Dragon’s footprints


New research shows that China had never given up fueling northeastern rebels, despite a promise made to Atal Behari Vajpayee, and rebel groups like ULFA are issuing pro-China statements today



The author is a senior Guwahati-based journalist. He’s a Chevening scholar and has worked with the Times of India, Indian Express, The Telegraph and Times Now television. He is the author of two books on the Northeast dealing with insurgency

When former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited China in 1979 as the external affairs minister, he had fervently made a case before his counterpart to put an end to the training camps offered to Northeast separatist outfits in the neighbouring country. Beijing agreed and within a couple of years, all the facilities in Tibet and Yunnan were withdrawn. The last of the Naga and Manipuri rebels began their long march back to the Northeast and were soon faced with insurmountable problems. The crisis over the dearth of weapons and funds was compounded by an offensive by the Indian security forces armed with extraordinary powers under draconian laws. It took quite a while for these groups to regain the vigour for a renewed campaign of their separatist agenda.

China’s tryst with insurgent groups from the Northeast began in the late 1960s when batches belonging to the Naga National Council (NNC) were trained in Yunnan. Years later, two more groups from Mizoram and Manipur – Mizo National Front and People’s Liberation Army – succeeded in sending their cadres to China for the same purpose. The cadres were trained in guerrilla warfare, provided weapons and also taken on a tour to different spots in the country.

On some occasions, top functionaries of these organisations were also introduced to highly placed officials and ministers in Beijing, as it happened with the Mizos and Nagas.

Renewed Funding

New research has revealed now that the Chinese had no intention of snapping ties with the Northeast rebels. In the mid-1980s, they utilised the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to establish training bases for the People’s Liberation Army in Myanmar! The link with the KIA was to prove quite beneficial for other groups as well. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) followed suit and sent three batches to be trained in Kachin, where a war was already on between the KIA and the Burmese army.

This again came to an end in the late 1980s when India’s external intelligence agency – The Research & Analysis Wing struck a deal with the KIA. According to the agreement, the KIA was provided with weapons on the condition that it would no longer assist the groups from the Northeast, which it did very soon.

China never left any evidence that it reneged on the commitment given to Vajpayee. In 1986, general secretary of the Isak-Muivah faction of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) was barred from entering China and three years later the efforts made by a few ULFA functionaries also came to naught. However, China’s role began to assume importance from the late 1990s when the Chinese southwestern province of Yunnan emerged as a major hub of weapons.

Weapons were sold not only to insurgents but to everybody who had the money to purchase them and the deals were often fixed by agents and middlemen at different locations in some South East Asian countries.

Tit for Tat

According to some former ULFA functionaries, it was only from the mid-2000s that a section of Chinese officials began to cultivate ties with some of the rebel groups in the Northeast. Some even believe that this was the fallout of the visit by US President George Bush to India in 2006 and his offer of the nuclear deal.

In recent years, there has been a spate of media reports suggesting that ULFA chief of staff Paresh Baruah stays in Yunnan and that he has been given asylum in China. A video aired by a local news channel in Assam some years ago even showed him moving around in a marketplace with a woman in Yunnan.

According to sources in ULFA, two officials from a unit of the Chinese military intelligence (Second Department) had visited the outfit’s camp at Taga in Myanmar sometime in 2010 and had interacted with Naga rebel Chief SS Khaplang and functionaries from some Manipuri groups as well. Baruah stays most of the time at a camp in the Wa Special Region 2 in Myanmar’s Shan state which is close to the border with China. But he often goes to China, stays there for weeks and is sometimes accompanied by senior functionaries of Manipur’s People’s Liberation Army. Therefore, there is hardly any doubt that China has opened its doors again but to select rebel leaders and efforts could be on to unite all the groups. On several occasions in the past couple of years, ULFA has come out with statements in support of Chinese policies.

It had threatened the Hindu Yuva Chatra Parishad (HYCP) with ‘dire consequences’ if it continued with the demand for a ban on Chinese products in Assam. And days ahead of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, the outfit condemned the visit and warned the spiritual leader not to meddle in the affairs between the two countries.

Southeast Asia Drive

So how would these rebel groups further Chinese interests? Bertil Lintner, an expert on Myanmar and author of the highly acclaimed book Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier, is of the opinion that China’s renewed interest in NE rebels could be linked to the country’s overall drive into Southeast Asia to secure “the Myanmar corridor” to the Indian Ocean.

“China’s foreign policy is always on two, some would say three levels: government-to-government (the friendly face, the Foreign Ministry), party-to-party (which is much more important and gives the Chinese authorities more flexibility than other countries would have) and then military-to-military (which includes commercial deals but also support for so-called “non-state actors”). But it is important to remember that in a Chinese context, the party is above the military and the government.” He added that “When it comes to India, it is also a “tit-for-tat” for India’s allowing the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile to have their headquarters in India. If India can “support” China’s main enemy, then China can give sanctuary to, and support, India’s main enemies, Paresh Baruah and other insurgents from the Northeast.”

Harbouring Baruah

When this correspondent interviewed Baruah at a rebel base in Myanmar in late 2011, the chief revealed that there were plans to bring all the militant groups on a common platform by means of an alliance. He further said that plans have been firmed up to form a government-in-exile with a moving capital and ministries, since such an initiative would provide a “greater thrust” in the campaign and help in drumming up support among different countries for the demand of independence of the Northeast and the contiguous Naga inhabited territory in Myanmar.

Three years later, an alliance called the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) did come into existence with the former Naga rebel Chief SS Khaplang as the chairman. Some deadly ambushes against Indian security forces were also carried out in Manipur and Nagaland. But the government-in-exile has so far not been formed following differences of opinion between Baruah and senior functionaries of a Manipuri group.

But Beijing appears concerned over Naypyidaw’s recent policies to open up and draw close to the West and India. Proximity with some of these rebel groups could fulfill a range of objectives for China. It has been assisting an over ground insurgent outfit – United Wa State Army – and exercising influence in the Wa Special Region 2 of Shan State (where ULFA and PLA have camps).

Beijing’s Ire

Anthony Davis writes in Jane’s Intelligence Review that Beijing has delivered a stern message to Naypyidaw through its policies in Shan State – that it would not tolerate its interests being jeopardised in Myanmar. India has already offered funds for development of roads, schools and hospitals in Sagaing Division where these rebel groups are based. This is in addition to the slew of infrastructure projects being implemented by Indian firms. there.

But Beijing appears concerned over Naypyidaw’s recent policies to open up after decades of isolation and draw close to the West and India. It is also keen to wrest free from the grip and influence of China which began from the late 1980s. All these could be stumbling blocks in the establishment of the “Myanmar Corridor” which is absolutely vital for China’s commercial and strategic goals. Beijing has been actively assisting an over ground insurgent outfit called United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Shan State. Therefore, proximity to rebel groups could always fulfill a range of objectives for China in Myanmar. A bigger and united force under a single banner could always be more beneficial.


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