The Chinese — who have been backing the northeast rebels with funds, weapons and killing skills since the late 1960s — finally seem to have all the pieces in place.
Their long-term plan to set up a united northeast front has become a reality — a section of government officials and strategic thinkers say — with the formation of the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia two months ago at a camp deep inside Myanmar’s Sagaing Division.
Now, the next move, say sources in the rebel groups camping in Myanmar, is to form a Northeast government-in-exile with a moving capital. The Chinese answer comes to India more than half a century after the Tibetan government-in-exile was formed in Dharamsala.
All these years, the Chinese were content with playing behind the scene in the Northeast. Even the latest twin attacks on the Indian Army by Northeast insurgent groups have fuelled speculations that they were remote-controlled by China.
China’s association with the rebels began when the first batch of Naga fighters reached the Yunnan province in China through Myanmar in the late 1960s. For the next decade, the Chinese trained hundreds of Naga and Mizo rebels, besides a small squad of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from Manipur in its territory.
Following India’s objections, the training facilities were closed down in the early 1980s. But China’s solidarity with the PLA continued, as Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based expert on Myanmar, revealed in his seminal book, Great Game East.
The training, however, continued through the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Myanmar. When India’s external intelligence agency, RAW, checkmated the Chinese through a secret pact with the KIA, the Kachin region became a no-go zone for the N-E rebels.
Although the Beijing connection took a back seat, cheap weapons continued to flow from Yunnan. Now, there are reasons to believe that China’s military intelligence wing, the Second Department, has begun showing greater interest in the Northeast rebel outfits in Myanmar. Some of these groups are also being used for spying in the Northeast.
Some militant leaders this reporter spoke to at a rebel base in Myanmar even entertained the hope that India and China would go to war soon which would give the Northeast the opportunity to break free.
What’s more, China has renewed its interest in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, the rebel region, following certain developments in Myanmar. Beijing is upset over Myanmar’s eagerness to get closer to the West and India.
Even local residents at several places in Myanmar staged protests against Chinese projects and investments.
Beijing, as a countermove, has forged strong ties with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) — one of the largest rebel groups in the world and alleged drug peddlers — in Myanmar’s Shan state. Jane’s Intelligence Review reported that China is supplying weapons, even armoured vehicles, to the Wa rebels. Wa leaders have even been allowed to invest in several businesses in Yunnan.
Now, the Wa-controlled areas on the Sino-Myanmarese border have become a no-go zone for the Myanmar government. The model seems to fit perfectly in Myanmar’s Naga-dominated region — contiguous to India’s Northeast — being controlled by the Khaplang faction of the NSCN.
Interestingly, alliances in northern Sagaing Division-- contiguous to Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit district to Tuensang in Nagaland — could help China build a sphere of influence in the region, similar to its border in Shan State.
What’s more, there are gold mines and others natural resources in Hukwang Valley -- not far from the ULFA camp this reporter had visited -- where the NSCN(K) also has stakes. Latest intelligence inputs even suggest that Khaplang has firmed up plans to build a regular army under a joint command.
The Myanmar government does not want to confront China head on. Despite New Delhi’s repeated pleas for action on the camps, Myanmar cannot afford to open another hostile front in the region that remains one of the last unexplored frontiers in the world.
Rajeev Bhattacharyya is a Guwahati-based senior journalist and author of ‘Rendezvous With Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men’