Operation Sunrise: More geopolitics, less Army offensive
Guwahati: When Major Vihaan Singh Shergill (Vicky Kaushal) and his brother-in-law Karan Kashyap (Mohit Raina) attacked an NSCN (K) camp inside Myanmar in the opening sequence of the film Uri, the Surgical Strike, cine-goers across India were brought to the edge of their seats as they watched it with rapt attention. Uri, released in February, was the first of such realistic Hollywood-style battle films made on Indian Army.
Incidentally, during the same period, the Indian Army quietly launched ‘Operation Sunrise’, the biggest-ever operation against insurgents holed up across the border in Myanmar with excellent cooperation with the Myanmarese Tatmadaw.
The operation was so massive that when the Army finally decided to raise the curtain on the five-month-long military offensive, strategic think tanks across the globe immediately realised that it was more than just a joint Army operation.
It was an astute strategic geo-positioning as both Myanmar and India worked in tandem to send a message to big brother China and in the process crushed a long list of insurgent groups starting from the Arakan Army to NSCN (K) across the 1,640-km-long boundary that the two countries share.
The Indian Army carried out the first phase of 'Operation Sunrise' between February 17 and March 2, when it is said to have destroyed almost 12 camps of the Arakan Army as it was threatening to derail the much-trumpeted Kaladan project.
The Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project is viewed as India's alternative gateway to Northeast India as well whole of Southeast Asia.
"There was actionable intelligence that many of them (Arakan Army) are regrouping to attack the Kaladan project. This prompted us to share information with Myanmar leading to the joint operation," said an Indian Army official.
Although the Arakan Army was pushed back, the recent intelligence inputs say that they could still be targeting the Kaladan project and are making efforts to regroup.
The Kaladan Project
The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project is a $484-million project connecting the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine state of Myanmar by sea.
In Myanmar, it will then link Sittwe seaport to Paletwa in Chin state via the Kaladan river boat route, and then from Paletwa by road to Mizoram state in Northeast India.
The transit project will connect Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar and finally end up linking Mizoram. This will be a new gateway to the landlocked Northeast, reducing the distance from Kolkata to Mizoram by nearly a thousand kilometres bringing down the travel time by at least four days.
The Arakan Army
The Arakan Army (AA) is a Rakhine-based insurgent group in Myanmar, founded on April 10, 2009. It is the armed wing of the United League of Arakan (ULA) and is currently led by Major General Twan Mrat Naing. The purpose of the Arakan Army is to protect the Arakan people, and to establish peace, justice, freedom and development.
The AA is a participant in the Kachin conflict, fighting alongside the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) against the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Armed Forces). Most AA soldiers were initially trained at the KIA Military Academy; however, the AA has new training camps in Rakhine state.
Their objective is to obtain a federal union of democracy or the more independent confederate status like that of Wa state, the political aim of the group is to get sovereign status for Rakhine state.
The Arakan Army, an insurgent group in Myanmar, set up new bases along the Mizoram border setting alarm bells ringing in both the countries. This meant their cadres travelled hundreds of kilometres to come close to the southernmost tip of Mizoram.
Many of them moved to the south closing in on areas adjoining the Lawngtalai district of Mizoram. This is the area that cuts through the proposed Kaladan project that will link Sittwe in Myanmar to Mizoram.
The second phase of Operation Sunrise took place between May 16 and June 8.
It included blocks by two battalions of the Indian Army— along with Special Forces, Assam Rifles and infantry Ghataks— on the Indian side and four brigades of the Myanmar Army.
The military operation was coordinated between the Indian Army's 3 Corps and the North West Army Command of the Myanmar Army. From the Indian side, it was led by Lt Gen Rajeev Sirohi, commander of Dimpaur-based 3 corps. Lt Gen Sirohi has a great understanding of the region, and he, in fact, had a joint training in Myanmar.
Around 70-80 militants, who were apprehended by the Indian Army in Operation Sunshine-2, have all been handed over to local police forces. Sources said that at least seven to eight camps of the NSCN-K, NDFB, ULFA(I), KLO and NEFT in Myanmar's Sagaing region were destroyed by the Myanmar Army in mortar firing. Majority of these camps were in Hoyat, and were predominantly of the NSCN (K).
The two armies were careful not to cross over into each other's territories but established close coordination by placing liaison officers with headquarters of the other Army.
According to defence sources, the two armies took advantage of all the modern technological tools, including satellite imagery, Thuraya telephones, UAV sweeps and aerial surveillance through helicopters.
Extensive joint aerial surveillance was also carried out by the two armies before the operation, which also included coordination visits by top Army officers of both sides, sources explained.
In fact, so secretive the operation was that first information came through a press statement from NSCN(K) on May 27 when it described a war-like situation and two soldiers of Assam Rifles were killed in Mon district. The soldiers were shot to limit the pressure of the Army inside Myanmar.
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 kilometres 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.
