The Myanmar connection
19 June 2015
‘Rendezvous With Rebels’ explores the links between Burma and the insurgency in India’s Northeast.
Until 2011, Burma was among the few countries still veiled in secrecy. In 1962, Chief of Army Staff General Ne Win staged a coup against the elected government of U Nu, and became the head of the state as Chairman of the Revolutionary Council and prime minister. This began the army’s domineering presence in all spheres of Burmese life. The military junta’s policy of banning foreign aid organisations from the country and the imposition of autarky turned Burma into one of the poorest countries in the world. Meanwhile, the clampdown on freedom of press and travel – expelling of foreigners and restricting their visit to no more than one week – led to international isolation and Burma’s eventual downfall.
When the British withdrew in 1948, the Burmese people were quite optimistic of their country’s prospects as General Aung San had set the ball rolling for a new constitution. Aung San sought to lessen the animosity between the Bamar dominated state and the hill tribes by offering the latter a decisive say in the government. Representatives of the Kachin, Shan and Chin peoples were invited to take part in discussions which resulted in the Panglong Agreement of 1947. But a few months later the general was shot and the constitution put away in cold storage by the army. The stage was set for chaos: ethnic groups began to prepare for war; the Karens were the first to raise the banner of revolt demanding independence and soon other tribes followed. There emerged a plethora of insurgent outfits challenging the army’s rule in Burma. Among the biggest, and better organised, were the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). With active assistance from the People’s Republic of China, the CPB almost succeeded in capturing power. The junta, however, managed to push back the communists to the remote mountains. By the late 1980s, civil war had engulfed the country, with the army battling guerrillas on several fronts. Some groups had even managed to stitch a coalition among them and put up a united resistance. The state was also threatened by student protests in March 1988, which, by 8 August, turned into a nationwide uprising, known as the 8888 uprising, against Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) rule. The Tatmadaw – the Burmese army – killed over 3000 demonstrators between August and September 1988. This was the largest uprising in the history of independent Burma, until the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
But much about these wars would have been unknown had some intrepid journalists not risked their lives to sneak into the country and gather news. Among the better reported conflicts was the war in Karen country – in the South East – since it was easier for reporters to establish contact with the rebels at their office in Mae Sot in Thailand. Some journalists travelled for weeks, deep within the war ravaged territories and churned out books on their return. In 1985, a Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner ventured into Kachin and Shan territory from India and stayed in the inhospitable terrain for a staggering 18 months for research. His contribution in understanding Burma remains unparalleled.
Nevertheless there were conflicts in Burma that remained underreported. Sagaing Division – inhabited by Nagas – and Chin Province, in northern Burma, are glaring instances where insurgents had battled the state for several decades but whose stories remained largely unheard.
Speculative news about the fighting in these two regions was occasionally covered by the Indian media, especially in the dailies published in the northeastern states of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. The media there took an interest in these territories because separatist insurgent groups from the Northeast had been visiting the region since the late 1960s, thus establishing a Myanmar connection. In 1980, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was formed in Burma by Nagas living in India and Burma (a majority of Nagas live in Nagaland in India which is contiguous to Burma’s Sagaing Division). By the mid-1980s, separatist outfits from other states such as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Manipur and the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in Assam were allowed to set up camps in Burma by the Nagas. Batches of PLA and ULFA fighters would travel from these camps for further training to Kachin state under the aegis of the KIA. The ‘Myanmar Connection’ thus became the common antecedent of insurgent groups operating in the Northeast.
Much of the literature on these insurgencies follows a pattern: some are theoretical and dry academic writing crammed with jargons and weighed down by too many facts and figures; others are whimsical and fictional, merely adding to myths and half-truths. Yet others are written by retired government security personnel who, having filled their drawing rooms with medals, want to experience authorship. Here, Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men by journalist Rajeev Bhattacharyya, and published by HarperCollins, comes as a note of clarity amidst the cacophony of voices that compete desperately over claims of authenticity and originality. To begin with, this book isn’t a cliché: it is reported from the ground, where few have dared to tread, and manages to intertwine multiple narratives without being straitjacketed by pre-conceived notions.
Bhattacharyya’s book is not only an uncompromising political analysis of India’s conflict prone Northeast but also an excellent travel memoir in which the author walks almost 800 kilometres, braving the adverse terrains of Eastern Nagaland and Burma. Written in a lucid first person prose, the book, rather than chronicling daily accounts, weaves the author’s experiences anecdotally, zooming in and out, allowing personal account to coexist with history.
Bhattacharyya, an old-school journalist, believes in getting out of the comfort of air-conditioned newsrooms in the quest for stories. The book describes his nearly four month long secret assignment through the inhospitable hilly terrain inhabited by fierce Naga tribes in Sagaing Division to reach a rebel base. Starting in October 2011, Bhattacharyya, who was then the executive editor of the newly-founded English language daily in Guwahati called Seven Sisters Post, says he had a twofold objective while taking on the assignment – to gather information for a book and further his research on ‘an aspect’ of insurgency in India’s Northeast and “to churn out exclusive news stories” for his newspaper. But he kept the mission a closely guarded secret as preconditioned by the insurgent leaders he was to interview. This was a unique occurrence in Indian journalism. Very few journalists had slipped into a neighbouring country, talked to rebels and reported from the rebel bases.
