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Marriages of Insurgent Convenience along the Indo-Myanmar Border: A Continuing Challenge

Dr. Alex Waterman was a Visiting Fellow at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. He is currently Research Fellow at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, UK.Click here more detailed profile
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  • August 10, 2017

    On celebrating its “army day” on 16 March 2017, a United Liberation Front of Asom – Independent (ULFA – I) statement lauded the success of joint operations carried out with the Manipur-based insurgent umbrella organisation Coordination Committee (CorCom). The group was referring to two attacks conducted in conjunction with CorCom militants near the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border on 19 November 2016 and 22 January 2017, in which five security forces personnel were killed.1 Moreover, on 3 December 2016, militants of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim – Khaplang (NSCN – K) ambushed an Assam Rifles convoy near the India-Myanmar border in Nginu, Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh, killing two troopers in the attack.2 ULFA – I, CorCom and NSCN – K form part of a broader, loose, alliance of non-ceasefire signatory insurgent groups in the region that have increasingly conducted joint operations and exploited the porous border with Myanmar.

    Cooperation between armed groups in the Northeast has been portrayed as a sign of the growing desperation and long-term decline of insurgent actors in the region.3 Such collaboration is, however, not a new phenomenon. The first two major insurgencies in the region, the Naga National Council and the Mizo National Front, collaborated from the late 1960s.4 After it emerged in 1980, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim played a crucial role in granting assistance to other armed groups. And after fragmentation in 1988, the NSCN – IM and NSCN – K proceeded to forge their own umbrella coalition groups in the form of the NSCN – K’s Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front (IBRF) and the NSCN – IM’s equivalent, the Self Defence United Front of South East Asian Himalayan Region (SDUFSEAHR).5 It is the crucial role played by Naga insurgent groups in these umbrella organisations, a product of their clear regional advantages in training, combat capabilities and access to international borders, that afforded the Naga insurgency the status of the “mother of all insurgencies” in the region.

    Clearly, the situation in the Northeast has dramatically improved since the 1990s. On 3 June 2017, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh highlighted that during 2016 insurgency-related fatalities in the region reached a 20-year low, suggesting that a modicum of peace and stability had been restored to the region.6 Against this backdrop, despite potential sticking points and contradictions,7 the peace process between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim – Isak-Muivah (NSCN – IM) appeared to hold firm, while ceasefires with the many breakaway NSCN factions, NSCN – Kitovi-Neokpao (NSCN – KN) and NSCN – Reformation were renewed for another year in Spring 2017. On 9 June, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju suggested that substantive progress was being made between the government and the ULFA – Pro Talks Faction (ULFA – PTF),8 just days after the government’s new interlocutor, Dinesh Sharma, chaired a series of talks with the group and with pro-talk Bodo armed groups.

    However, substantial challenges remain in confronting the remaining non-ceasefire signatory groups such as ULFA – I, NSCN – K and the CorCom umbrella group, which have increasingly shifted their strategies towards the conduct of cross-border strikes in areas adjacent to the international border. The Sagaing region across the India-Myanmar border has long provided sanctuary for armed groups, while simultaneously offering opportunities for networking and operational coordination. On 10 January 2017, Assam’s Assistant Director General of Police suggested that up to 2,500 militants from Northeast Indian armed groups were residing across the border, with up to 1,000 of these being from NSCN – K, which, in 2012, signed a ceasefire agreement with Myanmar.9 For NSCN – K, which has gradually seen an erosion of its India-based support networks following splits in 2011 and 2015,10 the areas of India in proximity to Myanmar, such as Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts of Arunachal Pradesh, Tinsukia district of Assam, Chandel district of Manipur and Mon district of Nagaland, appear to have assumed newfound importance as it attempts to retain operational relevance in India. The group, which is arguably the dominant group within its own umbrella organisation, the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWESEA), and amongst its CorCom allies, has hosted several of these groups in camps in its areas of influence since the mid-2000s.11