In fact, the NSCN-K shared the camp with militants from the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and other rebel outfits from. On June 3, during a press briefing at the Defence Services Museum in the capital of Naypyitaw, Myanmar army Major General Tun Tun Nyi said operations will continue against the NSCN-K and the other India-based insurgent groups it is sheltering.
However, the Army of both sides played defensive and used long distance heavy artilleries to destroy the camp rather than hand to hand combat. The very idea was to destroy the field and send a general feeling that the camps are not tolerated inside Myanmar anymore.
Geopolitics of Myanmar, China and India
The use of artillery, sharing of intelligence, operation in tandem by both the armies clearly signifies that it was more of geopolitics where India becomes the willing counterbalance of China for Myanmar.
China has tremendous influence in Myanmar, but the country wants to re-engage with the rest of the world, especially India as during the Rohingya crisis, India stood neutral and did not join the West.
More than Myanmar, it is India which wants to have some footing with the Naypyitaw, and hence this operation has tremendous bearings in geopolitics.
China has literally built modern Myanmar, and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is bringing in more infrastructure to open up the landlocked Yunan province to the Bay of Bengal, giving huge easy access to China.
Those huge projects, including a $1 billion port project at Kyaukphyu, a high-speed rail and thousands of kilometres of pipelines, come with loans and credits which could transform Myanmar into a Chinese client state, similar to its status in the 1990s and early 2000s.
As the Western World went away after Rohingya issue, India quietly stepped in offering military assistance as well as training to Myanmar trying to build a solid foundation with Myanmar slowly.
In fact, the BJP government in Manipur is pushing hard to open up the border more. Very soon, the Imphal-Mandalay bus service is on its way and the land customs point in Myanmar side is already making visa processing easy. This has opened the floodgates for tourists from India.
That is why the Myanmar military's recent move against the Indian rebels in Sagaing should be viewed through a wider geostrategic lens, military and strategic analysts say.
Only time will tell how China will react. But as India and Myanmar's strategic interests align, China's belt and road designs for Myanmar are no longer the only big power game in town.
The NSCN-K and Myanmar bases
Now, the NSCN-K has been chased out of its main bases, and five of its top leaders have been arrested for harbouring insurgents from the Indian side of the border.
That, and the absence of any heavy fighting during and after the fall of Taga, seems to be aimed at isolating NSCN-K from its rebel allies from India — and to force them to take part in peace talks that have been held in Naypyitaw between the Myanmar army, government, and certain but not all ethnic armies.
This month, NSCN-K's spokesman Joseph Lamkang told media that his group will not sign the Myanmar government's Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and that it will continue its fight for "sovereignty" of the Nagas.
But as security cooperation between India and Myanmar is fast improving and apparently entering a potentially potent new stage, Myanmar's Nagas face increasingly uncertain prospects.
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 civilisation like roads, schools, and hospitals are still in a distant dream.
There is hardly any economy, and NSCN(K) is dependent on the tax collection on the Indian side. The NSCN(K) began to suffer from a severe funds crunch after it abrogated the ceasefire with the Indian government in 2015. That curtailed all chances of it erecting a sizeable military machine like other rebel organisations in Myanmar.
Therefore, allowing rebel outfits from India's Northeast to pitch their tents in the Naga domain was a clever tactic by the NSCN(K) to make up for its meagre 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).
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.
However, the latest report suggests that the NSCN (K) is regrouping again to take control of the lost ground, intelligence reports indicate. Security forces are taking inputs about the top leadership of NSCN (K) giving orders for reopening of the base area and council headquarters at Taga seriously.
Myanmar is the last sanctuary for all the 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 precise locations to the Tatmadaw. It could be a matter of time before these establishments also face the heat of operations from the Army.
NDFB militants escape
Following the operation in Myanmar, three cadres of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (Songibijit) NDFB (S) were apprehended by village guards of Upper Dan, Tuensang district, Nagaland. Northeastern militants have camps in Myanmar. Nagaland shares its border with Myanmar.
The three had escaped from the NDFB militant camp in Myanmar and were found disoriented and in poor physical state at the time of their apprehension along the Indo-Myanmar Border.
The three confessed that they were working as labourers in Bengaluru since 2013. However, they were contacted by a middleman named Timitigiry in Bangalore, who lured them to join NDFB (S) in 2018, asking them to fight for the Bodo cause and falsely promised good pay.
They were then taken to Assam and from there were made to cross over to Myanmar on foot via Longleng district of Nagaland. On reaching Taga camp of the outfit in Myanmar, they were used as bonded labour and employed to cultivate poppy, rice and vegetables. They were even forced to work in the coal mines owned in parts by the senior insurgent leaders.
On asking for better conditions, the three were beaten up and tied to wooden posts. Eventually, the three finally managed to flee when the Myanmar Army recently occupied Taga camp. They then travelled along jungle trails eating whatever nature provided them with. They traced their journey back to India from Taga to Dan through Nampha, Nautun, Lahe and Ponyu.
(The author is a senior journalist and writer. Views expressed are his own)