The account begins with the author planning the assignment after he established contact with the ULFA Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) Paresh Baruah. Bhattacharyya, along with Pradip Gogoi, a Guwahati-based scribe, crossed the border in the Konyak Naga region on 13 October 2011 and were received by a squad of ULFA cadres a day later at a camp belonging to the Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland – NSCN (K).
Rendezvous With Rebels raises the curtain on a number of myths about insurgent groups in the Northeast. The greatest myth perhaps is about the birth of ULFA – that it was established at Rang Ghar, Sivasagar in 1979, where all executive body members were present. Bhattacharyya, who has interviewed the top ULFA leadership, reveals that in the early-1980s two groups had emerged: one at Sivasagar, associated with Arabinda Rajkhowa, and another at Dibrugarh – of which Baruah and his cousin Anup Chetia (who later became the ULFA General Secretary) were part. ULFA was formed only when these two groups later merged, along with the further addition of members from the earlier Assam People’s Liberation Army (APLA). This helps in part to explain the present scenario where the Rajkhowa-led ULFA faction is in talks with the Indian government, while the Baruah-led ULFA (Independent) is still at large.
Though much detail is pushed to the endnotes, the book explores how Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) played vital roles in supporting, in various degrees, groups like ULFA and NSCN. As Bhattacharyya writes in the introduction: “It [ULFA] began to be dictated by ISI and a section of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), and ULFA was forced to indulge in senseless killings and bombings.” In the third chapter, he cites an interview with former ULFA staff officer, Lohit Deuri, who adds, “[ULFA] cadres were trained at the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi.”
Through interviews with Baruah, Bhattarachya discloses that by November 2015, fourteen rebel groups will come together under one umbrella to form a joint command and formally establish a government in exile. “Our topmost priority now is to bring all revolutionary groups of the region fighting against India on a common platform,” said Baruah in this book. In April 2014, at a meeting in Burma, a common platform – United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) – which includes NSCN (K), ULFA (I), Kamatapur Liberation Organization, NDFB (Songbijit) among other groups was formed and started their operations. On 2 April, three army jawans were killed in an ambush by NSCN (K) in Tirap district in Arunachal Pradesh. On 3 May, seven Assam Rifles jawans and one jawan of Territorial Army were killed in another attack in Mon district in Nagaland by joint forces of the newly-formed front. On 4 June, at least 20 jawans of six Dogra infantry regiment were killed in Rocker Propeller Gun (RPG) attack by UNLFW in Manipur’s Moltuk valley in Chandel district bordering Burma.
What this means for regional politics and the insurgency in the Northeast in particular is yet to be seen. A powerful ‘Government in Exile’ in the Northeast will certainly impact international relations. Its location, at the crossroad of Southasia, Southeast Asia and China, is of immense strategic significance and plays a very important role in India’s Look East Policy. The safe haven in Burma for the Northeastern outfits means that the efforts to curb separatist insurgency might not bear results immediately. In a May 2015 article for the Caravan, Bhattacharyya says that according to an Indian intelligence officer he spoke to, China was involved with the UNLFW: “This coalition could be used to further their [China’s] objectives in Myanmar and also keep tabs on the northeast.” He added that it was “a well known fact” that a number of these group leaders had found refuge in China and this was impossible without the Chinese government being aware of it.
Quest for stories
As a travel memoir, the book details the ways and habits in the remote hamlets of Eastern Nagaland, but does so by fusing a journalist’s curiosity with the insight of an anthropologist. For Bhattarachryya, Naga nationalism is linked to Christianity in the region. “NSCN allowed the Baptist church to step into the villages since Christianity could help spread the message of unity and forge a common identity among the Nagas.” However, he qualifies his observation by adding, “But in eastern Nagaland, people were not yet dependent on the church in the manner seen elsewhere. Not unnaturally, the missionaries haven’t been able to ensure acceptance of all the tenets of their religion. So, past customs and practices continued to thrive, including what had been termed ‘superstitious practices.’” The history of Nagaland and the Naga rebel groups find ample space in the narrative, as the author takes special pains to introduce the readers to the context behind the demand for the establishment of Nagalim – a region that includes all the Naga-inhabited areas across the Northeast and some areas in Burma, the formation of NSCN and its subsequent break-ups into factions and the complications that has added to the Naga conflict.
The book highlights the role of illegal trade and gold mining in Eastern Nagaland to remind us of the lawlessness in the area. Insurgent group as well as state forces use this lack of oversight for their benefit. The author describes how sections of the Burmese army are involved in illegal mining, while the porous India-Burma border allows insurgent groups in and around the region to smuggle arms. The book reports witnessing huge arms consignments in the ULFA camp. The rising demand for arms is being satiated by an inflow of cheap, second-hand Chinese arms in the Northeastern region and needs to be controlled.