    Since the NSCN – K abrogated its 14-year ceasefire agreement with the Indian government in April 2015, the group has conducted major attacks in conjunction with its allies from within these networks. This strategy appeared to take off in earnest on 4 June 2015, after an ambush on an Army convoy in Manipur’s Chandel district led to the death of 18 jawans. The attack was claimed in a joint statement by NSCN – K,12 Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL) and a faction of the Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP).13 Since then, joint group operations have become a regular aspect of the NSCN – K’s approach to insurgency in the region. While few “spectaculars” have taken place since the Chandel ambush, the interception of joint insurgent teams by the security forces is indicative of the extent of cooperation between the groups. For example, on 16 February 2016, Army personnel encountered and killed three NSCN – K militants and one ULFA – I militant in Dirak Chirali, Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh. The extent of cooperation between NSCN – K and ULFA – I in particular was also evident on 7 June 2017, after three ULFA – I militants were killed during a clash near the international border in Lappa, Mon district of Nagaland.

    The death of NSCN – K chairman S. S. Khaplang in Myanmar on 9 June 2017 led to renewed calls for peace talks as well as to rumours that the group may face internal power struggles as its leaders vie with one another to succeed Khaplang.14 Assam police sources also suggested that ULFA – I might lodge a bid for leadership of the UNLFWESEA movement. However, the succession of Khango Konyak as the leader of both the NSCN – K and the umbrella organisation UNLFWESEA pointed towards continuity at least for the immediate future. Indeed, on 21 June, NSCN – K and ULFA – I militants once again linked up during a clash with security forces personnel in Choknyu, Mon district of Nagaland, suggesting that such cooperation is likely to remain a feature of the insurgency environment for the foreseeable future.

    Options for tackling the issue

    State actors have clearly recognised and are taking steps to address these changing dynamics of insurgency in the region. On 10 January 2017, L. R. Bishnoi, Additional Director General of Police, Assam, suggested that the cross-border joint operations approach constituted a “new strategy.”15 During a review of the security situation with officials on 24 March 2017, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh urged officials to enhance their vigilance along the international border. The Myanmar government also intensified border fencing activities along the India-Myanmar border adjacent to Nagaland. However, these efforts produced a significant public backlash from local Naga populations on both sides of the border during the first months of 2017, resulting in the suspension of construction activities in February 2017. Since a hostile local population would undermine the purpose of such a border fence and raise questions about its utility,16 the Indian government should liaise with its Myanmarese counterpart to discourage such efforts. At the same time, the two governments should agree to deepen cooperation in checking the misuse of the 16 km visa-free zone on either side of the international border. Reports that such agreements were arrived at during the 21st India-Myanmar national-level meeting on 5-6 July is a positive step in this direction.17

    Furthermore, the use of cross-border “surgical strikes,” such as those conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Chandel ambush in June 2015,18 can disrupt the sense of security that militants in cross-border camps enjoy, while sending a clear message to the insurgent leadership that such attacks will not be tolerated. However, the diplomatic risks such operations carry limit the extent to which they can become a regular component of India’s counterinsurgency approach against cross-border groups. Such “hard” operations should thus be combined with proactive diplomatic measures to improve high-level and operational-level ties with Myanmar.

    In-country options include the intensification of presence-based operations in the Tirap, Changlang and Longding areas of Arunachal Pradesh as well as Mon district of Nagaland, which constitute the key transit points into India. However, the ability to intercept incoming parties of NSCN – K, ULFA – I and other allied militants will depend on developed intelligence networks, which, in turn, are dependent upon local support, a dynamic that has already been recognised by the Army in its assessment of Arunachal Pradesh.19 This points towards the continued importance of keeping local border populaces onside. Thus, the changing dynamics of insurgency becoming cross-border in character should not detract from the continued importance of both maintaining a presence and continuing to win “hearts and minds” within.

