- ‘Hot pursuit’ of Northeast militants into Myanmar has been taking place since June 2015
- These surgical strikes—there was one in late August—are with Myanmar’s cooperation
- Security personnel say such cross-border attacks have dealt a crushing blow to militant tactics
“You should head back to Imphal before nightfall,” warns an Indian army officer at a camp in Moreh, the remote town in Manipur which lies right atop the India-Myanmar border. “The gates along the highway will shut by five,” he says. “Besides,” he adds under his breath, “it’s not very safe.”
Evening was descending over the surrounding hills. The personnel, who had been guarding the border posts through the day, had begun to move back cautiously towards the camp in a group, guns slung over their shoulders, eyes watchful. “The possibility of danger, of an attack, lurks every moment of the day and night,” explains the officer. “Even when we have retired for the night.”
The pre-dawn terror attack which killed 18 Indian military officers in Uri along the LoC on September 18 has put the focus on a tactic followed by insurgents—to move in when soldiers lower, even for a short while, their guards. India’s response to the Uri attack has also made a counter-insurgency strategy a matter of open, national debate: that of ‘cross-border surgical strikes’ or ‘hot pursuits’.
The official government position on the ‘surgical strike’ is unequivocal—India has insisted, in the face of demands at both national and international levels for ‘proof’, that cross-border strikes did take place across the LoC, on launch-bases of terrorists. Yet, New Delhi has remained ambiguous about similar cross-border surgical strikes in Myanmar.
For, in reality, even as recently as in late August, Indian army personnel were conducting ‘hot pursuits’ in Myanmar. But the government and the army has draped it in secrecy.
Outlook’s investigation on the Indo-Myanmar border reveals a web of overt denials and whispered admissions.
Additional Director-General of Public Information, Colonel Avijit Mitra, outright denies that cross-border strikes were carried out in Myanmar. But visits to ground zero—the “launching pads” of these cross-border counter-insurgency strikes on the India-Myanmar border—tells a different story.
An official of Assam Rifles, the paramilitary force guarding the border with Myanmar, did not just corroborate recent reports of operations conducted INSide Myanmar to flush out terrorists, but explains the differences in dynamics between militants based in Pakistan and those in Myanmar. “Unlike Pakistan, deemed to be an ‘enemy’ state, Myanmar is a ‘friendly’ nation,” he says. “Therefore, unlike the recent surgical strikes in Pakistan, the pursuit of Indian insurgents who escape into Myanmar are cooperative in nature, with both nations working together to combat militancy.”
Indeed, confirmation that such operations were part of a tacit agreement between the two countries to jointly fight insurgency comes from a Myanmar government official, who disapprovingly tells Outlook that ‘leakage’ of such classified information in the public domain is ‘unhealthy’ for India-Myanmar relations.
Conversations intercepted in Moreh and satellite images of insurgent camps in Myanmar’s jungles,led to last year’s counter-insurgency attack.
Interestingly, when the first such cross-border strike into Myanmar was reported on June 9, 2015, it had initially not been denied by India. Rajyavardhan Rathore, Union minister of state for information and broadcasting, had declared that the strike took place ‘deep’ inside Myanmar. During a cabinet committee on security meeting on June 5 attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, NSA Ajit Doval and army chief Dalbir Singh Suhag had been granted permission to allow Indian soldiers to go on a hot pursuit of NSCN-K insurgents after receiving intelligence that they had fled across the border into Myanmar after gunning down 18 soldiers of the Dogra Regiment on June 4. New Delhi played it down only after Myanmar publicly expressed displeasure at the chest-thumping, pseudo-patriotic bluster that had inevitably followed the ‘covert’ operation.
Outlook met up with some of the soldiers who claim to have taken part in the several cross-border strikes into Myanmar since June 2015. They all enthusiastically explain how the strikes have boosted their morale and created a benchmark in counter-insurgency strategy.
