"Were very disappointed with Indias defence minister George Fernandes. He had promised to ensure that our men would be swiftly released from the prisons in Port Blair and also that no unnecessary harassment would be meted out to our cadres during the course of our struggle against the Burma colonists (SIC). But he has done nothing in this regard."
-A leader of the National United Party of Arakan (NUPA), an ethnic insurgent group of Myanmar, in an interview to Outlook
The ardent socialist in George Fernandes had at one time ensured that he was a sworn sympathiser and patron of the pro-democratic forces fighting the junta in Myanmar. But that seems no longer the case. Thanks to the burden of his ministerial responsibilities, he can ill afford to support the insurgents in Myanmar. For, that would mean tacitly upholding the cause of the rebels in Indias northeast, whove put in place an umbrella organisation with the guerrillas on the other side of the border.
That, however, is little solace for senior NUPA leaders, fighting for independence from the military-controlled State Law and Order Restoration Council in Myanmar. They are upset because Fernandes reneged on his promise to release 36 members of the Arakan Army (AA)-NUPAs armed wing-and 37 Thai fishermen who had assisted them, from a Port Blair prison in the Andamans. The fishermen and the AA cadres were apprehended by the Indian navy on February 11, 1998, while they were smuggling arms to Myanmar through the sea route off the Andaman islands.
For the NUPA, it was betrayal from the word go. An Indian army official, acting on behalf of the MoD, double-crossed them in February 1998 when he first assured that AA would have safe passage through the Andaman sea route while shipping arms to Myanmar from Thailand. He later gave intelligence inputs to the army and navy, leading to the controversial Operation Leech (to prevent gun-running in the Bay of Bengal) in which six members of the AA, three of them top leaders, were gunned down by the Indian navy. Their boats were seized and 77 persons arrested.
The arrested languished in prison for over 18 months while their "sympathiser", defence minister Fernandes, apparently went back on his promise to ensure their release. And though the AA cadres were released recently by the Port Blair court, the threat of deportation hangs over their heads.
Claim NUPA sources: "Fernandes could have easily bailed us out but afraid of showing the Indian armed forces in poor light, he allowed our people to rot in prison."
Indeed, initially Fernandes was totally sympathetic to the Burmese rebels and critical of the "human rights violations" during Operation Leech. The controversial July 27, 1998 order by the then defence secretary, Ajit Kumar, was issued at Fernandes behest. The note had asked all three service chiefs to exercise "utmost restraint" in launching operations in the Andamans "in view of objections likely to be raised by Thailand and Myanmar". In a letter to Fernandes on April 25, 1998, NUPAs foreign affairs incharge Khin Maung had said: "Those who have been captured on February 11 are members of our organisations, carrying our belongings for our Arakan independence war." The letter goes on to state that an Indian military intelligence official, Col Gary Grewal, had been briefed about the AA expedition. It details how Grewal and AAs Saw Tun had been working in tandem for over a year.
Subsequently, a CBI inquiry was ordered, but neither were the seized weapons handed over to the agency nor were the defence personnel who took part in the operation allowed to be interrogated. Relevant papers were also not provided. "The defence authorities were adopting delaying tactics," CBI officials complained.
Although its difficult to establish at whose behest the defence officials were stonewalling the probe, all circumstantial evidence pointed to Fernandes who had made it clear to the armed forces that the premise on which Operation Leech was based was wrong. So far the script was proceeding according to what the NUPA wanted. With no proof forthcoming from the navy or the MoD, the case was as good as dead and the AA was hoping that their cadres would come out of the jail immediately. But the twist came three months after the incident. Although the fir was filed in Port Blair on February 11, till May 11, 1998, no chargesheet could be filed in the case. In normal circumstances, all the 73 men would have gone scot-free but the authorities detained them under the NSA.
THIS is seen by the NUPA and AA as a great betrayal by Fernandes. "Our hopes about early release were belied when the authorities put our men in under new charges. We had thought Fernandes was convinced about our genuineness but sadly he did not help," NUPA sources told Outlook.
A year later, on May 7, 1999, the chief judicial magistrate at Port Blair declared as "innocent" 37 of the 73 detainees. The court said that these 37 men were Thai fishermen who were hijacked by the AA cadres on their way to Andamans Landfall Island. The courts orders came after the CBIs report stating that the Interpol had confirmed the nationalities of the 37 men. The court order said: "There is no charge against them and no charge can be levelled against them."
Significantly, the court order was silent on the fate of the remaining 36 men still under detention. This is where, the AA and NUPA believe, Fernandes could have helped but did not. It took another six months before the remaining 36 "militants" were released for lack of evidence.
On the flip side, the armed forces, not sure of their defence ministers stand over the issue, have relaxed their vigil over the Andaman seas which has resulted in unabated gun-running through the old route (see box) which begins from Thailand and ends in Indias northeast. In January this year, for instance, a huge consignment meant for the rebels of the National Liberation Front of Tripura reportedly reached Bangladeshs Chittagong hill tracts poised to enter Tripura. An early tip-off prevented their entry. But it is clear that contrary signals from the MoD under Fernandes has resulted in a peculiar situation in the security scenario of the Andamans and consequently the northeast.