The military is against allowing any form of expansion of the rebel group and the recent activities in areas bordering Bangladesh and India along Rakhine, China and Sagaing is an indication of that,” says Ye Ni. He is also of the view that the military “is thinking very strategically to catch the rebel group and prevent them from finding safe places with support from extremist groups in Indian or Bangladeshi soil.”
Strategic gains for India and Myanmar
Therefore, the Myanmar military’s assault on the Naga areas was “a very well thought operation”, feels Ye Ni, who believes that the extremely close and developing military relations between India and Myanmar has only augmented the process. “Relations between the Bangladesh and the Burmese military are not very good, but the relations between India and Myanmar is getting closer and closer, economically, and militarily, so surely this would have played a major part in how things have unfolded so far,” he adds.
The North Block in New Delhi would surely want to increase its leverage on the Tatmadaw and the policy thinktanks in Naypyidaw to not allow any northeast insurgent groups to operate from its soil, least of allow the NSCN-K to house rebels belonging to the ULFA, the Bodo rebels from lower Assam and those that belong to Manipur.
In fact, soon after the offensive on the NSCN-K HQ, the Tatmadaw put out a press note on its official webpage saying, that the operation was carried out based on a tip off from the Indian side. It said that all the posts of the “Kathe” (Manipuri Insurgents) and Assam were taken over in the crackdown launched on January 29 and another one between February 8 to February 19 and that the rebels were posing as members of the NSCN-K.
The release said that so far, the military has arrested six NSCN-K and six Kathe insurgents, besides seizing “79 assorted arms, ammunitions and accessories,” and that the operations would continue to prevent “unlawful armed organisations from infiltrating into Naga self-administered areas, for regional peace and stability.”
Security and strategic experts who have been covering Myanmar for some time view the Burmese military’s response as “a drastic change of approach.” Surely, the attempt is also to leverage India to help track and crackdown on AA rebels that are based along the Indian borders. According to Ye Ni the developments in Taga is a result of regular meetings between Indian and Burmese military for the past several years.” “I am sure this will be the way forward pretty much,” or what other international observers of Myanmar term as a “paradigm shift in countering not just the homegrown insurgency, but cross border as well.”
But it only remains to be seen for how long would the Tatmadaw keep control of the NSCN-K HQ. The Tatmadaw is fully aware of the fact that big players are at play in the Rakhine issue, and China is one of the many players that wields maximum influence. There are also accusations that China has backed the AA motivated by its own interests in Rakhine State. But that apart the role of China is also crucial in the peace process.
During the second 21st Century Panglong peace conference (Union peace conference) held in Naypyidaw in mid-2017 China had successfully negotiated the participation of an ethnic alliance of rebel groups from the northern parts—the Northern Alliance—comprising of KIA, the United Wa State Army and others like the TNLA, MNDAA, Shan State Progress Party, National Democratic Alliance Association of Mong La and the AA. These ethnic groups belong to the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) which are yet to sign the NCA.
Informed sources have said that China has as recently as February 25 facilitated a meeting of a Burmese government peace negotiator from Naypyidaw and representatives from the Northern Alliance and AA in Kunming. The meeting was held to apparently “sign a deed of commitment,” towards peace which maybe be a precursor to the signing of the NCA at a later stage.
In the event of a successful negotiation between the Northern Alliance and the Burmese government a halt to the offensive against the Rakhine rebels seems the most possible likelihood. This could also mean withdrawal of the military from the Naga self-administered zone. How would that hurt India’s plans to pin down the NSCN-K and other northeast rebels? Only time will tell what possible outcomes will unfold post the Kunming meeting but till then one thing is for certain, that the stranglehold of the Tatmadaw in the Naga areas would remain. For now, information has it that the message that is going out to the Nagas who are obviously upset, is not to allow “any Indian rebel groups” to stay in or operate illegally from the Naga areas.
(The author is a senior journalist who has spent most of his time working in Northeast India since 1990s and in Southeast Asia where he spent considerable time working and researching and writing on developmental politics, human rights and democratic transitions. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies in Thailand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)