A member of an Assam Rifle team which conducted one such operation this June says, “It was very frustrating for us not be able to chase them to their shelters. After carrying out attacks they would escape to Myanmar through porous jungle borders. This has been their strategy. They relied on the differences in international military and government regulations. It had worked in their favour.”
Amida Begum’s village is in India, but the common well lies in Myanmar
He points out that they chase insurgents till the edges of the border, which often runs through dense jungle. “To have to stop without being able to go further because of the border, which is often just an invisible line, defeats the purpose. The insurgents are lawless, have no such boundaries and are emboldened by what they perceive as our shortcoming. After we launched our cross-border offensives, this has changed.”
The secrecy associated with these operations is, however, reflected in the ignorance of non-border personnel. An Assam Rifles officer stationed at ‘10 miles’—so named as it is situated 10 miles from Moreh—asks Outlook: “How is it possible? Myanmar is a different country. How can we be allowed to go in and conduct operations?”
At Moreh, the deep banks of the Minal river provide some semblance of a visible demarcation of the border. It is a natural boundary that carves through a landscape of undulating, tropical forests. Only a yellow placard at the foot of an iron bridge over the river, with ‘India-Myanmar Friendship Road’ printed in bold, black letters, indicates an international border. The road was constructed in 1997 by the Indian Border Roads Organisation, which has maintained it since its inauguration in February 2001. It is part of a planned highway which will connect India to Thailand via Myanmar and was envisaged by these countries as a way encouraging trade. More importantly, the road stands as a symbol of a friendship treaty signed in 2010 between India and Myanmar, which forms the backdrop of the cross-border counter-insurgency arrangements.
The India-Myanmar border isn’t as neat as that demarcated by the Minal. In fact, it often snakes its way through neighborhoods and markets in such a way that an old Partition staple—the backyard of a house lying in another nation—is not uncommon.
No one put it better than 40-year-old Amida Begum of Moreh, the wife of a porter who works at the local railway station. Drawing water from the village well located in Myanmar, she says, “I live in India, but bathe in Myanmar.”
For northeastern insurgents, this easy accessibility to a land where they had no identity, least of all as wanted militants, was a boon. And, as Moreh would amply show, escape routes hardly need to be little-known forest tracks.
At Gate Number 2 at Moreh, a busy market thrives on the no man’s land. You can buy and sell in Kyats or Rupees, which is valued as much as US Dollars by locals. “We love it if you pay in Indian currency,” chuckles Htutu and Htay, two sisters from a Thamplapoki village in Myanmar, who run a shop selling Burmese herbs and other goods. The very mention of insurgency, counter-insurgency and hot pursuit, however, erase the smiles from their faces. “We don’t know anything about it. We don’t want to get entangled into such things,” they say grimly. Kalu, who sells t-shirts, is more forthcoming. “Everyone knows that Indian insurgents move through these markets. They hide in the local jungles and come here to buy provisions. They are humans after all; they need food and clothes. But then there is no way that we can recognise them. They don’t wear t-shirts saying, ‘Catch me, I am an insurgent’, you know,” he laughs. “That’s for the Indian Army to find out.”
Joel, 24-year-old from Moreh, says that armymen “only go after insurgents if they themselves are attacked. They do nothing to protect us from UG threats.”
The Indian army do have intelligence officers posted in the markets. “Intelligence gathering is the first step in counter-insurgency operations. It is especially important for cross-border operations, which are conducted after top-level diplomatic dialogue between countries, are enabled by a set of permissions and approvals and are expensive. The pursuit has to be foolproof,” says an officer. Sources claim that conversations intercepted in the Moreh market, along with satellite images of insurgent camps in jungles in Myanmar, led to last year’s counter-insurgency offensive.
“There is no visa requirement for the first four hours of a visit to Myanmar for Indians. You have to pay Rs 100 for a ticket. If you are intent on getting lost in the country, it’s not that difficult. This is especially true for insurgents who have shunned mainstream life and given up legitimacy,” the officer adds.
