As national security adviser Ajit Doval readies for a trip to Myanmar for meetings with that country’s leadership, apparently to discuss greater security cooperation and the media goes gung-ho with leaked information about the army assault on anti-Indian groups along the India-Myanmar border, there is clearly much more happening than meets the eye.
The ‘surgical strike’ that officials, the media and politicians have been praising has been obfuscated by assertions and rebuttals that a photograph of army commandos celebrating the strike was posted on social media after the assault.
In addition, the press reports of casualties on the militant side, ranging from 20 to 100, do credit to media imagination but little else, especially when the fatalities were less than 10.
The ease with which ‘details’ of the incident have been bandied about in the press shows two things: One, that the army or the security establishment is not reluctant to disseminate details of this ‘success’, which reflects a ‘muscular policy’; two, that the media appears to have forgotten the voluntary code which it had accepted after furious public criticism of irresponsible 24x7 live coverage of NSG operations in Mumbai in 2008. The coverage endangered the lives of commandos taking up positions as the images were beamed internationally and picked up by terrorist handlers in Pakistan.
There is little point blaming the media for ‘sensationalising’ when senior government officials appear to have no hesitation about doing so themselves.
Although Myanmar was not happy about the incident, it wasn’t given a choice. It was simply informed and, as one official associated with the operation remarked, while “they didn’t object”, they apparently didn’t completely come on board either.
It also must have caused embarrassment in Myanmar at a time when Aung San Suu Kyi, the main opposition leader, was visiting China and her country is preparing for national elections in November.
An adviser to the Myanmar Peace Center, which plays a key role in talks between rebels and the Myanmar government, was quoted by the official Myanmar Times as saying that “the NSCN-K was a recognized armed ethnic group in Myanmar, and had observed negotiations on a nationwide ceasefire”. Thus, whether in India or Myanmar, there is recognition that these issues cannot have a military resolution.
But what provoked SS Khaplang, a veteran Naga general who has fought against India and Myanmar since the 1960s, seeking independence from both, to revoke a 15-year truce with the government of India? Frustrated by the lack of progress and the Centre’s dismissive attitude, he felt that the ceasefire was benefitting his principal rivals, the NSCN of Isak Swu-Th Muivah. Only the latter held talks with the central government. Khaplang wasn’t invited to any official dialogue because of New Delhi’s concern that adverse reactions from the Muivah group could jeopardise the fragile peace process.
After snapping the dialogue, the Khaplang group mounted a series of attacks in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Yet, none of this was abrupt.
Indeed, a series of events took place over the past three years that should have sent warning signals to the Centre. In the process, the wily Naga fighter strengthened his home base in Myanmar, reducing his dependence on the Indian side of the operation.
In 2012, Khaplang came to a five-point ceasefire with the Myanmar government; a Naga self-administrative zone state within the Sagaing Division of North West Myanmar was set up and his cadre could travel freely without weapons.
Thus, after decades of being pursued by the Myanmar army, Khaplang is enjoying a legitimacy that his bitter rivals in India have failed to extract — Nagaland has been a state of India since 1963 and the same free travel without weapons was permitted to the NSCN factions under the ceasefire. Little new has happened on this side in 15 years, although the fragile peace took root.
For over a year, New Delhi was aware of the fact that Khaplang’s safe lands were being used to house other anti-Indian groups. These included Paresh Barua of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa), a faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and smaller Manipuri factions under the unwieldy banner of the United Liberation Front of West South East Asia.
The latter is little different to the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front of the same groups, launched 20 years ago but which subsequently petered out. This time, the groups are better armed and have sanctuary if not sanction in Myanmar. Their main bases are distant from the India-Myanmar border, limiting the striking capacity of Indian forces.
Although Myanmar speaks of action against foreign groups that attack its neighbours, it has not actively pursued an anti-Indian insurgent policy for nearly 20 years. This is partly because the military-dominated, pro-democracy regime in Yangon lets local commanders run matters in the provinces, especially where there are conflicts with major Burmese insurgent groups.
This has, over the years, developed into a cosy relationship with neither side willing to upset the apple cart. Thus, when the Myanmar army had launched a major campaign against the Kachins earlier this year, most other groups stayed in a ceasefire mode.
But will Myanmar be persuaded to take action against Indian rebels on its soil? There are at least three possible scenarios: One, the Bhutan model where the Himalayan kingdom launched a military operation against Ulfa and two other groups in which over 600 rebels died; two, the Bangladesh strategy of detaining and handing over Ulfa, the UNLF and the NDFB rebels on its soil to Indian forces in 2009, dealing a devastating blow to insurgency and strengthening peace.
The third is to wait out Indian pressure and decide on a combination of diplomacy and military tactics after the elections later this year.
Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research in Jamia Milia Islamia
The views expressed are personal