10 June 2015

Manipur’s moment of resolution

Jun 10, 2015

Popular support for insurgencies in Northeast India has waned... With insurgent outfits split between leaders who have a foothold in India and those in Myanmar, a historic opportunity exists to bring resolution to conflicts that have lingered for decades.

Indian Army’s Special Forces taking out the militants who ambushed an Indian Army convoy in Manipur is a rare show of resolve, and a warning to those who think they are safe in hideouts in Myanmar. It changes the game completely, and opens the path for a final resolution of conflicts that are decades old.

On the day the Armymen were ambushed, there was confusion. Was the attack in which 18 Armymen died the handiwork of Meitei insurgent groups, People’s Liberation Army and United National Liberation Front? Or was it, as some reports suggested, the handiwork of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Khaplang faction, with support from other groups that are part of a new umbrella grouping of north-eastern insurgent outfits? The answers only led to harder questions.

It turned out that the ambush in Chandel district of Manipur barely 20 km from the Myanmar border was, in fact, carried out by the NSCN (K), with support from the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and Kangleipak Communist Party. The sole militant who died in the attack was identified as Raja Kamei, a member of the NSCN (K). His family claimed his body.

For years, the NSCN (K) has run its own government in what it calls eastern Nagaland, which is the Naga-inhabited area of Myanmar just across the border from India. Mr Khaplang, who heads the outfit, signed a peace deal with the Myanmar government in 2012. His outfit has been providing shelter and training to homeless militant groups from the Northeast for years. Journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya even trekked to his camps and met with him and United Liberation Front of Assam chief Paresh Baruah in 2011.

Considering that this was widely known, it is odd that little was done to secure the Myanmar border after a ceasefire with NSCN (K), that had been in force since 2001, broke in March this year. The end of the ceasefire has been followed by a number of attacks by the group, in association with other ethnic militias from the Northeast, across the region.

These militias are the rumps of popular movements that have largely run out of popular support. The ULFA, once a mighty force in Assam, is now down to one big leader — Baruah — and relatively negligible public support. The NSCN (K) represents Naga tribes of Myanmar rather than those of India, which are represented by parties in the political mainstream. Even the extremist Nagas from this side of the border are represented by leaders from Nagaland and Manipur rather than Myanmar.

Over the years, the external environment has also turned largely hostile to the militant groups. In 2003, the ULFA was decimated following coordinated military action by Bhutan and India. Then, from 2009, the Bangladesh government that had long allowed Northeast militant leaders to live comfortably on its territory, began to evict or arrest them following elections in that country in which the Awami League came to power. ULFA’s chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and Manipur insurgent group UNLF’s chief Rajkumar Meghen were among the big fish who suddenly found themselves in the net of Indian security agencies.

This left the remaining militants with only one place to go: Myanmar. Militant groups such as the NSCN (K), the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army control territory in that country. Smuggling in guns and drugs brings them revenue. The groups that control the territory also make money by training recruits of militant groups such as ULFA, KYKL and others. This accounts for Mr Khaplang’s influence.

A part of the funding for the upkeep of the militant groups comes from a certain government: the Government of India.

It is widely known, and has been known for years, that every militant group in the Northeast that has a few guns and a letterhead is able to raise “tax” money from the local population. While tribal populations of Northeast India are exempt from paying income-tax to the state coffers, the poor sods end up paying tax to numerous insurgent groups. It’s not even double taxation; the number of groups active in major towns of Manipur and Nagaland run to at least five.

Development funds are another source of revenue for militant groups. Thousands of crore of Indian taxpayer rupees are funnelled into the Northeast every year, but stories that emerge from time to time suggest that around half of it simply disappears. It is rumoured that officials of Indian security agencies and the Army also get their cuts in cash and kind. The sharing and caring goes beyond government funds.

On several occasions, Army and police personnel have been found involved in the lucrative drug trade that passes through this area. In 2012, a colonel was arrested in a case involving synthetic drugs worth `30 crore. Army trucks and men in uniform armed with military weapons have also been caught transporting tonnes of ganja. In such a situation, it can be hard to tell who is playing on which team.

The breakdown of the ceasefire with NSCN (K), which was said to be over that group’s refusal to stop hosting other Northeast insurgent groups (something it was doing all these years), happened without knowledge of the Union home minister, according to a report in this paper.

It may not have been done with malicious intent. The NSCN’s two main factions, NSCN (Isak Muivah) and NSCN (K) don’t get along. A settlement to the Naga issue that pleases everyone is simply not possible.

Whatever the reasons for the current resumption of hostilities, the situation provides a strategic opening to India to settle the issue. Popular support for insurgencies in Northeast India has waned. The desire for sovereignty from India, once commonly found everywhere, is now rare. With even insurgent outfits split between leaders who have a foothold in India and those who are now pegged to a remote corner of Myanmar, a historic opportunity exists to bring political resolutions to conflicts that have lingered for decades.

The strength of the spoilers and the capacities of the Indian state are the constraining factors. Mr Khaplang, along with others such as ULFA chief Baruah, the National Democratic Front of Bodoland’s I.K. Songbijit, and factions of Meitei insurgent outfits that are outside the country and the prospective peace deals, therefore, seem to be trying to impress upon those who would rather move on, that moving on is not possible unless they are on board. Between them, they have the capacity to cause trouble in a vast stretch of territory from north Bengal to Arunachal Pradesh.

This capacity owes a lot to the border with Myanmar being an open one. Of course, it is open in both directions; Indian Army’s Special Forces can cross it too, and this is hugely significant. India also has the option of tightening border control. The state can do itself one more favour by stemming the leakage of government funds.

The grand alliance between the insurgent groups papers over deep ethnic faultlines. The issue of leadership will bring these faultlines to the fore sooner or later.

The insurgencies in the Northeast, therefore, appear unsustainable in the medium term. There may be an uptick in incidents in the short-term. If the security forces are able to respond adequately without alienating local populations, it will be hard times for the militants. Mr Khaplang has a choice: he can keep what he’s got in Myanmar, or risk everything by bringing the fight to India.

The final resolution of conflicts in that entire belt may depend on the “big deal” between India and China. There is a lot to be gained by all if the barriers to trade and development that exist as a result of conflict in the remote reaches of Myanmar and Northeast India come down. India, China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations meet in northern Myanmar. The value of leverage from ragtag militant groups is negligible compared to the opportunity costs that accrue from lack of development. Even the profits from the drug trade and gun-running, which go to warlords of various ethnicities and their collaborators, are chickenfeed compared to the economic potential of the region.

If India and China decide it is in their interest to clear up that geography, new roads will snake through the hills. The picturesque spots where militant camps now stand might then turn into sites for tourist resorts.

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