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Beyond India's borders

The death shrieks of non-Assamese are grim reminders that India's policy of cooperating with the Myanmar junta has flopped.

india Updated: Jan 12, 2007 12:08 IST

Following the inhuman ethnic cleansing against non-Assamese by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the Indian Army has begun counter-insurgency operations in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

This is a placebo that bypasses the real cancer breeding outside India's borders.

While discrimination, underdevelopment and unemployment in Assam are serious internal failures of the Indian government that explain the origins and early legitimacy of ULFA in the 1980s, the current savagery of this discredited terrorist group owes to India's failed foreign policy towards Myanmar (Burma).

The mayhem unleashed by ULFA cadres on poor immigrant labourers from other parts of India can be traced back to terrorist camps located in Myanmar.

ULFA's killing machines utilise Arunachal as a conduit that connects to their hideouts in Burma's northern Kachin state.

The death shrieks of non-Assamese in Assam are stinging reminders that India's policy of cooperating with the military junta in Myanmar has flopped.

The mass abuses of human rights being committed by the junta in Kachin state provide ULFA the backdrop for a safe haven in Myanmar.

Forced labour, natural resource depletion, seizure of farmlands, disappearances and mass graves mark the history of Kachins since Myanmar's first military coup in 1962.

The Kachin Independence Army (KIA), whose factions now shelter and train ULFA warriors, was created in response to the unilateral abrogation of minority rights by the Ne Win dictatorship in the 1960s.

Had Myanmar remained democratic and in civilian hands, the 'ethnicity problem' would never have exploded into incessant warfare and cycles of destruction.

Waves of Myanmarese Army incursions to assert central government control over the Kachin people and the area's jade, timber and opium wealth created the fertile instability for ULFA and other northeast Indian insurgent groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and the United Liberation Front of Bodoland to find a foothold. Around 1986, ULFA approached the KIA through the 'good offices' of the Naga rebels.

At a time when ULFA's stock in Assam itself was on a downward slope, its recruits learnt the rudiments of fighting in Myanmar from the KIA, which reportedly charged 100,000 rupees per trainee.

As long as Bangladesh and Bhutan were the main staging arenas for ULFA, Myanmar played second fiddle in the outfit's overall priorities.

ULFA shifted bases from Bangladesh to Bhutan in 1997 after Sheikh Hasina's government assisted New Delhi in flushing it out.

At India's behest, the Royal Bhutanese Army destroyed most of ULFA's camps and observation posts by 2003.

Hounded everywhere, ULFA returned to its first love: the war-devastated Kachin hills of Burma, where the KIA was ever ready to indulge in quid pro quos.

Some observers perceive India and the Myanmar's military junta to have common interests when it comes to acting against ULFA, since its partner, the KIA, is opposed to Yangon.

This hides a more complex reality wherein the KIA's political wing signed a peace treaty with the Myanmarese military in 1994 and many elite Kachin guerrilla leaders have developed a tight relationship with the generals in Yangon to jointly benefit from the war economy in Kachin state.

Numerous splits within the KIA occurred owing to divide-and-rule ploys of Yangon.

The segment of the KIA that is allied with the junta and has a hand in the narcotics business is now ULFA's launching pad.

The so-called animosity between Yangon and the KIA is limited to those factions that oppose the junta's militarisation of the region and plunder of natural resources.

While sporadic junta operations to drive out ULFA and NSCN have received attention, why has Yangon not eliminated ULFA, root and branch, from Myanmarese soil?

If Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina and Bhutan could do it, why not Myanmar, a military state?

Myanmar is the world's second largest opium-producing country and Kachin state is next only to Shan state in overall production of this deadly crop.

Several top Myanmarese military generals have proven involvement in the drug trade and are close to KIA faction leaders on the ground who double up as mafia barons.

General Zau Mai, a former Chairman of the KIA's political wing, was one such figure who fixed deals with the junta on logging, gold and jade mining in Kachin territory.

In December 2006, three ULFA terrorists were nabbed by the Indian army in Assam with a haul of brown sugar worth 10.3 million rupees.

This was the first evidence that the KIO-junta duet in Burma had an ULFA angle.

The porous India-Myanmar border opens gigantic market for drugs, with ULFA acting as an intermediary that finances its hit squads with illegal business investments and transportation of contraband commodities.

ULFA is thus useful for the Myanmarese junta both as a business partner and as a bargaining chip against India cheering for Aung San Suu Kyi's pro-democracy movement.

Yangon proves itself 'useful' to India by occasionally cracking the whip on ULFA and NSCN while not entirely smashing their redoubts on Myanmarese soil.

This delicate strategy of keeping the ULFA menace simmering enables Yangon to buy New Delhi's tolerance for Myanmar's absence of democracy.

India ends up as the biggest loser of this triangular junta-KIO-ULFA game that is destroying the social fabric and economy of Assam.

For over a decade, India has been betting on the wrong horse in Myanmar. If New Delhi hopes to counter Chinese influence in Yangon and defeat ULFA, democracy in Myanmar is the only honourable and pragmatic solution.

(Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on world affairs based at Syracuse University, New York. He can be reached at sreeramchaulia @hotmail.com)