Monday, 30th October 2017

E- paper

The first time in hot pursuit

In an unusual display of controlled aggression, Indian para- commandos crossed the border into Myanmar on June 9 to strike at Naga and Manipuri separatist bases, after losing nearly 30 soldiers in a string of rebel attacks in the last two months. But if the army was just keen to put the rebels on notice about its intentions, the political establishment messed it up by unwarranted braggadocio. While the military spokesperson was cagey about the location of the exact strikes, only claiming that the commandos inflicted 'significant casualties' on the rebels, India's minister of state for information, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, spilled the beans. He made it clear that rebel bases inside Myanmar had been hit in 'surgical strikes' based on precise intelligence and that none other than the prime minister, Narendra Modi, had authorized them.

By India finally attacks rebels across the border in Myanmar, adding a new page to its counter-insurgency strategy, writes Subir Bhaumik
  • Published 23.06.15
  •  

In an unusual display of controlled aggression, Indian para- commandos crossed the border into Myanmar on June 9 to strike at Naga and Manipuri separatist bases, after losing nearly 30 soldiers in a string of rebel attacks in the last two months. But if the army was just keen to put the rebels on notice about its intentions, the political establishment messed it up by unwarranted braggadocio. While the military spokesperson was cagey about the location of the exact strikes, only claiming that the commandos inflicted 'significant casualties' on the rebels, India's minister of state for information, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, spilled the beans. He made it clear that rebel bases inside Myanmar had been hit in 'surgical strikes' based on precise intelligence and that none other than the prime minister, Narendra Modi, had authorized them.

The national security advisor, Ajit Doval, and the foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, has tried assuaging Myanmarese sentiments. They met President U Thein Sein and a host of top Myanmar officials to convey Indian gratitude for cooperation in counter-insurgency. But they also tried to persuade the Myanmarese to ensure that anti-India rebel bases in Sagaing are closed down. Only time will tell whether Myanmar will deliver on that request.

A week after the raids, it became clear that there were no 'significant casualties' inflicted on the rebels. The claims in the media that 100 to 150 rebels had been killed were way over the top. It had also become clear that while the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) fighters had fled the Ponyu camp inside Myanmar before the commandos arrived, the Manipur People's Liberation Army fought hard and kept the commandos at bay. They have now released not-too-brief video footage of the action. But the point India wanted to make has been made - that it will consider special forces raids inside neighbouring countries if it is attacked by rebels based in those countries. Some lessons have been learnt, the most important being that covert operations serve the purpose best when they are kept secret as far as possible. Satellite imagery suggests that the NSCN-K has moved some of its bases from the border after the Indian raid.

India has long persuaded Myanmar to flush out the northeastern rebels who have bases in the thick jungles of the Sagaing division - without much success so far. While Bhutan and Bangladesh have thrown these rebels out, demolished their bases, killed or captured and handed over many of them to India, Myanmar has repeatedly pleaded its inability to attack the Indian separatist groups from the Northeast based in its Sagaing and Kachin regions. The Tatmadaw (Burmese army) maintains cordial military-to-military relations with India to balance its over-dependence on China for military hardware, but it says the Sagaing terrain will call for huge deployment and logistics manoeuvres which it cannot afford at the moment as it is now fighting powerful anti-Myanmar insurgencies by rebel groups of the Kachin, the Kokang and the Karen ethnic groups. Khaplang or Paresh Barua is not a Myanmar priority and India would either have to live with it or do something about it .

After the June 4 ambush in Manipur's Chandel district left 18 soldiers dead, Delhi decided to strike back. The national security advisor, Doval, personally coordinated intelligence agencies, the army and para-military formations involved in the attacks at two, possibly three, bases across the border with Nagaland and Manipur, bringing to bear on this his huge experience in special operations in Northeast. He had a clear go-ahead from Modi.

India has tried two other options on the long border with Myanmar, home to scores of ethnic insurgencies afflicting the Northeast since the 1950s. It first tried coordinating military operations with Myanmar and some of these operations in the late 1960s were successful. Myanmar's military strongman, General Ne Win, promised Indira Gandhi that no "anti-Indian activity from Burmese soil" would be allowed, and lived up to his promise. Both India and Myanmar were then at the receiving end of China-backed insurgencies. Beijing was backing the huge Burmese communist rebel army, even allowing its radio transmitters in Yunnan, the province where many batches of Naga and Mizo rebels were trained.