    Finally, while the death of S. S. Khaplang does not appear to have sparked immediate and major change at the operational level, efforts to bring elements of the group into dialogue should be pursued in a concerted manner. Khaplang’s unilateral decision-making processes had over the years reportedly alienated key constituents,20 causing the group to fracture twice in the space of four years. Offers of rehabilitation to NSCN – K militants of Indian origin were announced a day after Khaplang’s death.21 However, this alone would not fully remove the problem of allied organisations such as ULFA – I and the CorCom, which were housed in NSCN – K territory even during the NSCN – K’s ceasefire with the government, meaning a comprehensive approach combining reconciliation with aggressive interdiction mechanisms would need to be built into future policy efforts to tackle cross-border collaboration among armed groups.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. ‘Arunachal Pradesh: 2 Assam Rifles Soldiers Killed in an Encounter with NSCN (K) Terrorists in Changlang’, Financial Express, 22 January 2017 [accessed 26 July 2017]; Ajit Kumar Singh, ‘Assam: Troubles in Tinsukia’, South Asia Intelligence Review, 15.22 (2016) [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 2. ‘Two Assam Rifles Soldiers Killed in Arunachal, 8 Injured in Ambush on Convoy’, Hindustan Times, 4 December 2016 [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 3. For example, on 13 May Assam Director General of Police Mukesh Sahay pointed to ULFA - I’s increasing dependency on cooperation with other armed groups as a by-product of successful counterinsurgency operations in the region. See IISS Armed Conflict Database, India (Assam) (London: International Institute of Strategic Studies, 13 May 2017) [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 4. Marcus Franke, War and Nationalism in South Asia: The Indian State and the Nagas, Routledge Advances in South Asian Studies (Oxon: Routledge, 2009), pp. 109, 111.
    • 5. Rajeev Bhattacharyya, ‘Birth of UNLFWSEA: Internal Dynamics and Implications for India’s North-East’, Journal of Defence Studies, 9.4 (2015), 95–110 (p. 99).
    • 6. Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Shri Rajnath Singh Highlights Achievements & Key Initiatives of MHA in the Last 3 Years’, 2017 [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 7. See for example Gautam Sen, ‘Political Fallout of the Creation of New Districts in Manipur’, IDSA Comment, 2016 [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 8. ‘Peace Agreement with ULFA to Sign Shortly: Rijiju’, India Blooms, 9 June 2017 [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 9. Samudra Gupta Kashyap, ‘Chinese Agencies Helping North East Militants in Myanmar’, Indian Express, 10 January 2017 [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 10. Namrata Panwar, ‘From Nationalism to Factionalism: Faultlines in the Naga Insurgency’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 28.1 (2017), 233–58 (pp. 250–52) .
    • 11. Bhattacharyya, p. 100.
    • 12. ‘18 Army Men Killed in Manipur, Naga Rebel Outfit NSCN - K Claims Responsibility’, Indian Express, 5 June 2015 [accessed 17 July 2017].
    • 13. Giriraj Bhattacharjee and M. A. Athul, ‘India-Myanmar: Borders of Terror’, South Asia Intelligence Review, 13.49 (2015) [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 14. Nijeesh N., ‘NSCN-K: Decisive Moment, Uncertain Outcomes’, South Asia Intelligence Review, 15.50 (2017) [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 15. Kashyap
    • 16. Pradeep Chhonkar Singh, ‘Is a Border Fence an Absolute Essential along the India-Myanmar Border?’, 2017 [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 17. ‘India, Myanmar Discuss Ways to Check Militants, Smuggling’, Business Standard, 7 July 2017 [accessed 9 August 2017].
    • 18. ‘Myanmar Operation: 70 Commandos Finish Task in 40 Minutes’, The Hindu, 10 June 2015 .
    • 19. R. Dutta Choudhury, ‘Army Plan to Identify Vulnerable Areas in State’, Assam Tribune, 14 July 2017 [accessed 26 July 2017].
    • 20. Panwar, pp. 250–51.
    • 21. ‘India Will Rehabilitate NSCN(K) Cadres If They Surrender: Union Minister Kiren Rijiju’, Indian Express, 10 June 2017 [accessed 26 July 2017].