An Assamese book by Bhattacharyya that deals with the same topic was named Paresh Baruah Xondhanot, which translates into ‘In search of Paresh Baruah’. Even in the English version, though the title says ‘Rendezvous With Rebels’, the book is built around the much awaited and sought after interview with Baruah – a major flaw of this book. Between the questions Bhattacharyya leaves unasked and the many that were not answered during the interviews, the book suffers a perceptible void. Imposition of guidelines on what can be asked by the rebel leaders restricts the reader’s access to the raw version of the interview, and this happens often in Rendezvous With Rebels. Though not without merit, the interview with the ULFA C-in-C fails to live up to expectations. Baruah manages to sidestep most of the controversial questions that Bhattacharyya asks or, in some cases, merely repeats the same lines that he so often sends out to the media. Issues like the Sanjoy Ghosh murder case, the Dhemaji killings, the Bhutan flushout, the alleged business establishments of senior ULFA leaders in Bangladesh, the present state of ULFA after the factional break-ups and the implications of ULFA’s demand for sovereignty are hardly addressed. Despite the richness of detail and insight, its emphasis on the one interview restrains the story. And when Paresh Baruah avoids answering the more interesting questions or fails to say anything substantially new, the book disappoints.
Nevertheless, the interviews provide invaluable insight into the psyche of Baruah, aside from the discloser about his outfit and analysis of the insurgency in the Northeast. His comments on Assamese chauvinism and the demand for a separate state, the alienation of the tribal group and the role of religious fundamentalism carry much weight in the current political crisis in the Northeast.
On the other hand, the interview with the enigmatic SS Khaplang, Chairman of NSCN (K) was quite a breath of fresh air as it gave a unique perspective about the situation of rebel groups in the region and their relations with the Burmese junta. Commenting about the unofficial pact of understanding with the Burmese government, Chairman Khaplang says, “This has been on for the past several years. The first proposal came from them, but they reneged on their commitment and attacked… approached us a year later… since then there has been no hostility between us.” He adds, “More importantly, the understanding has helped like-minded revolutionary organisations in eastern Nagaland and India’s north-east to join forces.” Bhattacharyya notes that on 9 April 2012, two months after their return, NSCN (K) entered into a written agreement with the Burmese army “that formalised the ceasefire between the two sides.”
History provides few examples of a pact of peace being signed between the army of a neighboring country and an insurgent group. The ceasefire agreement between the NSCN (K) and the Burmese Army is one such instance. And this event has become even more complex given that the same group ended its 14-year-long ceasefire with the Indian government. The recent spate of killings across the Northeast, including those in Tirap, Arunachal Pradesh, Mon, Nagaland and Manipur’s Moltuk valley speak volumes about the worsening situation.What is clear is that both the ceasefire and its dramatic endings are significant in a region central to the New Delhi’s Look East Policy.
Though there was room to elaborate on the return journey, the author instead chooses to write about the media fiasco that followed their ‘secret’ journey to the rebel bases. Some journalists in the very daily he worked for – Seven Sisters Post – leaked information to the media and the Burmese army that Bhattacharyya crossed the border to interview some senior insurgent leaders. Sections of the Indian media reported that Bhattacharyya had been “apprehended by the Burmese army along with a senior ULFA leader Jibon Moran” along the Sino-Burmese border. This was false, of course, but it did show how government propaganda fuels the cacophony of private news channels which end up spreading half-truths and myths. And Bhattacharyya’s bold and sincere narration of the sequence of events during their journey does well to expose them.
The exhilarating narration, the rich and astonishing accounts of the insurgent groups of the Northeast and detailed engagement with life and habits in Naga hamlets in isolation from the modern world should keep readers hooked. Although the unique selling point of this book is indeed the much sought after exclusive interview with Paresh Baruah, it is the interview with rebel leaders SS Khaplang and IK Songibijit which standout. The attention to detail and nuanced understanding of regional politics makes this is a must read for anyone who would want to know about the Southeast Asian region in general and Northeast India in particular.
Burma has increasingly become a central player in the insurgency in the Northeast. Almost all the major rebel outfits of the region operate from Burma. The insurgent’s goal of securing Northeastern and Naga independence enjoys the silent support of the Burmese junta and China. Not only are there reports that senior leaders of some of these outfits have easy access into China, Bhattacharyya has also reported about Naga children being taught Burmese in some villages of Eastern Nagaland (though this information hasn’t been added in the book). This development might help clarify why Burma has turned a blind eye towards insurgent camps being set up by NSCN (K) on its territory. Given this nexus between the NSCN (K) and the Burmese Army, the alleged attack by the Indian Army on rebel camps on Burma soil on 9 June with the tacit support from the government there seems doubtful.
The illegal arms racket and smuggling in the region being led by the Burmese and Chinese mafia has worsened the situation in the Northeast. The region is actively being turned into a major sphere of influence for Beijing and Naypyidaw. Further, the huge reserves of oil, gas and gold in the region have made New Delhi quite cautious in its approach to this Myanmar connection. Bhattacharyya’s book tells us that the connection is crucial and must not be ignored.
~ Anuraag Baruah is a Guwahati-based writer and freelance journalist. His writings have been featured in Kafila, the Hoot, the Assam Tribune, the Morung Express, among many others.
~This article was updated on 22 June 2015.