Kaka Iralu's The Naga Saga has documented in some detail the marches of the China-bound Naga rebels and the huge resistance they faced from the Tatmadaw on their way back. Iralu quotes Naga fighters as saying that they were much more bothered by the Tatmadaw than by the Indian army during their return marches from Yunnan. As late as 1985, this writer found Indian troops were crossing into Sagaing to attack northeastern rebels. The Burmese troops were regularly attacking NSCN bases as well - one such attack happened when the Swedish journalist, Bertil Lintner, was present in the NSCN headquarters at Kesar Changlang and there is a detailed description of the back-and-forth battles in Lintner's magnum opus, Land of Jade.

In 1988, India strongly backed the Burmese pro-democracy movement and Yangon fell out with Delhi. The Burmese Communist Party broke up as a result of an ethnic revolt by the Wa tribesmen and China stopped backing anti-Myanmar rebels to develop close relations with the military junta. That is when the Myanmar army stopped cooperating with the Indians and the Research and Analysis Wing cultivated the Kachin Independence Organization, which helped Delhi push out the northeastern Indian separatists and forced them to take shelter in Bangladesh. The RAW-KIO connections have been detailed in my book, Troubled Periphery.

After India stopped backing the Kachins in 1992, Myanmar did resume military-to-military cooperation and the two armies coordinated their act during the 1995 Operation Golden Bird to stop the group of separatist rebels lugging in a huge consignment of weapons deep inland from the Wyakaung beach south of Cox's Bazar.

Apart from coordinated military operations and using rebel surrogates in Myanmar territory (like the Kachins), India tried a third option - pushing Myanmar to initiate on its own Bhutan- and Bangladesh- style operations like the Operation All Clear in 2004. Myanmar did not really oblige, saying that the Sagaing terrain was tough and called for huge military and logistics deployment, which was not possible because the Tatmadaw was fighting bigger insurgencies like the Kachins and Kokangs. The Tatmadaw has a point - it has lost more than 200 soldiers in fighting the Kokangs alone. So they did not act against Khaplang even after RAW had generated specific intelligence about the Burmese Naga leader's efforts to form a rebel coalition to start attacking Indian security forces again.

So when the Indian army suffered casualties in the last two months, it had to consider a fourth option - striking inside Myanmar. Military commanders familiar in dealing with the Tatmadaw say that the two armies have belatedly accepted the 'need for hot pursuit' to tackle the trans-border insurgencies and that India has looked the other way, when the Burmese have chased and attacked their Chin and Arakanese rebels in Mizoram and Manipur. The June 9 surgical strikes were launched with that tacit understanding that if Indian forces struck not too deep inside Myanmar, they could be written off as 'hot pursuit' operations on a thickly forested border where dividing lines are submerged in thick foliage.

But those who suggest such strikes can be repeated in Pakistan-administered Kashmir are not aware of ground realities. A major military trans-border strike will surely provoke a hostile Pakistani response. But with a government not pitching for aggressive response, India may look at 'other assets' to strike at hostiles inside Pakistan. Bilal Siddiqi's fiction, The Bard of Blood, where RAW agents use friendly Balochi rebels to extricate Indian hostages from Taliban captivity, may be a distinct possibility in years to come.

Though the Indian security establishment is silent, it is beginning to emerge that the 'high quality intelligence' available to Indian strike forces was garnered from friendly Naga rebels, specially those who had broken off from Khaplang after he reneged on the ceasefire with India in March this year. Indian military and intelligence officials have admitted they had pictures, even videos, of some of these bases in Myanmar which were attacked. The breakaway NSCN (Reformation) formed by Khaplang's former colleagues, Thikhak and Wangting, would be a rich source of useful intelligence on the Burmese Naga bases that Khaplang shares with the Meitei fraternal groups. One should not be surprised if these breakaway recalcitrants have helped the Indian army with guides who would guide them to the bases. Such elements will not be found wanting in the West, but there, instead of aiding Indian forces, they may have to take upon themselves the brunt of the operations. That is what the defence minister, Manohar Parikkar, referred to as " kaante se kanta" - or picking a thorn with another one.