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Perilous proliferation

Weapons smuggling northeast India is witnessing a spike in the supply of illegal arms across the eastern border, reports Sanjib Kr Baruah. See graphics

delhi Updated: Feb 12, 2010 02:00 IST
Sanjib Kr Baruah

“For the last six years, Naga insurgents have created havoc in Tirap and Changlang in Arunachal. And in the last couple of years, the movement of illegal arms in this corridor, mainly coming from northern Myanmar, has increased dramatically” – Arunachal Pradesh Home Minister Tako Dabi

Not just the ubiquitous cheap Chinese-made toys, the northeastern states of India are being flooded by a far deadlier product: Smuggled light weapons.

The buyers: militant groups in the region.

“The (Army) in China is on a modernisation spree; so, many outdated and surplus weapons are being discarded. The grey market for arms works on the principle of surplus. While the weapons may be of a certain vintage, their killing power is beyond question,” said Ajai Sahni, executive director, Institute for Conflict Management (ICM).

The ICM, based in New Delhi, studies internal security in South Asia.

“The availability of small arms is significantly connected to the rise of insurgency,” he added.

The deadly cargoes include automatic M-20 pistols, various models of the AK series, light machine guns and grenades. Many of these weapons have Chinese characters engraved on them. And the quantity and frequency of the finds have shown a spike in the last couple of years.

“I apprised Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram of the state of affairs in the region last Sunday. He has promised drastic and swift action. We have already asked for more Central forces. In fact, a new regiment, Arunachal Scouts, comprising youth from the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, has been approved by the Centre to rein in this growing problem,” Arunachal Pradesh Home Minister Tako Dabi told Hindustan Times.

The prevailing lawless conditions in the southern parts of China’s Yunnan province and the bordering tracts near Myanmar are also conducive to the illegal arms industry.

Two insurgent outfits in northern Myanmar — the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) — both now under ceasefire agreements with Myanmar’s military regime, have taken to arms smuggling and the contraband drugs trade in a big way.

“Over the last three years, there has been a definite increase in the supply of illegal arms to the northeast,” said a senior Assam police official, on condition of anonymity. “Most of these arms are not factory-made. They are usually made in the lawless areas of the China-Myanmar border.”

“The barrels of most of these guns are steel plated on the inside, instead of the chromium plating found in factory-made weapons. So, while they have an almost similar finish, they are good only for a certain period of time before the steel starts eroding away.”

The UWSA, with about 20,000 fighters, is the main gunrunner in the region. Most militant groups in the northeast have forged arms deals with the outfit.

“Depending on the situation, gun-running routes keep changing. The route from Myanmar is the most preferred one now,” said G.M. Srivastava, security advisor to Assam government.

But the role of the Chinese government is a matter of conjecture.

Arms smuggling on such a large and organised scale is not possible without some sort of government involvement, said Sahni.

On the other hand, Jaideep Saikia, terrorism expert on the northeast, is certain that Beijing’s official patronage is not there.

Lt. Col. A.K. Chowdhury, PRO, Assam Rifles, said: “The Indo-Myanmar (border) is about 1,600-km-long, is porous and covers tough terrain. We need more than our total strength of 46 battalions. So we have (asked) for an additional 26 battalions so as to more effectively check the movement of criminals and insurgents from across the border.”

Mrinal Hazarika, a top-ranked United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leader who came ‘over-ground’ in 2008, told Hindustan Times: “In the ULFA arsenal, the percentage of Chinese-made weapons is rising of late. During my time in ULFA, the last consignment we received in 2007 comprised about 70-80 Chinese-made AK rifles. Made by clandestine operators, these weapons are of inferior quality but they are lethal nonetheless.”

About a year ago, the Communist Party of India (Maoists) and the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) of Manipur had signed an agreement expressing joint intent to “fight the Indian state together”.

The joint declaration bore the signatures of Alok (who goes by one name), political bureau member for the Maoists, and S. Gunen, RPF secretary general.

The RPF is the political arm of the People’s Liberation Army — one of the oldest insurgent groups in Manipur with a cadre-strength of about 1,000. Its early leaders were extreme-Left leaning. The first batch of recruits was trained in China.

While at present the weaponry of the Maoists is sourced locally — either by indigenous manufacture or by snatching it from the security forces — of late Maoists had been reported to be on the lookout for alternative sources of weapons. Readily available arms in the Northeast would certainly be a ready fit in their scheme of things.