New Delhi has upped the ante again on Myanmar to eliminate some rebel camps not far from the border between the two neighbours. The immediate cause was the massacre of over 70 people in Assam by an outfit that had pitched camp in that region. This plea comes close on the heels of similar requests many a time in the past two decades. But there has hardly been any action by Naypyidaw.
The reasons why rebel camps continue to survive in Myanmar has been detailed in Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India's Most Wanted Men which is a travelogue of a journalist's nearly four months covert sojourn in the region. Rajeev Bhattacharyya writes that given the domestic situation in Myanmar with wars in Kachin and Shan states, the Mynmarese army cannot afford to open another hostile front with the Nagas who have now joined hands with some Northeast insurgent outfits. An unwritten understanding between the two sides since 2001 has now culminated in an accord inked in 2012. The chance of a Bhutan type of "Operation All Clear," which New Delhi hopes for, has further receded.
The author (centre) shares a meal with the rebels ahead of a day of trekking in the valley.
It becomes clear from the account that India cannot afford to offend Myanmar, lest it begins leaning more towards China. But, neither is Beijing happy with Naypyidaw for its recent bonhomie with the US and growing ties with India. China has sold heavy weaponry to insurgents in Shan state and there are ample hints that the separatist groups from the Northeast have also come under the grip of the big neighbour. China maintains close ties with these groups for better bargaining with Myanmar. Needless to mention that China's association with Naga and Mizo separatists dates back to the 1960s.
The book goes through the undulating hills from the Indo-Myanmar border in Nagaland through the wilds of northern Sagaing Division in Myanmar often called "No Man's Land," until a point close to Kachin where the camps are located. It gives an astonishing account of the socio-economic conditions and lifestyle of the Nagas in the region where head hunting and inter-village wars had been rampant as late as the early 1980s, where money is a new concept and where clothes were a rare commodity till three decades ago. The author also spends time with S S Khaplang, the Naga chief and godfather of the region, who has firmed up an alliance with rebel outfits from Manipur and Assam.
The book is stimulating. With the snippets of backgrounders and anecdotes, it reads like a thriller difficult to put down. This is primarily because the narration is about an unknown region regarded as one of the last unexplored frontiers in the world. The eight pages of exclusive photographs have enhanced the exclusivity of the account, which undoubtedly is a unique chapter in Indian journalism. Hardly any journalist has sneaked into a foreign country to report on rebel bases.
On the other side, the editing of the book leaves much to be desired. It has an abrupt ending, which could leave the reader confused and wondering. A more detailed discussion on the camp life of the rebels and the Manipuri insurgent groups would have been more appealing. At certain places, there are sudden jumps that exclude the description of the days that lay between and sometimes a quick shift from one topic to another that deletes the continuity of the journey. But, overall, an interesting read that would be useful for anybody wishing to know more about Myanmar and insurgency in India's Northeast.