» Cover Stories
» Cover Story »
Arms, Drugs And The Man
George Fernandes’ support for Myanmarese rebels as well as the ltte is legion. Fresh investigations by Outlook reveal that not only are the seas off the Andamans being used in the drugs-arms trade but the deserted Landsfall Island and St Martin’s Island in the archipelago are two main transit points in the trade. The free use of the islands comes courtesy Fernandes, following his ministry’s 1998 order that the army and navy should not act against vessels passing through the Andamans.
An ltte member with an assumed name of Coffee Selvam is identified as the main coordinator for these operations. Selvam arranges for the arms and the drugs shipment and liaises with the local arms dealers based in Singapore and Thailand. The operation in a nutshell: the ltte ships that carry arms and narcotics separate at Landsfall and St Martin, with the arms going northwards towards Bangladesh on their way to Myanmar and northeast India. The drug shipments head towards Jaffna and from there to various destinations in West Asia for entry into the European and US markets. According to intelligence sources, Ranong Island off the coast of Thailand is the staging point for arms shipments that originate from Cambodia and take the sea route through the Andamans to the major receiving point at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh’s southernmost tip.
The route followed by these shipments covers Thailand, the Andamans and the land route via Myanmar and Bangladesh before ending up in the hands of the northeast insurgents. This route has been used by arms dealers and their end-users for a number of years. But the drug trafficking by the ltte has added a new dimension.
The trade has recently come to the notice of the army. In December last year, the General Officer Commanding, 3 Corps—based off Nagaland’s Dimapur town—flew to Agartala, Tripura’s capital, to oversee the deployment of two commando battalions along the international border. His task was to prevent ingress of an arms consignment worth $750,000 and meant for various insurgent groups in the northeast. "We have information that this arms consignment—which comprises AK series rifles, mortars, landmines, sten guns and high-powered explosives—is coming into the northeast from Cox’s Bazar," Lt Gen T.S. Shergill, the corps commander, said at a press conference in Agartala.
Clearly, the armed forces, despite having advance knowledge of such frequent operations through the Andamans seas, are unable to stop the shipments on the high seas because of the express order from the defence ministry. As a result, the army in the northeast reacts only when it gets a tip-off that the shipments are headed for the mainland.
As is well known, a tri-services operation—Operation Leech—in February 1998 had sought to put a stop to all this. But as soon as Fernandes took over as defence minister, he ordered a stop to any precipitate action against the gun-runners on the specious plea that it violated their human rights.
Although the cooperation between the Myanmarese military and the Indian army has increased of late, the lack of vigil on the seas following contradictory signals from the defence ministry has meant that the arms reach Cox’s Bazar unhindered.
The confirmation that the ltte is deeply involved in drug and arms trafficking has surfaced more recently. The evidence against the Tigers is said to be overwhelming and clear. "The ltte is directly involved with the Myanmarese drug mafia in making and distributing heroin," says an intelligence source.
The friendship between Fernandes and the ltte took on a new meaning when he was appointed defence minister. Now, Fernandes could help the Tamil Tigers more meaningfully. In July 1998, he stopped the Indian navy from intercepting ships suspected of carrying illegal arms to Tamil guerrilla groups. Later, he ordered Indian security forces to downgrade patrolling of the Palk Strait. With Fernandes having quit the ministry, army officials in the northeast hope that the arms-drugs route through the Andamans will be sealed. "The pressure on those fighting insurgency will be considerably reduced if the arms supply to the various groups is choked," says a source. Will better counsel prevail?