In recent times, of all the major insurgent groups operating in Manipur--as well as other Northeastern states--the most problematic for the Indian military has been NSCN-K and People’s Liberation Army, which were behind the attack on the Dogra Regiment in June 2015. “Many insurgent groups currently operating in the Northeast are no longer guided by ideology, but have degenerated into common criminal gangs who loot, rob and kill for money,” explains an army intelligence officer. “But these two groups, by and large, still adhere their original objectives, which accounts for the support they receive in terms of finances, arms, ammunition and other equipment from international sources. They have a strong base of trained and motivated militants, whereas many others are manned only by youth who have often been coerced into joining them.” The officer declines to name the countries involved in funding and aiding these groups from across the border but says, “Think about India’s traditional enemies. In its western border it is Pakistan. In its eastern borders it has had military skirmishes with China.”
Intelligence officers in Moreh point out that ‘hot pursuits’ are just one aspect of counter-insurgency in Manipur. “Most of the guerrilla warfare is taking place in our own land. The enemy is within and lurking in every corner. If not an armed militant, at least an informer or a supporter or a sympathiser—there could be one or more of these in every household here. Armed counter-offensive is not the strategy to deal with these forms of insurgency. Here you are dealing with unarmed civilians who are insurgents at heart. You have to engage with them in ways that you have to devise as you go along. It cannot be pre-planned or executed like a surgical strike,” says an officer.
Throughout Manipur and Nagaland, where NSCN-K presence is the strongest, the possibility that a family member could choose the path of insurgency looms large. ‘UG’, short for ‘underground’, and a byword for militant acts, is a common word here.
Along the banks of the river at Moreh, a group of boys loiter, doing nothing.
“They could be UGs,” warns the Meitei driver from Imphal. They are Kukis, the dominant tribe in remote Chandel district in which Moreh lies. When we ask them their views on a host of issues, including insurgency and counter-insurgency, grievances pour out against authorities in New Delhi. “They don’t care about us,” complains Kikim, a 24-year-old driver’s assistant. “We are treated like foreigners. That’s why many become UGs. Though we have not,” he adds quickly. The boys unanimously suggest that the army and the paramilitary are self-absorbed. Joel, also 24, complains that “they only go after the insurgents if they themselves are attacked. They do nothing to protect us common civilians from threats from UGs.”
Army officials don’t endorse this view but acknowledge the “sense of alienation” that has contributed to the rise of at least a few of the insurgent groups, especially those fighting for independence.
Hou Kho, the 32-year-old chief of New Shijang village along the Minal in Moreh justifies the struggles of the Kukis, including those of the Kuki National Army as a “fight for the protection of the poor people”, paralleling the Maoist raison d’etre.
“Unlike Kashmir, where the INSurgency is being bred across the border in Pakistan, this is home grown militancy, borne out of disgruntlement. The counter-insurgency dose here would be imparting education, providing employment and engaging militants in mainstream life,” says the intelligence officer.
Locals don’t deny that this could be the solution. “What good is this artificial barrier going to do?” says Abida Begum, pointing to an incomplete wire fence which Indian and Myanmar authorities started to erect along a stretch of the border at Moreh. The project was abandoned midway because villagers on the Indian side complained that it was eating into their space.
“The way to hold on to India’s youth and stop them from going astray is by giving them a reason not to,” says Abida.
On those parameters, many feel let down by the Indian state. A commando of the Nagaland-based militant outfit, NSCN-Muivah, which is currently under a ceasefire with the Indian government, told Outlook, “We identify more with China than India. We look more like them, our food is similar and so is our religion. Also, mainland Indians make us feel different.”
The last border gate at Moreh, manned by the Indian military, closes behind us as night falls. The highway, swathed in darkness and leading down to the valley, towards Imphal, is now practically deserted. “Only the UGs come out now; we don’t want to encounter them,” whispers the driver, speeding away.
By Dola Mitra on the India-Myanmar border in Manipur